Ask the Architect

Finishing the attic


Q. Our house is very tall, with an attic, a staircase and room to make bedrooms and a bathroom. We want to complete the attic like the other houses around us and have a pool table in the middle, which my husband says needs beams because the floor may not be strong enough. Do we need an engineer to figure out the floor, since our contractor says he can do it? We’re also thinking we should add some doghouse dormers for more windows. Would that possibly cause any problems? Our contractor says we don’t need an engineer or a permit, since it’s all inside work, but I want to make sure we do this right. What can you tell us?

A. I can tell you that you’ve been getting bad advice. True, it’s an “inside job,” but that was the only thing that was true. There are many factors involved. Homes built before 1930, for example, if proved by old tax records that the attic was completely finished, may be allowed to continue without further safety review, even though this contradicts the most important issue, the chance of survival above the second floor of a wood-framed dwelling, which isn’t very good. Statistically, only 5 out of 100 people survive a fire on the third floor.

If you decide to take your chances, remember that all those payments for home insurance will be for nothing, because an investigation could reveal that you made a prohibited space habitable without a permit or safety code compliance, and, in addition, jeopardized the lives of the ones you put in the deadly fire condition that you assumed could never happen. Not to scare you unnecessarily, but you could face economic disaster with no insurance payment and possible criminal charges for manslaughter.

A structural engineer or architect is specifically licensed by your state to perform structural design, not your husband or a contractor, yet it happens all the time that people guess. When I see the results, it’s usually when I’m called to figure out what’s causing cracking or sagging. I shrug and shake my head at another wasted expense and the inconvenience when people have to do things a second time, so I’m glad you want to ask for directions and get it right the first time.

Except for painting, everything you mentioned requires a permit, and, in the case of a finished attic or third story in a wood-framed, single-family residence, a special code variance request must be reviewed by the state codes division. It will require, at minimum, sprinkler heads installed in the attic and a “path of travel” all the way down to the main entry door, a second means of escape to an exterior level no more than 12 feet down and windows that meet light, ventilation and fire escape requirements. Part of living well is living safely for families, firefighters and communities. Glad you asked first. Good luck!

© 2018 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.