I've got an older house, built in 1919 (stacked stone foundation, brick, lots of heavy lumber) and I got this crazy idea I could build out the 3rd floor into a FAR more useful space than it is now. I'm not sure why some other owner didn't think/attempt this so may there is something I am missing -- someone DID put a HUGE antenna in there but beyond that, a single light socket and all the loose insulation, its untouched.

The cross beams in the attic are 10x2 and stupid strong (busts nails, no really) being about 13" apart. The roof is shaped in a steep V and high enough I can stand up easily (I'm 6'8) and it's all completely open -- 16' wide by ... probably 50' deep - all of which is utterly wasted. I'm thinking I could feed some plywood up there to create a floor and start building it out into more useable, maybe even living space. The biggest catch as of right now is the opening -- it's <2' by 3'. Barely big enough to me to sneak my way in there and MAYBE bend some 8'x2' sheets up there (rip an 8x4).

Really what I need it for today is simply storage. Long term, we'd like to build a walk-out 3rd floor but since in ~100 years no one else has bothered...it makes me think "why didn't someone?". Any ideas/thoughts on this?

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    Talk to a local architect/builder. They will know your local codes and can tell you what you can safely (and legally) do with the attic.
    – aphoria
    Commented Oct 5, 2010 at 11:36

2 Answers 2


As far as the opening goes, you can put in a collapsing ladder, such as this one. I've installed one before and they're not too bad, just a little framing work and some large nails (I used 16p nails and you'll need a friend or two to help, the ladder and frame is somewhat weighty). This gives you a ladder and an easy way to get up to the attic and it collapses down to just a panel which can be painted and framed to make it look nice against the ceiling.

The attic in my house just has some plywood on the truss floor which serves as a great storage floor. Just have to be sure not to block the air flow in the attic and realize that it may get very hot in the summer and cold in the winter. I made the mistake of storing some candles in boxes one summer ..... wound up with candle blobs when I discovered them again.

  • Heat/Cold is a concern of course -- I was considering putting insulation up in the actual roof itself to help temp control it a bit (roof was just replaced 2 years ago). There's no ducts going there now, but one could be easily extended. ... as for setting up the collapsing ladder, I'd thought about that -- any concerns with this old of a house?
    – user884
    Commented Oct 4, 2010 at 17:41
  • @jeriley as long as the joists are strong I don't see any concerns. When you put up a collapsing ladder it's framed and nailed into place pretty well. There is a weight limit to each ladder style ... wooden ladders are around 230-250 lbs I believe but if you're a bigger guy (like me) you can get aluminum ladders which go up to 300-330 lbs I believe. The box for each ladder will tell you the weight rating.
    – user45
    Commented Oct 4, 2010 at 20:02
  • One concern about putting plywood directly over the floor joists - If you have 2x10 joists, that only gives you room for 10" of insulation. Depending on your climate, that might not be enough. Might want to build some 2x6 framing on top of the floor joists to give you some more insulation space. Commented Oct 4, 2010 at 20:03
  • @Eric ... true ... didn't consider that ... definitely something to think of depending on where you live. I live in Ohio so our winters are pretty nasty at times. My attic is pretty well insulated.
    – user45
    Commented Oct 4, 2010 at 23:21
  • If you install a drop down ladder, consider building a box around it from sheet styrofoam top drop in place -- otherwise, you've got a spot in your ceiling with absolutely no insulation.
    – Joe
    Commented Oct 5, 2010 at 0:41

As you said you had loose insulation, I don't know if it's at the floor joist level, and so you can just sheet directly over the joists, or if it's above the joists, in which case you need to get creative.

First, there are some companies that make these sort of plastic grid pieces that screw into the joists so you can make a walkway and still let the insulation breathe ... but they're specific sizes, so if your rafters aren't the standard 16" or 24", you're out of luck. And they're rather expensive when you start dealing with them for both the walkway, and the storage.

The alternative is to only lay the walkway, down, not where you're going to be storing stuff. If you need extra depth for insulation, make a "ladder" out of dimensional lumber (2x4, 2x6, etc) to get up to the height of your insulation, nestle that into the insulation, secure it in place, then sweep out any extra insulation (so you're not packing it down), then sheet over top of the ladder.

For storage, if you're mostly storing lightweight stuff up there (and let's face it ... if you're bringing it up and down a ladder, you're not using this to store heavy items), you can work from the roof down -- get some pieces of chain, a few screw hooks, and something as shelves (even a cheap set of wire shelves from target/walmart/etc), and you have storage without crushing down the insulation.


One of these years, I'll get a contractor to come in, jack up the roof another four feet, add a knee-wall, and I can get a whole second floor (well, storage under the eaves), but that's a long-term project, as I'm going to have to get new siding at the same time, unless someone can match 80 year old wood siding. And I'm going to have to lose a bedroom to turn into a stairwell.

When that point comes, I'll probably get the sprayed-on insulation, as I'll have to insulate the roof, and I'm not looking forward to having to deal with batts of insulation over my head. (although, they do have ones made from recycled bluejeans now, so maybe it won't be as itchy)

I also assume I'm going to have to get permits and make sure the joists would be rated to support the necessary live load; mine are 24"OC 2x6, so I might need reinforcing. (although, they're old school, 1.75"x5.75", not today's 1.5"x5.5", and they're mostly petrified at this point)

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    Slightly off topic from the original post, but I recently finished my attic that as 2x6 floor joists over 14 foot spans. The building department made me reinforce the joists as the 2x6 over 14 feet did not meet current code for live load. And yes it was ancient rock hard wood that is thicker than today's 2x6s (the house is from 1926). I ended up sistering every single joist with another 2x6 which satisfied the the inspector.
    – auujay
    Commented Oct 5, 2010 at 14:44
  • That's a really interesting idea -- hanging things from the roof. And no, they're not specific sizes (width apart), they're odd, like 13" apart. I discovered this when I went to put a new 75lb ceiling fan in. "oh this fan adapter thingy is rated for 35lbs annndd the box says it iiiiiiss ... 72 ...hmm that's a problem"
    – user884
    Commented Oct 6, 2010 at 15:05

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