Best Use of Attic Space in a Row House?


“Dear PoPville,

Most row houses in Petworth have these front attic windows that you see in the picture, but it seems all the new renovations going on these days don’t utilize this space. Most likely this attic area is just insulated up and no access points are left. Is that the work of developers who just want to flip the house without putting money into this space or what? It seems there should be some good space up there though judging from the window sizes, and with the houses not renovated I sometimes see lights on and/or a ceiling fan moving around so there must be some options here.

I don’t have access to this space via stairs or a crawl space, but maybe some of you do. For us with no access, Is there room for anything up there? Pics?? Thanks!”

43 Comment

  • Generally there isn’t enough room to stand up in the attic, and the headroom decreases toward the back of the house (the roofs slope down to the back). Sometimes developers cut out the 2nd story ceiling, and incorporate the little windows into a master bedroom suite w/ cathedral ceiling. But then you have the issue that (a) you loose attic storage; (b) you have to insulate between the ceiling drywall and roof.

  • I have an awesome attic that not only stores stuff, but also allows me to do things that are strictly verboten in our finished living space. Oh, and I can climb into my turret! 😉
    More seriously, I think many developers are either blowing that space out to make for higher ceilings or simply closing it off completely, which is a true shame. We have full-on stairs to our attic, and it gobbles up A LOT of our crap we can’t fit in our finished space (bikes, skis, etc etc).

    • Our flippers closed it off completely. I’ve always thought about opening it up to see what’s up there – but I know that at a minimum, the ducts for our central AC run through there.

      Our block is on a slight grade, and its generally built with two houses with level roofs
      s, then a step down, two more houses, etc. What i realized (after seeing a few renovated open houses) is that the lower house on the grade of each pair has a taller attic than the other. (ie: my next door neighborhor has a few more feet in her attic than I do). So it’s not necessarily the same for every house.

      Some of the innovative uses I’ve seen were a built-up walk in closet on one end of the bedroom with a small loft above it. I kinda liked that. I’ve seen quite a few where the ceiling is bumped up in the front to allow the light from those upper windows to come in too.

      • Check to see that your ducts are insulated or that the attic is part of your conditioned space. Conditioning air, then running it through ducts that are in an unconditioned space like an attic, means your ducts are bleeding alot of energy out to the attic. Like pumping money out the window.

        Also, in summer, if you’re running cold air through metal ducts, and it’s hot and humid, you’re creating the perfect condition for lots of condensation to the point of water damage and mold (think cold glass or ice water on a hot humid porch).

  • “For us with no access, Is there room for anything up there?” No, not much — the ceilings are very low. Also, the “floor” is unfinished, which means unless you put plywood down, you run the risk of anything remotely heavy crashing through the ceiling below.
    IMO, it’s stupid for renovators to seal this area off completely, though. It makes things hard if you need access to your roof, and depending on how the renovation is done, the inside components of your HVAC system might be in there.

  • I’ve seen a lot of renovations that raise the ceiling in the master bedroom to allow light from these windows into the house. Some of the bigger houses around (I’m thinking stuff the size of what’s on the 600 blocks of Princeton Pl and Quebec Pl) have these attatic spaces that are a shade under 6 feet high in the center of the room. I’ve seen them used for offices or children’s playrooms, but they’re pretty small and the ceiling heights at the edges of room are quite low.

    Alternatively, I’ve seen the ceiling height raised an a loft space created on top of a new master BR closet. I think this happened at 630 Quebec Pl – if you can find the real estate listing pics you’ll see what I mean.

  • The attic is a small amount of space in most houses and not meant to be walked around in. At best you could store some light boxes or something. When you see lights and a fan in the attic window, you’re probably seeing where the owner blew out the attic space to make a higher ceiling for the front bedroom. I actually think that’s the best way to use the space. It adds so much more natural light to the master bedroom.

    • We had high hopes for turning our unused attic into a storage space and looked into options like the one posted here, but after purchasing and access ladder/door and cutting into the ceiling to begin the work we found that there was a large wooden beam placed crosswise that took up much of the space and allowed no real possibility for access. Much to our disappointment, we ended up having to abandon the project altogether.

    • Ours looks exactly like this. Looks like we have a few projects in our future. Thanks for the link!

    • Hey thanks jcap for plugging that post in here. That’s our house (and blog.)

      To answer the question a little more fully here, there is definitely not always ton of space up there, but it depends on your house and roofline. Ours has those little dormers in the front, and it looks from the front like there’s more room than there actually is. Because after that front facade, it slopes back down severely to the slight grade on the rest of the roof where the gap is much much narrower. But it does allow a decent amount of space up there at the front of the house between that big beam somebody mentions below, and the dormer windows. Ideally, I would have placed our access closer to the front of the house so you can come straight up into the tallest portion, but in that little bedroom where we put it, it’s in the only spot that won’t ever have any furniture in the way.

      We mulled over the idea of popping the ceiling up to those dormers and adding the windows into the bedrooms, but a) I didn’t want to lose the potential of storage space and b) it creates new issues with insulation and not having any cavity up there to keep heat away in the summer (and new windows you have to cover that are 12 feet off the floor!

      I suspect those flippers pop those ceilings up to the dormers because they’re usually completely gutting the house and then it becomes easier to do. And while “12 foot cathedral ceilings!” looks great in listings and picture, it’s terrible for wasting storage space and energy efficiency.

  • epric002

    i’m not sure if the OP is asking if there remains space up there after they gave the front bedroom cathedral ceilings, or if there is space if you leave the attic intact. our attic is thankfully intact and there is TONS of storage space up there. we have storage containers, holiday decorations, off season clothes, old light fixtures, an entire hanging clothes rack, a small dining room table, snowboards, suitcases, etc., all with plenty of room to move around it, up there. oh, and our AC unit is up there too. oodles of space.

    • epric002

      but perhaps this is unusual? others are saying that you can’t fit much/can’t walk around. our attic has hardwood (not plywood) floors that look to be quite old, and you have to duck under the rafters, but you can still move around easily/store tons of stuff.

      • I think having actual flooring is key (and ideally, actual steps to get up into the attic — for mine, I have to use a stepladder and then kind of hoist myself up and in). Without flooring, the only things I dare store up there are things like large empty boxes.
        I think the ceiling height also varies. My attic doesn’t have windows and is part of a mansard roof. I think its maximum ceiling height is about 4 feet; it sounds like yours is much more generous.

        • epric002

          i (ignorantly) assumed that most of attics in petworth rowhouses would be very similar to ours, but clearly not! we do have (very narrow) steps that lead up to the attic from an elevated door in the upstairs hallway. we have 2 windows up there and while the shape is similar to what jcap posted (great link, btw!) we are working with a lot more headroom than they are.

    • I think OP is saying that they (i.e. the flippers) did not give the front bedroom cathedral ceilings but also did not put in an attic access during the renovation. So the attic space is there but OP can’t get to it, and therefore doesn’t know how big it is or whether it’s useful for storage or not.

  • I don’t think developers are to blame for the wasted space. These houses were designed with this crawlspace. Mine was, anyway. The gaslights don’t run up there, so I know it was never meant to be inhabited. Also, as JM says, it slopes toward the back. I have enough room to stand up at the very front, but no more than two feet at the very back.
    My neighbors did a stealth pop-up, where they raised the roof just a little; instead of a big vinyl-sided box plopped on top, you have to look very hard to see that they extended the brick walls upward, and made a 4th usable level (counting the basement). That’s my dream.
    I think it was Irving Streete who took out the ceiling of his front bedroom. He said lighting it afterward was a challenge. I’ve seen it done in flips, and it makes for excellent light, compared to what we’re used to in rowhouses.

    • So when these homes were built, the look of a third story was often added in order to give the appearance of a third story for prestige purposes. They were never intended to be actual, usable spaces. As one of the previous posters mentioned, they were not fitted for utilities, are not tall enough to stand in and taper to the rear, and may not have access – all because they weren’t meant to be used.

  • It depends…. my rowhouse has a big attic with plenty of upright walkaround at about 8ft tall for about 200 sq ft. However my neighbor has a small crawl space attic…both houses look like the one pictured. As far as i can tell at some point the roof on my house was raised up because i see some brickwork and some places where the former purlins used to be. I do plan to pop out (not up, not back!) the attic and put a roof deck on the back ….not visible from the street. Should get about 500sq of space then and a whole new bedroom and deck.

  • I really liked what this renovation (931 7th St. NE) did with the attic space — they made it completely finished. (See photo #20 of 30 in the slideshow.) IMO, that’s a lot more practical than knocking it out to create cathedral ceilings, which I hear makes it hard to keep the room properly cooled/heated.
    GDoN post:

    • canadianexile

      Thanks textdoc – this is our house! To elaborate, the front third of the house (as seen in the picture) is usable storage space for suitcases, skis/snowboards, bicycles, lots of boxes, etc. and does not feel crowded. It’s about 5.5′ tall at the highest point and 4.5 at the lowest. There is an A/C vent and return in this section so it doesn’t get too hot in the summer. The attic over the center 1/3 of the house has a lower ceiling. is unfinished and contains the air handler for the A/C. There is no accessible attic space over the rear part of the house. The front room is plenty light with the tall windows.

    • I love that too! We are just one street over and have basically the exact same house as this one. I’m super jealous of their adorable little attic! From what I can tell, they didn’t popup so you probably can’t stand up in there if you’re an adult, but it’s still really adorable!

  • I am in a Park View Row house and our attic was fully renovated. A small stair care is how you access it. Wood floors, recessed lighting. Under the roof peak (the middle of the attic) you can easily stand up to full height. its awesome and so glad whoever flipped our house put the effort into it. Its probably around 175sq ft maybe? it at least half the length of the house. We have room for multiple clother racks, luggage, etc.. and a ton of room to spare if I ever got around to actually organizing the space.

  • Funny, because we just had a handyman come out and cut a small hole in our bedroom ceiling to check out what is up there. We have a row house with the dormer windows, but have currently no access to the attic. I figured it’s because the developer who originally redid the house didn’t want to bother with making it look nice. I never expected it to be a big space and knew it’s not tall enough to stand in, but man, it is HUGE. It’s probably about 4′ tall at the highest point, and tapers significantly the farther back you go, but it’s much more usable storage space than I imagined was up there.
    We have zero storage space in the rest of the house so we’re going to have pull down stairs installed. We will be able to fit all of our sundry/holiday items and then some in that amount of space. It’ll go a long way to decluttering our house and reclaiming the extra bedrooms from being storage. If you’re looking to get extra storage out of your row house, I’d say it’s definitely worth getting attic access.

  • The size of the attics in Petworth varies substantially. Some, as posters have noticed, are large enough for a full standup room while others are only a few feet above the bedroom ceilings and have a main beam for the roof running through the middle. I’d always thought cathedral ceilings were the best use for this space and was thrilled when we found a nicely renovated house where someone had done just that. Only later did we realize this makes climate control a nightmare! The light is beautiful, but most of these houses already have high ceilings and a skylight is not that expensive if you want more light. For those who do not have cathedral ceilings I’d strongly discourage remodeling.

  • You should pop it up, to give yourself more space.
    . . . .

    • Yes. I’ve seen this done. Sloping attic space converted into a fully habitable additional floor. The least intrusive, most cost-effective method of adding lots of living space to your house without creating a towering pop-up . . . although technically it is still a pop-up . . just not one that most people are likely to notice.

  • Most of these spaces have narrow, mini stairways that lead up to them. It’s a great space! Can easily be made into a third floor (pop up) or create vaulted ceilings on the second floor. I’ve seen both done and both are nice. These wardman style homes are the best. Some of the Victorians we have looked at are so damn narrow.

  • All row houses are different, but I have a Wardman with three rooms upstairs. I knocked out the ceiling in the small room, lofted it, and finished the attic above what’s now the master bedroom with lights, flooring, drywall, etc. I had a carpenter build a fixed ladder and it’s now a very awesome room. Plus I get the light in there from the attic window. I don’t have pics on the internet but — forgive my lack of humility — it’s the coolest thing I’ve seen anyone do with their attic and I’m quite proud. I’m not sure if I’ve described it well here. As for the height, I’m 6’2″ and can stand in the middle, but just barely. It’s tight up there, but it’s an enormous storage space if that’s what someone wanted to use it for.

  • I have a pseudo-walkup with a little over 6 feet at the tallest point; great for a kid’s space. Rows that look like mine are rare; I don’t think I’ve seen another block quite like ours. I’ve been “planning” to research the builder for a lifetime.

    • If you haven’t already, consider signing up for one of those House History sessions that the D.C. Humanities Council offers maybe twice a year at the MLK library — very worthwhile!

  • In my renovation I wanted to in which I separated the basement as a legal unit, I wanted to make sure I didn’t give up any of my floor space to mechanical things, so I tucked the water heater up above the little room above the entry and the opened up an area exactly the size of the window down into the second bedroom, there is a ladder from second bedroom up to that opening with access to the water heater side and a storage area on the other side of the window. It isn’t the most convenient storage, but it works. I get the added light in that bedroom and mechanical space and storage.

  • The front part of my attic is a nice finished space for storage. When my kids lived with me, one of them used it for his bedroom. The back of the attic is walled off and has all the duct work for my AC. The steps up to the attic are pretty steep and are more akin to a ladder. Sorta, but I’m grateful for what is a pretty nice space.

  • Mine was too tight for much use, but when I renovated, my A/C guy managed to put the air handler up there. Seems trivial, but it was quite a bonus, because the others I got estimates from wanted to put it in a closet (cutting into valuable storage) or on the roof (which requires renting a crane . . . $$).

  • we live in a rowhouse with an ‘attic’ space that’s connected by a full-size staircase to the rest of the house, but which was built with the ceiling around 6′ 5″ at the front sloping down to about 5′ at the back with a door out to the roof. Very strange that the original architect designed it with such low ceilings but connected it to the rest of the house via the main staircase. After many years of thinking about it and planning, we ‘popped up’ the back of the house but left the front as is, so the pop-up can’t be seen from the street. So, the front is still 6’5″, but the back is now about 10′. We added a bathroom and turned the whole space into a master suite. Huge project but a huge improvement. Here are ‘after’ pics from our architect:

  • Ours is accessible via a pull down ladder and we actually store quite a bit up there. We can stand in the center, where the roof is highest, but it’s easy to move around to get to stored boxes, etc. Our house had been flipped, but I’m glad they left the attic alone and didn’t incorporate it into the master bedroom like other flipped houses I see in our neighborhood.

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