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Our attic is entirely unfinished - exposed floor and wall studs. It has windows and is wired for a single light fixture. There is a fixed staircase up to the attic from the second floor where 19.5 is on the diagram below.

dimensions in feet

I've done some basic code research and as we only have 7.5 feet of height along the unfinished centerline, we clearly don't meet the "50% of the usable floor space should have a ceiling height of 7.5 ft or more" requirement.

Based on my approximations, we have about 400 square feet of area with 4 feet or more of height. I'd like to make use of it somehow other than just dry storage - even if it just means a carpeted play area for our children.

What are the implications of not meeting that height code? Would a contractor refuse to take the job? Would a DIY project be subject to fines? Why does the height even matter? I can understand not wanting someone to misrepresent it as a bedroom but any prospective buyer would immediately understand the reality of the situation upon climbing the stairs.

We're in Illinois if it matters. I'm having trouble finding anything other than "the code says" ...

  • That requirement probably doesn't apply to older homes or for spaces that aren't bedrooms. It would help if you'd post the actual rule you cited. I don't think many contractors would turn down the job for that reason, though. – isherwood Mar 22 at 18:30
  • I don't have a rule at hand. The basic limitations are repeated across many different pages on the Internet. The home is ~120 years old, if that matters. – Drew Mar 22 at 18:31
  • Think about how you would heat/cool/insulate a "play" area like this. And if/when the home is sold, you might not be able to call it anything other than "storage" depending on codes for living areas (not sure what they all are). – JPhi1618 Mar 22 at 18:33
  • The code requirement might be for claiming it as square footage for the house. Essentially, you are likely able to finish the space, but you couldn't add the floor area to the square footage of your home if you try to sell, nor could you list it as a particular type of space (ex. bedroom, office, etc.). It's difficult to say without seeing the specific reference in your jurisdiction's residential code. – Hari Ganti Mar 22 at 18:37
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You say you don’t like answers that start with, “...the Code says...”, but I say, the Code says, “Habitable rooms, hallways and basements containing habitable spaces shall have a ceiling height of 7’ min. (ICC R305)

Also, it says, “ For rooms with sloped ceilings, the required floor area of the room shall have a ceiling height of not less than 5’ and not less than 50% shall have a ceiling height of 7’.”

It also says, “Conversion of basements and attics to habitable space shall provide a minimum height of 6’-8”.”

I’d quit arguing with people and go see your local Building Official and get a copy of Section 305 AND read it yourself. Talk to him/her. They’re there to help. (You’re getting a Building Permit, right?)

Maybe you can furr out the side walls to 5’ and make a great “habitable room” with bookcases, shelving, etc. along the walls. (Bathrooms, etc. is 6’-8” and showers are 6’ minimum height.)

  • Hi, I think you misunderstood the tone of my question. I'm confused about the terminology and the ramifications thereof. From your answer -- “Conversion of basements and attics to habitable space shall provide a minimum height of 6’-8”.” -- what is habitable space? what is my unfinished attic considered now? if I just want to put in flooring so it can be easily walked through am I supposed to care about that code? I don't understand when the rules apply and when they don't. – Drew Mar 22 at 21:18
  • Habitable space is defined as, “A space in a building for living, sleeping, eating, or cooking. Bathrooms, toilet rooms, closets, halls, storage or utility spaces and similar areas are not considered habitable spaces.” Attics are defined as, “The unfinished space between the ceiling assembly and the roof assembly.” Don’t over think it and don’t try to outsmart the Code. If you have an accident and your insurance company finds out you didn’t follow the code, they’ll waive coverage. If you put flooring in and a child steps off it and falls through your ceiling, you’re not covered. – Lee Sam Mar 22 at 21:58
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The simplest and most reliable way to answer your question, I think, would be to call your municipality's code enforcement department. Only someone familiar with your specific, local codes will know for sure what you can and can't do.

It would also be worth confirming that your attic is not currently counted as living space on your tax records. In my house (not in Illinois) part of the attic was finished very primitively (basic heat, light and interior walls thrown together with scrap lumber) and apparently used as servants' quarters when the house was built. Even though the quarters don't come close to meeting modern code, the city considered the "finished" part of the attic to be living space based on those records. It sounds like your attic was definitely not used for anything other than storage, but you never know until you check the records. If the city thinks it's already living space it might be a lot easier to finish it because you can claim you're just updating it, not creating new conditioned space.

Again, though, ask local code enforcement.

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