All About Attics

Attic Organization

Attic Space: A Hidden Asset

The attic space in traditional homes is the space between the ceiling and the roof. In general the attic area is above the living space and duplicates the floor plan of the home.  Most homes with a pitched roof have some attic space available. The volume of usable attic space in any given home depends on a number of structural factors, such as the pitch of the roof, type and size of joist lumber used and, if constructed with trusses, the type of trusses used. Attic access is also important. Some attics can only be reached through a small trap door in the ceiling, while other attics are provided access via folding ladders or dedicated stairways.

Over the years, the role of the attic in home design has undergone changes.  Many old and stately homes were designed and built with large attic storage rooms to archive family heirlooms. The attic was serviced by a dedicated stairway for easy access.  When urban tract homes gained popularity, the attic space was largely ignored by architects and builders.  One or two car garages were considered to provide all of the storage space needed.  However, many homeowners are finding renewed interest in the attic space. This is because homeowners have so many more things to store than ever before.  With the growing prosperity of American homeowners and the ever-expanding supply of affordable home maintenance tools, we find our garages are filling up and overflowing. The average homeowner now owns an extensive inventory of tools, vacuums, coolers, luggage, sports equipment, pressure washers, gardening supplies, etc., and the list grows longer each year. 

In response to the ongoing need for more storage, even starter homes now have two-car garages, while the new standard is three-car garages (two for cars and one for storage). In addition, some builders are giving more attention to the attic space as potential storage space. They often deck a small area in the attic around the folding attic ladder. They recognize that many home buyers are thinking ahead and see some attic storage as a plus for the home.  Even the builders find this little storage space useful, as you will usually find some left-over tile, grout, and paint stashed up there when the house goes on the market!

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 A Well-Planned Attic  A Poorly-Planned Attic  Walk-Around Space  Attic with Versa Lift & Rail

Planning Ahead for Great Attic Storage

If you are having a home custom-built, or planning to do so in the future, then you have the opportunity to make choices that will insure that your attic will be roomy and useful for storage. You can work with the architect or builder to express your interest in having a more usable attic storage space.  Following are some basic facts you should know about roof construction and how different types of roof construction will directly affect whether your attic space will be roomy or cramped, user friendly or inhospitable.

Hip Vs Gable Roof (Click to Enlarge) Low Vs High Pitch Roof (Click to Enlarge)

Hip Vs. Gable: The hip roof is slanted on all sides while the gable roof is slanted on two sides with the adjacent walls extending vertical up to the point of the roof.  The hip roof costs less to build, but the gable roof gives the home more character.  One compromise often used is to gable the front of the home and hip the back of the home, preserving character in front and conserving cost in the rear.  Where the attic is concerned, the gable provides more usable space (see illustration above left). The gable roof is the best choice to give your home character and to maximize your usable attic space.

Low Vs. High Pitch: This choice is even more important than hip or gable. The roof pitch can make a drastic difference in usable attic space. If the roof pitch is too low, you may not even be able to stand up in the center, making your attic difficult to use.  A low to moderate pitch will provide some walk-around space while a higher pitch attic of the same dimensions will provide substantially more space (see illustration above right).  For example, the higher pitch roof illustrated above will require 30% more wood to construct, but will increase the walk-around attic space by 60%. There are other benefits to higher pitch roofs. These include more insulating dead air space and improved drainage, as well as aesthetic appeal.

Typical Truss Construction (Click to Enlarge) Attic Truss Construction (Click to Enlarge)
A Typical Roof Truss Configuration The "Attic" Roof Truss Configuration

Roof Truss Types:  There are many variations of roof truss configurations. In general, the roof truss is a triangular frame of lumber with various vertical or diagonal members inside to add support and stiffness. Trusses are usually prefabricated at a truss factory according to a set of blueprints. Individual pieces of lumber are pre-cut, then assembled onto a template. Spiked metal plates are positioned at each joint, then pressed into the wood. The finished trusses are then transported to the construction site. 

Most truss configurations will result in an attic space that is a maze of vertical and diagonal members that you will have to step over if you want to move around in the attic (see illustration above left).  In contrast, the "attic truss" configuration will create a central open area defined by evenly spaced vertical "wall" members and will allow you to walk around freely (see illustration above right).  The floor can easily be decked with plywood all the way to the eaves, creating a large central room with triangular storage compartments down either side. The central area can be even sheetrocked or paneled to form walls and a ceiling, creating a storage room or a "bonus room." 

In summary, if you are having a home custom-built you can optimize your usable attic space by making smart choices about how your home is built. You can have gables instead of hips, a high-pitched roof instead of low-pitched roof, and if your home will use roof trusses, you can specify "attic trusses" instead of the typical kind. Remember that with a little planning your attic space can provide hundreds of square feet of hidden storage space, making your home easier to organize and your garage neat and uncluttered!


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