1. What are the three biggest misconceptions about lofts?
Many people think lofts carry a high price tag. They don’t. The highest costs you’ll encounter for this intimate space are for the stairs and railings. The actual price tag for the additional floor space is usually minimal.
Because lofts are fairly simple to construct, they’re often added as afterthoughts. During construction, someone standing on the subfloor looks into the stratosphere of a high cathedral ceiling and thinks, “Wouldn’t it be great to be able to look down from up there?” They’ve answered the first question of adding a loft: Do I have the ceiling height?
But there’s a second question: How do I get up there? A basic set of stairs occupies about 40 square feet of floor space. If the loft stairs are “stacked” above stairs going to the basement, you won’t lose any additional space, but the orientation of the stairs can be critical and is something you need to discuss with your design team. Stairs leading to a loft need headroom all the way up, so it’s best if the stairs rise in the same direction the roof slopes.
Lofts don’t always require a soaring cathedral ceiling and full stairs, though. A few years ago, I stayed in a ranch cabin in Montana that had once served as a cowboy bunkhouse. It was a squat rectangle with a shallow roof. The owners had converted the place into a bed and breakfast and opened up part of the attic accessed by a ladder of lashed poles. Headroom was less than 5 feet at the center. The owners had outfitted this tiny space with beanbag chairs and a couple mattresses situated comfortably on the floor—an ideal kids’ hangout. A small railing prevented anyone from tumbling into the living room. Don’t think lofts are limited to large areas. A small sleeping loft offers a great escape for kids or overflow guests.
2. What are some of the best options for storage space in the loft?
Because lofts sit beneath a sloping roof, there’s an area along the loft edge where there isn’t enough ceiling height to create usable floor space. Rather than letting this area become a collecting place for toys and stacks of odds and ends, close it off with a knee wall. The knee wall, with a height of 3 to 4 feet, creates an enclosed space that’s ideal for storing everything from Christmas decorations to seasonal sporting goods. In addition, the knee wall creates a flat surface for placing dressers and other low furniture.
A steeply pitched roof creates a sizeable storage space without reducing floor area too much. For example, a roof with a “12:12” pitch rises one foot vertically for every horizontal foot it covers. (If your house has a 12:12 pitch roof and measures 6 feet horizontally from the edge of the roof to the peak, the roof will be 6 feet high at the center. Don’t worry; your builder will know this terminology quite well!) Placing a 4-foot-high knee wall against the roof removes 4 feet of floor space where the roof intersects the edge of the loft. The storage area will be approximately 4 feet high at the front and taper to nothing where roof and floor meet. If you place a dresser against the knee wall, you’ll have almost 6 feet of headroom at the front of the dresser. If your roof is steep enough, you also can use the edge space for built-in drawers and shelves.
If you want more space either for storage or living, a small dormer offers a simple solution. Simply frame out an area and add a window. The cost of a small shed dormer shouldn’t exceed a couple thousand dollars. Gable dormers also will work, but they cost a little more and are more limited in width. A shed roof can be lengthened or shortened to match your needs.
You also can increase usable floor area by adding courses of logs or additional exterior wall height above the level of the loft floor. Adding 3 feet of height to exterior walls and covering with a 12:12 pitch roof will allow you about 3 feet of additional headroom toward the outside walls. This is often less expensive than adding dormers.
3. How do I block downstairs noise from coming upstairs?
Lofts constructed with a single layer of wood atop exposed beams are noisy, and the sloping ceilings (also wood) bounce the sound to the floor below. A layer of carpet will stifle sound, but a conversation spoken in normal tones in the loft usually can be heard easily in the rooms below and vice versa.
To reduce the noise even more, consider a built-up floor system with a layer of sound-deadening drywall placed over the floor decking. Have your builder follow this with a layer of “sleepers” (dimensional lumber: 2x4s or 4x6s) and a second subfloor.
4. I want a bathroom in my loft area. What’s the easiest and most affordable way to incorporate one into my plan?
Bathrooms aren’t usually a problem in a loft. However, because of the plumbing involved, be prepared for some adjustments. Drain lines for tubs, showers and toilets go beneath the floor. Because many lofts are simply a layer of thick flooring placed over beams, this plumbing will be visible from below—but fear not. There are two options for concealing loft plumbing: create a dropped ceiling beneath the exposed pipes, or raise the plumbing fixtures above the loft floor and create a boxed-in cavity to conceal the drains.
5. I've heard lofts can be either drafty or too warm (vaulted ceiling, heat rising). What’s the best way to create a comfortable air temperature up there?
Use ceiling fans to circulate the warm air that often collects in a loft. Skylights that open and close with a remote control allow you to vent the loft while bringing more light into the area. However, be wary of skylights atop south-facing roofs. In most climates, these will need some type of shading to keep your loft from feeling like a sauna.
For air conditioning, consider a high-velocity unit that uses smaller ducts. Ducts placed high in the roof or in cross walls deliver cool air up high, where it can flow downward. Your builder also might want to include several grates in the loft’s floor.
Whatever your plans for this special space above it all, talk to your design team and builder. Most folks conjure nights next to the great room’s hearth, but among the homes I’ve built, many of my customers later tell me how grateful they are to have this lofty sanctuary. It’s cozy, inviting and, if planned correctly, can become a favorite spot in the house.