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Is Your Finished Attic a Deathtrap in the Making?

Before you consider putting a kid’s room or an elder apartment in an attic space, consider the extreme fire risk.

When done properly, creating an unvented attic space can not only open up “bonus” square footage in a home. It can save energy. But if you follow the tragic trajectory I’ve seen in many-a-shady rental apartments, and turn it into a bedroom, you’re playing with fire.

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Unvented attics save lots of energy, but unless they feature a method of rapid exit, they should not be used as bedrooms, especially for kids and elders. Photo : "1012 - step 3: spray foam insulation"   Before you consider putting a kid’s room or an elder apartment in an attic space, consider the extreme fire risk. 

The most common way to create an airtight attic is to add a combination of closed and open cell spray foam to the underside of the roof decking. At the same time, in a typical remodel, you remove the soffit vents and the ridge vent that normally allow air to flow up and out through the unfinished attic. This ventilation is a mixed blessing. It keeps the attic from getting too hot and moves moist air up and out.

By converting to an unvented attic, you end up with a “tighter” home, with little airflow in the attic space. This has substantial pros and cons:

Pro: Storage . As a place for extra storage, accessible with a fold-down ladder, for example, it’s a place to store that old wedding dress or kids toys or tenting equipment.

Pro: Stress Free Ducts . Because the attic is now “conditioned,” you can run air conditioning ducts through the space without exposing them to extreme hot or cold temperatures. You won’t lose vast amounts of energy trying to cool your 140-degree Fahrenheit attic.

Cons: No Airflow . You’ve now created a space with no “passive” ventilation. Unless you add mechanical vents or or gable end, operable windows, it’s a place where moisture, smoke from cooking and other pollutants can collect, putting occupants at risk.

Cons: Fire Trap. A house fire, even one starting on a lower floor, can quickly fill an attic with deadly smoke. In modern, open homes, flame spread happens quickly.

According to architect Monte Leeper, attic living spaces are fraught with dangers: “The chances of surviving a fire in the third floor of a wood-framed dwelling are statistically remote, only 5 percent. That means you or your loved ones could be among the 95 out of 100 who will die from smoke inhalation or burns.”

He adds that before you jump on an attic project, you need to address numerous critical details, including stairway sizes and “methods of escape, including the correct size and number of windows, distances to exterior and interior levels below to escape to, sprinkler locations along the entire path of travel to get out of the dwelling, heights of ceilings and fire-rated materials to be installed.”

I agree with Leeper’s assessment , that attic conversions into living space should generally be avoided. If you already have such a space in your home, or you’re in the unfortunate (yet all too common) position of renting an apartment that has squeezed a bedroom out of the attic, you should try to add a rapid escape method immediately. Your landlord should pay for it.

Fire-escape-drop-down-ladder---counterbalanced---by-jomy_clg5895If you’re fairly agile, I would recommend a retractable ladder that attaches to the outside of the building. For example, a company called Jomy offers one that has a safety cage over it to give you a little extra security. At the same time, as Leeper points out, you need a sprinkler system in the home to slow the fire in the lower floors. Without that, toxic smoke may rise so quickly that the resident simply hasn’t enough time to escape.

For children and the elderly, I would recommend moving to a lower floor, no matter how good the fire-resistant features. Attics are just too dangerous for slow moving adults or kids who can become scared or disoriented.

Unvented attics are a great bonus space for storage. But they’re not for the living.