Ask the Architect

Turning the attic into living space


Q. We’re trying to figure out a way to have our daughter’s family move into our attic space above our one-story home, which is large, and we want to create privacy by giving them their own entrance. What kinds of restrictions are there for this? We think we need a variance for mother/daughter description, but can we also put in a spiral staircase to save space? What can you tell us?

A. It’s good to see that you have followed my columns, and already know that you can make a second floor but not a third floor for living space, at least not without a lot of extra safety measures and a state code variance hearing, demonstrating how you can escape a fire.
What triggers the mother/daughter use permit is a second kitchen and a second living occupancy. Most local municipalities have other requirements geared toward not making the second living unit use permanent, as if it were to possibly become a two-family, because most communities want to restrict or control that type of use. By doing so, they avoid multiple households getting away without paying each family unit’s school taxes and the problems with extra vehicles on the street.
You may recall the recent protest of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposal to allow non-restricted doubling up of properties for the purpose of relieving the affordability of housing so badly needed, since homes have become out of reach for the next generation. The general regulations are that there be one mailbox, one meter for electric, water and gas and shared entrances, not separate entrances that could easily convert to a multi-family dwelling.
I usually work with families to comply, but still accommodate both families by trying to create a vestibule that allows one family not to have to walk through the other family’s space. Depending on the municipality, this concept has been better received by some and not by others, though I think that is changing. Privacy is a very important part of getting along between family units, and it seems like an obvious need. It also helps with compartmentalization, since separating the units adds to fire safety by limiting smoke and fire spread.

And speaking of fire safety, spiral stairs are a negative choice. Aside from being no less space-saving, they are harder to maneuver and harder to get furniture through to next level. Spiral stairs can be installed as a second form of exit, but the main stair should be straight or slightly curved, with a continuous handrail from the top stair to the bottom. I see so many stairs that do not meet this requirement and do not pass inspection.
Spiral stairs were traditionally installed in, of all places, firehouses based on the history of fire equipment that was pulled by horses. The horses would pull the wagons into the firehouse, be unhitched and head right for the straight staircases. Apparently, horses love to climb. They couldn’t make the turn on a spiral stair. Problem solved!

© 2022 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.