Whether it’s an old attic or a newly build upper level, shapely top-floor spaces live it up in today’s homes.
By Brad Mee, Photos by Scot Zimmerman
We all have an idyllic image in our heads when we think about attic rooms: cozy spaces shaped by angled ceilings, sloped walls and porthole-like dormer windows. Frequently accessed by hidden staircases or out-of-the-way hallways, they are like secret retreats offering an escape from everyday life below. Is it any wonder so many homeowners are transforming unfinished attics into away-from-it-all suites or, for that matter, adding architecturally dynamic attic-shaped sleeping quarters or top-floor living spaces to newly built homes?
“People are naturally drawn to their charm,” says designer Robert McArthur, who has remodeled many attics and has added many rooms to his clients’ top floors. “It’s creating a space that’s not just a box and has dimension and character,” he says. Designer Michele Dunker agrees. “Attics are naturally cozy and quaint, and nearly all of my clients want to make use of the space,” she explains. But while attics are unquestionably alluring, designing and creating living areas from them come with challenges.
From the very beginning, McArthur urges clients to determine the intended purpose of the space and who will use it. The dimensions of existing attics often drive this decision. So, he suggests, climb into your attic. “Until you are in the space, its hard to know if it is usable or not,” he says, recalling a playroom he created featuring only 5-foot-high ceilings—a top-floor space big enough for youngsters but clearly not suitable for a master suite. “Obviously with new construction you control this,” he says.
For example, he recently created a new attic above a client’s carriage house, allowing him to control the ceiling height and roof pitch. But even new construction requires thoughtful design and creative solutions. “You want to make sure the space blends in with the rest of the neighborhood and the scale of the existing home,” McArthur insists.
Some homeowners are dubious about top-floor living because of the attic’s reputation for being dark and stuffy. McArthur suggests adding dormer or even larger shed dormers, pulling light inside dim top-floor spaces. These architectural features also increase livable space, he says. The designer also suggests skylights, which can sit on the trusses, increasing a room’s character, natural light and even headroom. He favors Velux, a skylight system that opens when needed. Dunker is also a fan of overhead windows. “Skylights and Skytubes can deliver a light from above that is almost ethereal,” she says.
Getting to and from an attic also requires thoughtful design. “The best way to create access is to add a stairway on top of an existing stairway, because you already have the footprint,” McArthur explains. He also looks to existing hallways and corridors for access into an adjoining attic on the same or approximate level. A top-floor hallway, for example, can often lead into the attic above an attached garage or one built above an existing porch or covered patio.
“Homeowners need to be flexible about where the access is located,” McArthur explains. They also need to be open to savvy design ideas.
An attic’s unique architectural features and odd dimensions provide opportunities for captivating design treatments as proven by many designers throughout Utah. For a Logan-area client, Michelle Dunker remodeled the top floor of a Tudor-style home—replete with steep-pitched ceilings and dormers—to include two uniquely shaped and entirely captivating bedrooms. “You have to consider what parts of the space can accommodate a standing person and what activities like sleeping and sitting occur in the lower part of the sloped walls,” she explains. She used the peaked ceilings and sloped walls to shape eye-catching headboard walls and surprising walk-in closets. Short side walls house built-in book shelves and framed wallpaper panels that accentuate the room’s sloped surfaces and jutting dormers.
McArthur was equally creative while remodeling a historic cottage in Salt Lake City. He took advantage of the top floor’s low knee walls and sloped ceilings—some existing and others created—to incorporate captivating window seats, children’s built-in bunks and even a playhouse. Similarly, designer Anne-Marie Barton designed the top floor of a new Holladay home with grand dormers and peaked roofs to house large, built-in bunks. “When the house plans revealed an open pitch usable for a living space, I immediately gravitated to the idea of a traditional over-the-garage space and turning it into a bunk room,” she says. Barton amped the charm of nearby bathrooms by highlighting the small rooms’ unique slopes and shapes with all-over wall treatments. “Even if a space is tight, a wrap of wall covering on walls and ceilings makes for a dramatic effect,” she explains.
For anyone considering an attic renovation, McArthur suggests pulling together a file of photos that illustrate the look and feel they want from their top-floor quarters. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” he says. “A professional can help with the brainstorming process and can give direction.” Once the decision to create an attic living space is made and its design determined, then it’s only a matter of time before the homeowners are living it up.