Elephant in the room (or your attic?)

For homeowners whose goal is to maximise available space for a growing family, recent experience has identified that attic conversions can result in significant unexpected consequences.

Growing families with young children often opt for attic conversions, meaning young children very often get the dubious honour of occupying the potentially hazardous attic space. Attic conversions, if not done properly, are not only hazardous but can cause structural damage.

The first cause for concern is the complete ignorance of fire safety regulations. Parents with children who are sleeping in the attic would naturally go up to the room on hearing the fire alarm. Having an additional level to access, and then escape from, greatly increases the time needed to escape and increases the risk in a fire.

While inspecting houses where unexplained cracks have appeared, structural problems have been noted where inadequate support had been provided. In some very worrying instances roof trusses were cut apart. Any alteration can have serious structural consequences for the house.

These could include cracking in the walls of the partitions underneath, and doors jamming. It also increases the risk of complete collapse or sagging of the roof, which leads to water leaks if the roofing felt is torn from too much movement.

It is important to note that unless a builder has a structural engineering qualification, preferably chartered engineer, they do not have the necessary skills to carry out alterations to any form of roof trusses on their own.

Building regulations provide some very basic fire safety requirements to give protection to occupants of an attic space. Unfortunately a large portion of attic conversions are not installed with these basic safety features. These fire risks are also not reported, as the only type of building the fire service can't automatically inspect by law is a single-family dwelling house!

Another issue that is particularly common is for attic conversions not to provide adequate head room in accordance with habitable space requirements. This has the effect that when a property is to be sold or rented, the space cannot be advertised as an additional bedroom. Homeowners often cannot obtain a certificate of compliance with building regulations, which is sought by the buyer’s solicitor.

Look out for the following warning signs:

· Have your roof trusses been cut or altered in any way?

· Are there suitably rated fire doors installed?

· Are any of your ceilings or walls cracking at first (or ground ) floor?

· Are your new stairs narrower than 800mm?

· Is your external roofline sagging?

· Are your first floor doors jamming?

Barry McGann, Fahy Fitzpatrick Consulting Engineers. www.fahyfitzpatrick.ie

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