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Lofty Ideas

When your home begins to feel a little tight at the seams, a loft conversion could be the answer

How many of us love where we live, but could really do with an extra bathroom, a separate office or even a kids’ den?

Moving house can be an expensive business – it’s also a physical and mental upheaval for all the family. As a result, more and more people are considering developing their properties to personalise their existing space to suit their daily needs.

So the question to be considered is: do you go up, down or out? Building a basement can be very expensive because you may need to underpin the existing foundations; they can also be quite dark and gloomy. And it’s virtually impossible to tank your basement walls (make them waterproof) at a reasonable price.

Adding an extension can be costly and it could eat into valuable outside space. With a garden commanding such a premium in large city dwellings, it would be foolish to eat into this asset. So building up into the loft seems to be the perfect answer.

Up in the rafters
A loft conversion can be one of the cheapest ways to create that all-important extra space, as the outer shell – the roof – is already there. A loft room can be light and airy and there is something rather comforting and womb-like about the vaulted ceilings. Usually an average loft conversion costs approximately one-third of the cost of moving to a property with an extra room.

There are two types of loft conversion: dormer and Velux. Dormer conversions involve putting in a structural window that protrudes from your existing building, and building an actual extension onto your roof.

Velux conversions are simpler, and refer to the type of window that is fitted flush against your roof, so it doesn’t require an extension to be built.

So, you’ve made up your mind that a loft conversion is the extension for you.

First things first, and to coin a phrase from my mother: don’t run before you can walk.

Before contacting a professional designer, go and see your local planning office. Take a photograph of your house and the surrounding properties along with a rough sketch of exactly what you hope to achieve. The planning officer will be able to give you an indication straight away as to the feasibility of the idea, and then you may wish to contact a professional.

Using a qualified professional may seem expensive but their experience may well save you money in the long run. It’s their job to think the extension through properly and prevent too many hidden costs arising at a later date.

Your architect will need to prepare for you a detailed drawing package including building regulations and planning permission. Building regulations are there to ensure that a reasonable level of construction is maintained.

Planning permission may not always be necessary, but you must get this confirmed first. If you choose to ignore planning permission to save money, you may be forced to take down your extension, or you may face serious problems when trying to sell your property in the future. While this is happening, you should talk to your neighbours and inform them of your plans. A loft conversion is usually the least offensive type of extension, but if you have a good relationship with your neighbours, it’s nice to discuss things in person before they get a letter from the planning department.

Designed for?
Before considering the purpose of your roof space, there are important factors common to all that need to be considered.

Access You should have a permanent staircase built up to your new room. Your designer will advise you on this and building regulations may play a part. The preferred access is a traditional straight flight of stairs but alternatives may be considered if there is insufficient space to accommodate a standard staircase. Rafters Should you wish to increase the head height considerably, you’ll have to extend the rafters. This will involve raising the roof, adjusting its pitch and extending the rafters before replacing them.

Flooring Your attic ceiling joists will probably not be strong enough to cope with daily traffic and may need to be strengthened. Consider very carefully the type of flooring you put down. Floorboards or chipboard will provide varying levels of soundproof quality for the room below. Floating boards will soften the foot noise. Ask your builder to add resilient foam between the board and joist to, quite literally, cushion the wood.

Walls New floors must be supported by load-bearing walls adequate to carry the new loads. All walls should meet adequate fire regulations (one-hour resistant), and any new doors should be half-hour fire resistant. Existing doors should be fitted with a self-closing device.

Heating Your roof space can get very hot and stuffy during the summer months so good ventilation is essential. Likewise, in the winter it can be a rather chilly environment so make sure your radiators are big enough to cope with heating this new large space. Add as much insulation as possible between both the roof eaves and floor joists – this will help keep your heating bills down and add some extra soundproofing to the room.

Power You’ll certainly need an electrical supply if you don’t already have one. Check that your conversion specialist’s quotation covers this and make sure they give you an electrical certificate afterwards.

Fire escape Your staircase should be your main escape route but an alternative has to be provided. Your new window or roof light should be large enough to give a means of escape and close enough to eaves level to aid rescue.

Room to room
The function your new loft conversion ends up performing will come down to the particular needs of your family.

An extra bedroom
In the UK, the property market is obsessed by the number of bedrooms and bathrooms you have, so a four-bedroom house will command a far higher valuation than a three-bed property.

If you have teenage kids, a loft conversion can hold the answer to your prayers. Your son or daughter can play their music as loud as they like in the evening whilst you enjoy some peace and quiet two floors below. Loft conversions tend to make a slightly bigger than average bedroom, and the in-word for children’s rooms is ’zoning’. A conversion will often provide you with ample sleep, play and work zones. You could colour co-ordinate the zones, using neutral colours close to the bed to enhance a restful sleep. Conversely, the use of brighter, vibrant colours close to a desk will help to stimulate the mind.

An office
With more and more people working from home, increasingly house buyers are looking for an independent and peaceful workspace. A loft conversion is an ideal way of giving you that extra square footage. Loft conversions can often produce quiet, calm environments, perfect for working or holding an important telephone conversation without the distraction of family noise in the background.

Office furniture can be tailored to fit around quirky loft angles and dormer windows provide ambient light for working in. If you need additional sleeping facilities for occasional guests, a small sofa bed will cater for this as well as providing extra seating should you need to hold the odd meeting.

A bathroom
It wasn’t so long ago that one bathroom per house was seen as more than sufficient. Today, however, the number of bathrooms in a property is just as important as the number of bedrooms.

A loft conversion can produce some stunning bathrooms; vaulted ceilings provide interesting detail in shower rooms. You don’t usually have to worry about being overlooked by your neighbours, so with a large Velux window you can quite literally bathe under the stars.

A word of caution, though. You must get your builders to take special care and spend a little extra in order to get a watertight room. Watermarks on ceilings below are a devil to cover once an accident has occurred. You may also struggle to get decent enough water pressure to the top of the house and your plumber may recommend you invest in a water pump – which is a bit noisy but worth every penny.

A loft conversion should provide you with a bigger than average bathroom, so why not get your designer to build in a large storage cupboard in the reduced head-height space in the roof? Don’t forget if you are losing your attic, you may be losing vital storage.

Choose a builder
This can seem like a daunting task, but if you can get a recommendation this will help to take some of the guesswork out of your decision. A building firm could be in your home for several weeks so it’s important that you like and trust them.

If you know someone in the street who’s had a conversion recently, go and talk to them. Ask to look at the room and check out the quality of the build and finishings. Don’t be afraid to learn from their experience.

Look on the Internet for specialist loft conversion companies and find out if they’re accredited. And ask if they can provide you with a 10-year NHBC certificate (National House Building Certificate) once the conversion is finished.

Get several quotations and if the prices vary considerably, ask yourself why. Don’t always go for the most expensive or the cheapest option. Talk to the contractor in detail about your conversion and trust your gut instincts.

USEFUL CONTACTS
* For help with finding your local planning office, visit www.planningoffice.co.uk.
* The Federation of Master Builders

(FMB) is the largest trade association in the UK building industry. If your builder is accredited to the FMB it means his company has been inspected and approved for quality standards and is regularly checked out. Visit www.fmb.org.uk.

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