attic remodel

Before moving into their 1890s home, a couple in Evanston, Illinois, hired Roberts Architects & Construction to remodel the kitchen and add living space onto the back of the house. The clients also talked about renovating the unfinished attic, but they wanted to dwell in the residence first and better understand its needs. A third-floor project would strain their budget and scope at the time as well.

“There was a huge space with all sorts of potential up above the second floor,” recalls David Roberts, company founder and owner. “High ceilings [and a lot of] opportunities there to create some really nice spaces. They have two young children [so] they wanted a playroom space, and they wanted a guest bedroom and bathroom. There was an old stairway to the attic, but it was not up to code.”

Although the homeowners had their own ideas about this project, they trusted the expertise of the design/build company and its knowledge of older houses. Roberts knew the clients would pursue a third-level remodel in subsequent years, so his team carried out their initial renovation with an eye toward the future. Expansive structural changes, nonetheless, challenged even the best intentions.

Secondary concerns

The existing stairway from the second floor accessed the attic along a wall on one side of the large space. Roberts needed to find a better location for the new staircase and replace the narrow, dangerously steep steps. The middle of the attic presented an ideal option, but the chimney from a fireplace on the first level ascended through that space and obstructed a clear pathway.

“It was an older house and it had some fireplaces that were no longer operational, and the clients weren’t interested in using them again. They just don’t like fireplaces,” says Roberts, who opted to remove the entire chimney. “It came up right through the middle of the attic space. It was right where a stairway would naturally occur from the second-floor hallway that was already there.”

Patsy McEnroe, McEnroe Inc.

To accommodate a bigger staircase in the middle of the floor, the company had to reposition the door to one of the kids’ bedrooms on the second level and diminish a closet. The newfound landing forms a natural separation between the children’s rooms and the master suite, which repurposed space from an extraneous bedroom on that end of the floor to carve out a sizable master bath and walk-in closet.

“We had to make a lot of changes to the second-floor hallway to make it all work, in addition to taking out that chimney,” Roberts explains. “That really made the whole project work. Now the stairway could come up in the middle of the third floor as opposed to one side or the other. That way there could be a big playroom on one side, then a bedroom and a bathroom on the other side.”

Roberts situated three skylights above the airy new playroom so that natural light flows into the space and down the steps into the second level. The wider hallway connecting each bedroom now acts as a gathering area that includes some built-in bookcases and can furnish several chairs comfortably. If the homeowners ever seek additional privacy, they have the ability to retire to their generous new master suite.

Primary challenges

The company had to stabilize the roof structure and attic floor with supports before tearing down the old staircase and building a new one. Roberts often works in the historic district of Evanston, therefore his team has plenty of experience with remodeling aged houses. But the third level did not offer any finished flooring surfaces, existing insulation or even a heating and cooling system.

Patsy McEnroe, McEnroe Inc.

“We had to be very careful, of course, in making these new openings for the stairway and such,” Roberts says. “We knew this project was going to [start] at some point in the future, so when we remodeled it initially a few years before the attic, we set it up so that it wouldn’t be too difficult. [Still] there were [some] structural challenges to reframe the flooring and create a new stairway.”

Plumbing in particular presented a number of obstacles that necessitated thoughtful consideration and planning. The company had to find viable pathways for pipes to reach the new third-floor bathroom. Roberts made sure to leave a few different openings when his team completed the initial renovation previously, although the practically four-level residence required further contemplation.

“It’s a big-frame house—three stories including the attic, and then there’s a basement below—so basically it’s a four-story house of all frame,” he recalls. “When you get to the outside envelope, you have to be careful how you approach that. It has to go through an approval process with the preservation commission, and that’s fine. Our clients want it, and that’s the kind of work we do.”

The company salvaged three vintage windows on the third level and rebuilt them to match the authentic style of the home. An unoriginal window bordering the playroom on the south side of the residence did not fit the same time period, however, so Roberts remodeled the unit to look like the other windows. “We introduced some new features that were more complementary to the original character and design of the house,” he explains. “We also added [the three] skylights.”

Supplementary jobs

Unlike their initial project after buying the home, the clients lived in the residence while Roberts and his team remodeled the second and third floors. Concerns about dust, lead paint and general danger as a result of construction prompted the company to create an extensive model detailing how the work areas would be divided from the spaces in which the family continued their daily lives.

Patsy McEnroe, McEnroe Inc.

“A big old house is a dusty space; and in a big old attic, remodeling is an inherently dirty kind of activity that nobody wants to be involved in—especially with kids,” says Roberts, who built up partition walls to separate the construction area and used air scrubbers to keep the living spaces clean.

“We actually built a separate entrance into the house, up the stairway to the second floor, so our construction crews could come in and do all of their work, and [then they could] leave there without having to go through the rest of the house,” he adds. “We had built for the [homeowners] a few years before and remodeled for them [as well], so we didn’t want to ruin any of those nice spaces.”

The children quickly adopted their new third-level playroom, which includes a large bench as well as a railing to protect them from falling down the staircase. “It’s an old house, so often people put a playroom in the basement; but in an older house, the ceilings in the basement are not very high—it wasn’t conducive [in this case]—[plus] there weren’t any windows down there,” Roberts explains.

Patsy McEnroe, McEnroe Inc.

“As the children get older, this will be a place they can hang out with their friends, but it’s still open to the second floor,” he continues. “Our clients didn’t want to have an upstairs playroom with a door on it, where they couldn’t really keep an eye on what was going on. They liked the idea that there would still be some openness [to the attic space], and that’s what we’ve created.”

Roberts expects the homeowners to restore the front porch soon—once they catch their breath from this project. “A previous owner had closed it in with windows and, at some point, they would like to restore that to the more open front porch that used to be there,” he says. “A lot of houses in that area have big front porches that open onto the street, so that’s the project they’ve talked about next.” | QR

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