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Ask the Architect

What are our options with an attic?

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Q. We have a problem we’re trying to resolve with the height and shape of our roof. We hired an architect after we hired a designer. The architect insists he will not draw our plans so we can have a tall attic. We want to be able to use the attic for extra bedrooms and a playroom. With our growing family, the extra space is essential. Every time we asked to have the plans changed, the architect intimidated us with his version of regulations, which our designer says we should be able to do. Now we’re in construction and this is our last chance. What should we do, build what we want, which we’ve seen others do, or give in? We’re so upset.

A. You picked a bad time in the process to propose a change. I have experienced this ongoing type of problem, and usually ended up taking the clients and their designer to meet with the building officials who uphold their community’s laws, zoning and building regulations.

The first problem here is that you seem to be getting bad advice from your designer, because the state code specifically prohibits the use of an attic as living space above the second floor, unless your community and state authorities review and both authorities agree that the use is safe. You would also need to sprinkler the interiors of the house and have a safe means to escape to an area no more than 12 feet below the top floor. Studies have shown that only five out of 100 people survived a fire in the top level above the second story in a wood-framed one- or two-family residence; 95 out of 100 died.

If your architect is experienced in your particular community, one of more than 70 jurisdictions in your county, each with their own zoning board and rules, you should take his advice. Your community has previously not approved attics as living space, and no licensed professional who is doing their job will support the idea of putting you or your children’s lives in jeopardy. Either take the architect’s advice and proceed, speak directly to your building official, stop the job while you apply for a local zoning variance and state variance decisions (which could take up to a year) and then proceed.

Keep in mind that if either one of the boards turns you down, you are prohibited from having a habitable third floor, and you will have to submit revised plans and reconstruct anything that doesn’t comply with the law. In my experience, your community is very strict, and has even delayed its final decision and then forced the owner to cut down (rebuild) the wishful height to the regulation height. If your “designer” isn’t licensed and legally qualified to advise you, he may actually be violating the law. In your state it’s a class E felony for him to hold himself out to be practicing without a license.

© 2021 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.