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I do a lot of work with detached, wood-framed houses built in the United States between 1850 and 1920. Almost all of them have a walk-up attic that was not finished originally. In some cases the attics are now finished and used as living or working space, but it's clear (based on the finishing materials and styles) that the finishing was done well after the house was originally built.

Most of these attics offer significant floorspace (usually at least 500 square feet), they were built using rafters (so there is plenty of open space inside the attic) and the attics are easily accessible from the other levels of the houses using staircases.

This leaves me wondering why the original builders/homeowners would not have finished their attics in order to make them spaces that you could use for living. If you have all that space sitting at the top of your house, why would you not have spent a little more time or money to make it a conditioned, finished space like the rest of the house?

Is there a functional reason why attics were not finished in old houses? Maybe it has to do with lack of insulation, for instance, so they needed the attic as a buffer zone between finished spaces and the roof? Or was it purely a cultural thing (maybe they wanted the attic as storage space)?

I'm asking this mostly out of curiosity, but also because I'm thinking of finishing the still-unfinished attic in my 1903 house, so I'm wondering if I'd be creating any functional issues by turning it into finished space.

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Not functional, but cost. Roofs have slopes to drain water and slough snow. It's the nature of their design that there's a hollow below. Since the finished space is relatively small, and since it costs more to build a floor robust enough to carry people and furniture, and since it costs more to finish the space and insulate and add (larger) windows, and since the space was useful as storage without being finished, and since people back then were happy with less space and fewer things, they didn't bother.

An indirect benefit to an attic, as opposed to a completely open roof cavity, was that it didn't need to be heated. Lower ceilings keep heat down where the human inhabitants are.

Obviously there's some energy efficiency to be gained by having enclosed attics above a ceiling in an uninsulated home, but that's not the primary reason attics were built. Drainage (and to a lesser extent, style) were the main drivers.

  • Why have the cost (livable space and construction) of access via stairs? – Rob Mar 1 at 17:30
  • I don't understand your question. – isherwood Mar 1 at 17:31
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    To quote myself, "... since the space was useful as storage without being finished...." I assume "ships ladder" stairs, not full staircases. – isherwood Mar 1 at 17:33
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    @historian18 this is probably regional. The more mild your climate, the more useful an attic becomes. In my experience in Ohio, few houses have pull down ladders, let alone staircases; a simple boxed out access port into the attic is the most common. – UnhandledExcepSean Mar 1 at 19:06
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    My great grandmother had a 2 story Victorian with a huge attic, original gas lamps outside but K&T inside, after finishing my apprenticeship I rewired the house and I was glad the attic and basement were unfinished, I asked her if she wanted me to finish the attic and she said that would be a waste of money even though there was a beautiful staircase going up, the basement was all ways damp and they called it the root cellar where veggies were stored for the winter, after she passed we did finish the attic but left the basement /cellar as it was. So I agree because she said it would be a waste – Ed Beal Mar 1 at 23:31
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I see lots of houses of that same vintage. You do see some houses built with unfinished attics, no floors, no fixed stairs, but not many.

In cold climates you see lots of house styles that incorporated the attic space beneath the sloped roof as living space - adding dormers, knee walls, etc. - Craftsman style houses, Cape Cod style, etc. I think you see these styles more in denser development, more houses in less acreage.

I think when you see the half finished attics - fixed stairs and floors but no walls etc. - they made sense then for the same reason they do now. In most climates it won't be comfortable year round living space - too hot in the summer. In modern times it's usable thanks to air conditioning, but it wasn't back then. Before plywood, OSB, and drywall, finishing it would have been more expensive. If you have the space on the lot you're better off building enlarging the footprint of the house - building out rather than up. However, for the cost of the flooring and a staircase, it was worth it for storage.

In chemistry in high school I learned that one of the properties of an ideal gas is that no matter how big of a container you put it in, it would expand to fill the entire container. (Or something like that, heh.) I have noticed that a lot of things are like an ideal gas, one is people in houses. They always want more space.

At some point in the life of the house, someone wants more space, and finishing the attic is going to be the easiest way. In urban / dense places, there's little choice - no room for an addition. Even when there is, it's far more work to build an addition than to finish attic space. No footers, foundation, and floor to build. With air conditioning and good insulation, the space can be made livable year round.

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Because back then, people weren't so obsessed with "finishing out". Not only did they leave the attics unimproved, they left the basements unimproved! Can you imagine!?

Real estate market prices and speculation were not beyond insane like they are today. Flipping wasn't really a thing. AirBnB didn't exist. There wasn't a mad dash to turn every possible square foot of the home into additional square feet you could claim on a realty listing.

One very good reason was the concept of utility space. The idea that a home ought to have internal utilities, like water and electricity, and you ought to be able to get where you need to access them without having to bust out a ton of drywall to do anything at all. Also, in the 1870-1930 era, new utilities were coming out pretty regularly - indoor plumbing, electricity, telephone, gas. They never knew what would come next, and why seal it off?

  • I think the basement is more obvious because they were stone and mortar in many cases and 2 I worked on were cinder Block but they may not have been original. But in every case they leaked with winter storms. So I agree with your answer also. – Ed Beal Mar 1 at 23:35
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In that time period two historical events might have contributed. The Civil War and the Great Depression. Two times in history when jobs were few and times were hard. Most people barely had money to eat. Finishing that extra space would have taken away from the necessities. This answer might be dependent on region.

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