Converting your loft into usable space is of course a good idea if you need more bedrooms or quiet space away from the family, and this is undoubtedly what drives most of our customers to embark on a loft conversion. In Milton Keynes, where we are based, I reckon the starting price for such work is around £18,000 although exceptionally it can be less if the house is perfectly suited. Generally the easiest roof spaces to convert are over Victorian houses with a small modern house coming a close second, but in both cases only if the roof is high enough. Modern houses usually have fewer internal loadbearing walls and so to get the structural support you need will require some steelwork. With a small house, the span from the external loadbearing wall to loadbearing wall, is less and so the steelwork does not have to be so large or complex. Victorian houses often have internal loadbearing walls which can sometimes make it a doddle but more often than not a loft conversion involves some structural gymnastics. The reason for the gymnastics as I call it is that you have to juggle with many aspects such as headroom, size of the steelwork so it fits, accommodating the stairway and avoiding rooflights or dormer windows. To optimise all of these requirements and yet get the steelwork to do its job of transferring the load of the roof and new floor safely to some existing structure can be a challenge. Of course, once you have done a few you devise strategies to deal with these problems – and we at Building Tectonics have done quite a few in our 25 years of designing.
My favourite aphorism concerning loft conversions is that “they are easy to do badly but hard to do well”. I have seen some awful loft conversion in my time, usually when we are called in to try to obtain Retrospective Building Regulation Approval” for a new owner of a house that has inherited the problem from a “Do It Yourself” fanatic. Having said that, I have also seen some terrible loft conversions by so called professionals and even a few that profess to be “Design and Build” specialist attic conversion companies who you would think would know what they are doing by now. Incidentally, sometimes these companies advise that a loft space is not suitable where with a little ingenuity it is. I think they only want the easy projects whereas we go the extra mile to try to find a solution. Sometimes replacing the roof with a steeper pitched roof to allow more headroom can be the answer – drastic I know, but if the Planning Authorities will allow it, it can be an easy answer.
The lay person is often confused about Planning and Building Regulation Approval. They are two separate and different types of approval. With a loft conversion for the average home, unless you are raising the ridge height or installing dormers you probably will not need Planning Permission. There are always exceptions and so always check with an expert or the Planning Authority. Building Regulation Approval is there to ensure safety and good building standards and given that loft conversions are an opportunity to contravene so many regulations, the design and implementation needs to be be rigorous. This is particularly true of the regulations regarding escape in the event of fire, where peoples lives can be at risk.
The above may be enough to put you off converting your loft and it is true that there are many possible pitfalls. However the difficulties once resolved can become real advantages. You will need to well insulate the new attic rooms but the cost of this particular item may well be paid for in a couple of years by the savings in heating bills. You may need a new heating system because the water storage tanks cannot be accommodated but you may therefore need to have a pressurised heating system and new boiler. Again the savings in fuel are a bonus. Of course you will get a bigger house but without losing any garden and lastly the view from a skylight, velux or dormer window across a roof scape or a canopy of trees can be magical. One word of warning here, do not be tempted to overdo the area of skylights as the amount of light and solar gain you get is twice that of a typical window and your great new garret will be unbearable in the summer. If you live in a nice area or have another good reason not to move, but need more space, a loft conversion may well be the answer. It may even be less traumatic than moving and if designed well will add value to your house.
Written by Tony Keller – Building Tectonics.