Building and buying

Converting an attic: from storage to living space

Thomas Bott

It is not uncommon for the attic of a house to be virtually unused. But this does not have to be the case because an attic is also perfectly suitable as living space. To make good use of it, however, you will need to convert the attic floor. There are quite a few points to consider to avoid the many potential pitfalls. But with the right planning, a new attic is quite feasible. Find out here what legal regulations apply to attic conversions, why it’s best to have the project carried out by a professional, what specific characteristics need to be taken into account in terms of furnishing, and how much it will cost.

A woman is holding a coffee cup in her hand while she studies the plan of an attic.
© Getty Images / Westend61

In this article

Legal provisions: protect yourself early on

Even before you start planning the conversion, you should check the legal regulations in force in your municipality. The relevant building authority will have all the information you need and should therefore be your first point of contact. It is not uncommon for a finished attic to require a building permit. The following elements could cause problems:

  • The floor area ratio: you may only use a certain proportion of the total surface area of your property as a living area. The floor area ratio determines how much. It differs from one municipality to another. To calculate the permissible gross floor area, simply multiply the land area by the floor area ratio. For example, if the floor area ratio is 0.25, for a property of 500 square meters this results in a gross floor area of 125 square meters. Why is this important when converting an attic? Because this figure only includes the used living area. if you are already making full use of your quota, then you would exceed the authorized value by adding new living space, and the building authority will not grant permission.
  • Shape and height of the roof: if you are planning an additional room in the attic, you may also need to alter the height of the roof or its shape. These kinds of changes in particular must be reported to the building authority for clarification. It is possible that you may exceed the total height allowed for the building.
  • Windows and skylights: new windows or skylights bring more light into the newly gained living space. But they also represent a structural change. This must also be checked with the relevant building authority. Local regulations for the protection of monuments and townscapes could otherwise be violated.
  • You should also ask about any other regulations that may concern your municipality. You shouldn’t make any further plans until you are sure of the legal situation and have the necessary authorizations.
A man is measuring an angle below a window. Another man with a construction helmet on his head watches carefully.

Conversion work is subject to many rules and conditions. You should therefore consult an architect and call in building professionals.

Converting an attic: get a professional to help with the planning

You should plan the conversion of the top floor of your house as thoroughly as possible. This is important to guarantee construction security and to avoid falling into a cost trap. After all, simply installing furniture in the attic is not enough. A professional will help you with particularly important aspects:

  • Structural engineering: if you are planning to use the attic as additional living space, the load on the building structure will be significantly higher than with a simple storage area. The masonry must be able to withstand it. If you are putting up new walls, for example, it is advisable to consult an architect as well as a structural engineer.
  • Insulation: if the rooms below the attic floor only have single story ceiling insulation, the new room will be uninsulated. It will therefore quickly become very cold in the winter, and unbearably hot in summer. When converting the attic, you should therefore make sure that the roof is well insulated. There are different types of roof insulation to choose from. A specialist company will determine which is the right one for you.
  • Heating: even with the best insulation, you can’t avoid having to install a heating system. The attic is usually not part of the existing heating circuit. Changing this is costly and time consuming. Moreover, the existing heating system may not even cover the additional demand. An alternative could be to use infrared heating.
  • Electricity and water: whether or not you need electricity and water depends entirely on your ideas for using the space. If you are planning a small granny flat, a bathroom and a kitchen should also be available. This means it will be necessary to lay water pipes. In most cases you will require electricity. Again, a simple extension cable is not enough. Proper planning is essential for wall cables with sockets and possible connection options for ceiling lamps.
  • Ground: sound insulation is not an issue in a basement used as living space, but it is all the more important in an attic. After all, when you’re downstairs, you don’t want to hear every single movement of whoever’s up in the attic.
    Walls: the shape of the roof obviously has a significant influence. But it is also possible to make structural changes to interior walls, for instance to partially compensate for a sloping roof. This will make it easier to arrange furniture, but usually reduces the usable area somewhat.
View into an attic during conversion work. The insulation that has already been installed between the rafters is clearly visible.

Attic insulation is particularly important, otherwise the room will be virtually unusable.

Loft conversions: specific furnishing characteristics

The attic can be transformed into a variety of rooms. It could for example be turned into a bedroom, an office or a child’s room. However, there are certain things you should bear in mind in terms of furnishing. For example, light colors are particularly suitable for the walls. They give an impression of spaciousness and create a friendly atmosphere. Light-colored woods are also an advantage on the floor.

Choose low cupboards to exploit any sloping roofs, which are frequent in attics. Seating and beds should therefore not be too high. A box spring bed is not a good idea, because it leaves too little space above it. A futon bed is a flatter alternative. A sofa with a low backrest also creates an airy look.

The picture shows a converted attic that is now used as a living room, with light-colored wood on the walls and on the floor.

This is how attractive an attic can be when it has been fully converted and furnished. In this case it serves as a living room.

Costs: converting an attic doesn’t come cheap

Fitting good insulation, laying pipes, installing a heating system, putting sound insulation under the floor and much more: a loft conversion is not only associated with a lot of work, but also with high costs. You shouldn’t underestimate this during the planning stage. An additional room or even a whole apartment under the roof can easily cost 50,000 francs. In some cases, the budget can even stretch to well over 100,000 francs.

Structural changes to the house and insulation are particularly expensive. However, both can also mean an increase in the value of the property. And the investment is also worthwhile in terms of comfort because you will end up with significantly more space.

Conclusion: a lot of work that a professional should do

There are many requirements and potential hurdles to be considered when converting an attic. This makes it a project for do-it-yourselfers only in limited circumstances. You should get a professional on board for the planning and implementation of your project. The more precisely you describe your ideas, the better the final result will be – and you will have a nice new room in your house. However, you should always set a cost ceiling in advance because conversion work is expensive.

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