Every glossy magazine and weekend supplement carries advertisements extolling the ease and convenience of converting unused attic spaces. And it can be, especially when converting an empty roof space in a modern building, or making the most of a space void above a garage.

Here, however, we focus on making the most out of historic roof spaces, which is invariably more involved.

In many old houses it is perfectly possible to turn unused space into living area without compromising the historic integrity of the structure. However, unless it is done sensitively, properly and with listed building consent where required, a property owner risks adversely affecting both the value and the structure of the house.

I have worked on buildings for clients where the previous property owners tried to convert roof spaces without expert help. The results can be horrifying: the removal of vital structural timbers leaving the integrity of the house at risk, or not taking into account the required usage of the new space and using building materials that are not fit for purpose. For instance, a strengthened floor may be required if converting a roof space into a bathroom, especially if the intention is to install a cast iron bath. Likewise, if the intention is to use the new space as a games room – snooker tables are very heavy.  Fewer problems are likely to occur if the room is to be used simply as a guest bedroom.

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First and foremost, consult an architect in your area who has particular historic building experience, (you can find someone knowledgeable in ProjectBook’s Heritage Register) and instigate a proper survey of the building. If a previous owner has attempted to convert the space, there may be a need to reinstate roof timbers or structural ties. If you are planning to install heavy furniture or equipment in the room, a structural engineer will be able to calculate the load and advise on the correct materials.

And whatever you are planning, if the building is listed then consent must be secured for any alterations or improvements inside the building and out.

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A significant element of any attic conversion is the roof materials, and sometimes we make very unpleasant discoveries. For years, spray foam insulation was seen as the inexpensive solution to insulation. Wrong. It soon became horribly evident that it might provide effective insulation, but it did not allow roof timbers to breathe, causing rotting and disintegration followed by large bills for remedial works.

It is important to check the existing roof construction, it may be a traditional roof with no felt and lime mortar ‘torching’, or have roofing felt that is impervious or if it has been re-roofed relatively recently, it may have a ‘breathable’ roofing felt. Each of these scenarios will influence how your roof insulation can be addressed.

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Employing traditional methods and materials are always the best solutions when converting or refurbishing historic buildings. In the case of the roof, it needs to be to watertight but also to ‘breath’ allowing the air to flow freely around the timbers. If your roof timber and battens look in poor condition get them checked out by a suitably qualified building conservation consultant.

Attic conversions within historic houses are never going to be cheap, but done properly they can significantly enhance the value of the property and, perhaps more importantly, enhance the lifestyle of those living within it by providing new and more flexible living space.

Neil Quinn
Neil Quinn is a Conservation Architect and Partner at Yiangou Architects, which was established in the Cotswolds in 1981. From its base in the historic town of Cirencester, the practice specialises in high quality residential construction using both traditional and contemporary materials. The practice’s team of seven qualified architects are equally at home working with Grade I Listed or contemporary buildings, supported by a well-qualified and experienced team of technicians and technical co-ordinators. In recent years the practice has expanded and projects now extend nationwide. The company can also manage new projects from design through to building completion.

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This is an article from ProjectBook which provides a wide range of information for the conservation, restoration, care and repair of period and listed buildings. Yiangou Architects is a member of the Heritage Register which contains over 500 vetted craftsmen, contractors and consultants from all over the UK. Updated daily with new content, the website features the heritage register, a products directory, informative articles, current news, events and more. For more information, visit www.projectbook.co.uk.