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  • Writer's pictureBob Barnett

Finished Attics, Part 2: Stairs & Windows

Updated: Apr 9, 2020

Having discussed the topics of zoning and desired space planning for finished attics from my earlier post, we move on (up & out) to stairs and windows. The staircase above is from one of our first projects in Verona, NJ; HGS carpentry, Sean Raneiri photography. The stairs connected the 2nd floor hallway below to the new, finished attic space.

Regardless of what the use of a finished attic will be (bedrooms, baths, family room, office,etc.) access to the space is obviously critical.  More critical from a code perspective is egress from the space in case of fire or other emergency.  Code requires two means of egress from any bedroom. In our firm, we extend that requirement to include any room with a couch (who hasn’t slept on a couch?). Stairs are always the primary egress option. Given this, the stairs have to meet certain code criteria. Ladders or even ship-ladders, for example, would not be acceptable forms of egress.

If there is an existing stair to an attic, it may or may not be required to comply to current code depending on the municipality’s zoning ordinance as well as the zoning officer’s interpretation of the ordinance. If a new stair is required, it certainly must comply with current code including requirements for steepness, width, head height, and hand/guardrails. Diagonal steps and even spiral stairs are allowed if they meet the code requirements.

Code compliant stairs take up a lot of space - oftentimes more than most homeowners realize.

Generally, the most economical location of a new staircase (from a space perspective) is over an existing staircase, as it does not take away from space on the 2nd floor. With sloping roof rafters, head height often becomes a governing factor in determining stair locations, sometimes requiring bumping out of a roof with a dormer to get the stair head height. In this Maplewood attic addition, we reframed the roof higher to get a full 3rd story -2 bedrooms and a bath. We created the new staircase over the existing staircase below, keeping the required 6'8" ceiling height.

Sometimes, however, a new staircase is added in a new location. This "lighthouse" stair tower was built as part of this 3-story addition (left and below, under construction) connecting the basement to 3rd floor.


The secondary means of required egress is most often an egress window. Egress windows must have a sill lower than 44” from the floor. They must also have a required width, height and overall pass-through area when opened. For double-hung windows to meet these criteria, they often have to be very large given an open double-hung window is  only 1/2 open. Thus, casement windows are often used to satisfy the requirements since the entire window can be swung open.

Given many attics have large gable walls, large and dramatic picture windows are often used. The window (left) is from a finished attic in West Orange, Barnett design Build construction. The semi-circular window above two large (egress) double hung windows maximizes the possible light from this gable wall.

Dormers are often employed in attic remodeling in order to increase floor area and light. We encourage our clients to try to time major roof work (including solar panel installation) with dormer construction to avoid any throw-away work. This shed dormer addition (left) greatly expanded the existing attic space, creating a spacious bedroom for this family's teenage son. MAC Construction.

Skylights are another great way to bring more light into attic spaces. These do not qualify egress windows, but can provide provide a lot of light on the sloped side of a roof without the expense of dormer construction.

The master bathroom (left) was constructed over a garage. The skylight was surrounded by LED lighting for a dramatic steam shower. Murphy Construction, In House Photography.

The attic family room space (below) became much brighter with the addition of two skylights. The skylights also enabled great sunset views from the west. Barnett Design Build construction.

With zoning/planning discussed as well as stairs & windows, we will next discuss some of the critical construction topics of finished attics.

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