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Loft Conversion Guide – Part 2

Tuesday, 1st May 2012 | by: Peter Barry

A few posts ago now I talked about some of the legal aspects of loft conversions, such as Planning Consents and Building Regulation Approvals.  In this post I am going to look at some of the practical aspects of designing and building loft conversions.

The first practical aspect will be to look at whether there is enough space in the loft to make a worthwhile loft conversion.  The most important point to consider is whether there will be enough height.  You will remember from the first post that you will generally not be able to increase the overall height of the original roof to the building, so we will have to make sure that loft conversion can be built within that height and still have enough room to be practical.

It’s relatively simple to check if you have enough height in the loft.  If you can stand comfortably in the roof space and there is still some height above your head then it will probably be OK.  If you can’t stand in the middle of the roof without your head hitting the rafters then there won’t be enough room!

The other thing that you need to remember about loft conversions is that you will need to build a new staircase to reach the loft.  Although you will gain extra space in the loft you will lose some space on the floor below to accommodate the new staircase.  In order to make the loft conversion worthwhile you will need to look at how much space will be taken up by the staircase and how this will affect the layout of the top floor.  If you are going to lose too much space, or make the existing rooms awkward shapes it may not be worthwhile adding the space in the loft.

The next thing to consider is that a good quality loft conversion does not come cheap!  Whilst it is always difficult to generalise on these matters, you should expect to pay around £30,000 to £40,000 for a typical loft conversion.  Before you get too far down the line it is worth talking to local estate agents to try to get some idea of how much more your house of flat might be worth once you have built the loft conversion.  Don’t forget that as well as the building costs you will have to pay professional fees to your architect/surveyor, the Local Authority and also fees in connection with any Party Wall Awards.  It is quite likely that the professional fees in connection with an average loft conversion could add up to £5,000.

Having checked that there is enough space for a worthwhile loft conversion and that it will be financially viable we are ready to go ahead with the design.  As I said in my last blog, there are basically two ways that you can go.  You can either appoint a designer (usually a Building Surveyor or an Architect) who will prepare the necessary plans and specifications for you, or you can approach one of the specialist loft companies who provide and design and build service.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods.  Your own designer will be more independent and will be acting on your behalf, but you will have more people to deal with as you will have to appoint a contractor to carry out the works.  A specialist loft company will obviously be particularly experienced in building lofts and they will carry out any design work that is needed and obtain any necessary consents on your behalf.  The ‘designer’ in this case will be employed by the loft company, however, and will be working to some extent for two masters.  He/she will be your designer, but will also be employed by the contractor and will have to take into account their wishes and requirements.  Also, if for any reason you fall out with the loft company the ‘designer’ will not be on your side.

My personal view is to recommend an independent designer, as even if you produce your own drawings and specification this does not mean that you can’t approach one of the specialist loft companies to quote for the actual work.

Having produced a basic design there will often be a certain amount of negotiation with the Local Authority, if Planning Approval is required, to arrive at a solution that is acceptable to the client and to the Planners.  If Planning Consent is required it will usually take somewhere in the region of 8 weeks for the Local Authority to consider your plans and grant approval, so this needs to be built into your timescale.

Once Planning Approval has been obtained you know that you can build your loft conversion.  There are still a number of other hurdles, such as Building Regulations and Party Wall Awards to overcome, but these dictate how you build and not whether you can build.

As I mentioned in the last blog, you do not have to use the Local Authority to obtain Building Regulation Approval, there are a number of private companies that offer this service and your designer or builder may already have a good relationship with one of these companies.

One question that I am often asked is, ‘how disruptive is it to build a loft conversion, and can I still live in the house when the work is going on?’  The answer to this question is that it is often less disruptive to build a loft conversion than a traditional extension and, in the vast majority of cases, you and your family can continue to live in the property whilst the work is going on.

Most contractors who carry out loft conversions will erect scaffolding to the front and rear of the property and will work from the outside.  They will access the work area from the scaffold and in the early stages of the work they usually won’t have to come inside the house or flat at all.  Builders and their suppliers are very used to working in confined sites in London and most of the materials for the job will be off-loaded from the lorry by a crane and lifted straight onto the scaffold, so you won’t have builders carrying bricks and timber through your house or flat.

The position of the scaffolding is something that you or your advisers may need to agree with adjoining owners, particularly if you live in a flat and need access to other properties to erect the scaffolding.  Again, it is best to raise this with your neighbours at an early stage rather than assume that it won’t be a problem, as neighbours can get quite irate if they suddenly see scaffolding appearing outside their windows at 8.00am in the morning without any previous warning!

Usually loft contractors will build all of the shell from the outside and make it watertight before they break through into the existing building.  This is always the messiest and noisiest stage of the works, as the builder has to cut out a section of the original ceiling to form the new stairwell.  This is the day that you might want to take a trip to the country or visit the relations you haven’t seen for ages!

At this stage the client usually sees the loft conversion properly for the first time and, in my experience, there is often some disappointment at this stage, as the new space doesn’t always look as big as the client imagined it would be.  However, once the flooring goes down and the walls and ceilings are plastered the impression changes and the space looks much bigger.

In my next post I will look at some typical construction details and, hopefully, spice the post up with a few photographs and sketches which will give you a better idea of what is possible.