Attic remodeling – Chicago Bungalow

City of Chicago vintage Bungalow attic rehab

So you’ve been looking at that raw storage attic and thinking it would be a great space for a master suite with a wonderful spa bathroom. You aren’t the only one with those ideas. Chicago bungalows tend to have some very nice un-used space in those attic. This is one of the most common major remodeling projects homeowners dive into. Turning that space into useable living space could also be cheaper than buying a larger new home or building an addition.

Almost anyone can turn a raw space into useable living space. Not everyone can do it safely, efficiently and Code compliant. There are numerous important factors that need to be considered with such a rehab.

Hiring Contractors

If you live in the City of Chicago, you will need to hire contractors for a lot of the work but not all. Rules vary in the surrounding suburbs such as Evanston, Oak Park or Wilmette. Depending on your municipality and the classification of your building, you may be able to do more of the project yourself, as a DIY weekend warrior. If your property is a single family home, licensing tends to be more lenient. If your building is a small owner occupied multi-unit, say a 2 or 3 flat, there are typically more requirements.

There are significant factors to consider when remodeling an open attic in Chicago. It isn’t quite as easy as some of the home shows make it look. The following pages outline some of the common construction issues that come up in a bungalow or standard attic rehab.

For those of you go-getters out there who don’t care about the Code or construction standards … You will when it comes re-sale time or when a municipal inspector comes knocking. Those bedrooms may not be compliant; you won’t be able to add them on your listing sheet; and there can be substantial costs for removal of non-compliant construction.

Remember, proper construction keeps your family safer. Please plan your project properly.

Your first and most important question for an attic build-out is, ‘How big are the attic floor joists? Floor joists need to be properly sized in order to carry the load (weight) of all the new materials that will be added on top of them. From a cost perspective, adding new properly sized floor joists, can make the difference between whether the project is feasible or not.

ATTIC build-out considerations

  • Attic joists: In vintage Chicago single family bungalows joists are typically 2×6 or 2×8. In some neighborhoods and construction you can find 2×10. On rare occasions, in some homes, I’ve found 2×12 joists. Older homes will typically have smaller joists though. Construction costs will be substantial for adding properly sized joists. Not having properly sized joists can lead to instability, collapse and a removal order. An architect or structural engineer is usually required to provide documentation that sufficient floor load ratings will be met. Joist size will vary depending on span. Installing engineered lumber such as Microlams or LVL’s as joists tends to be the preferred option. Conventional lumber can however be used.
  • Chicago and many suburbs have kneewall height requirements. You should verify side knee wall height before starting to build walls. I realize you may want to maximize space along the sides by pushing kneewalls back as far as possible. Building lower kneewalls can present compliance problems. Once walls are completed that low space isn’t nearly as functional as people tend to think.
  • Knee wall space: One way to use all that empty space behind the knee walls is to provide built-in book shelves or closet drawers. Such components can provide great storage and enhance to overall layout of the space. This is relatively easy work for an experienced carpenter or cabinet maker.
  • Insulation, insulation, insulation: This point cannot be stressed too much. Insufficient or poorly installed insulation can decrease comfort levels and increase heating costs. R38 is generally considered the minimum attic insulation level in the Chicagoland area. Installing R50-R60 will put you into the ‘Green’ recommendations. There are numerous products available to use. Standard fiberglass batts, newer engineered batt materials and expanding spray-on foam are all options. I suggest you consider the product that is most suitable for your conditions. It is helpful to remember that insulation costs will be returned on a monthly basis through lower heating and cooling costs.
  • Proper roof ventilation: When your open attic was built, soffit and ridge ventilation was most likely based on that open design. Once you close that space it is important to either maintain, increase or alter that ventilation system. Your home and roof need to be able to breathe. If a roof is not properly vented roof shingles can overheat and deteriorate prematurely. Mold and mildew problems can also occur. Some engineered spray-on expanding foam insulation systems do not require ventilation. It is important that such systems are installed properly to avoid long-term problems. Adding a thermal break using insulation board is also an option. This option also needs to be properly engineered to avoid problems.
  • Skylights: If you install multiple skylights, strong consideration should be given to installing at least one or more operable skylights. The added purchase cost is well worth it. Opening a skylight 1”-2” during the summer can dramatically increase comfort levels. The vent effect will allow hot air to be pulled out thereby reducing the overall temperature to more manageable levels. This can also reduce cooling costs.
  • Egress: In Chicago, one egress is typically sufficient if the attic becomes a ‘2nd floor’. If the attic becomes a ‘3rd floor’, a second egress may be required depending on various factors.

ADDITIONAL build out considerations

  • Plans: Chicago, Highland Park, River Forest and most other suburbs will usually require architectural plans for an attic build-out. Outlying suburbs may only require drawings. Check with your local municipality.
  • Permits: Chicago and most if not all suburbs will require a construction permit of some kind. Costs vary. The City has a permit fee calculator on their website. At least some suburbs have permit fees listed on their websites.
  • Zoning: You may need to apply for a zoning and setback variance depending on the location of your building to the lot line.
  • Costs for re-routing existing electrical should be factored into your budget.
  • Plumbing vent stacks may need to be extended
  • If adding a bathroom, the vent fan should be exhausted to the exterior, NOT to the attic space.
  • Most home heating systems are not sufficiently sized to handle the extra space of a complete buildout. You will likely need to add a new heating and cooling system. It is possible to upgrade an existing system to save money. The cost of a complete new system is substantially higher. A separate system for the attic space will give you better control and comfort levels though. New ductwork can also be hidden behind kneewalls.
  • Inspectors: Whether you get a permit or not, a municipal inspector may come knocking. If so, be nice, be polite, say Yes Sir and Thank you Sir; even if you think he is being a pain in your side. A municipal inspector can be very helpful and informative. If you make him or her mad, they can make your project hell. So be nice. Accurate Inspections can provide construction inspections throughout the build process at reasonable rates. This can help keep contractors inline and reduce construction issues.
  • A note on insulation: “Stuffing” insulation into a smaller cavity than it is rated for does not increase the R-value. Stuffing can decrease the R-value depending on the product used.

Obviously, this article cannot cover all the factors you should consider when planning your project. There will be variables based on existing construction components of your home, your goals and local Codes.

This article should only be considered a primer towards helping you understand some of the issues you are likely to encounter. These projects are complex but can be simple enough with proper planning. Accurate Inspections can provide an initial project evaluation report and helpful information that you can use to begin the process. The information can also serve as a valuable resource when interviewing contractors for the job.

We hope this article is helpful. Feel free to give us a call to discuss your project. We provide services to clients throughout the Chicagoland area.

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