While not all homes have an attic, most do. Also referred to as a “loft” or “garret,” the attic is a natural byproduct of putting pitched roofs on homes. Buildings with a flat roof do not have any sort of attic space, but homes are rarely built in the United States with flat roofs. Those flat roofs can have problems with leaking, as rain does not run off them easily and snow can build up until it exceeds the structural strength limitations of the roof.
That space under the rafters of a pitched roof can be used in a number of different ways. Some homes are built with dormers, allowing that space to be turned into usable living space. Other home designs don’t invest that much in the attic space, relegating it to no more than storage. This is especially true of homes without a steeply pitched roof, as the attic space in these homes is less usable.
Whereas many older homes were built with stairs leading up into the attic and with the attic floored over for use as storage, newer homes don’t often have these stairs, unless the attic is intended to be used as living space. The stairs take up valuable floor space and add to the cost of the home. So leaving them out reduces the purchase price of the home, giving the home buyer more value for their money. But unfortunately, it also reduces the usability of the attic at the same time.
This is not to say that the attic space is not usable. The 2012 residential building code requires that any attic of more than 30 square feet (a space 5’ x 6’) and with a peak height of 30” or more, have some sort of access. Additionally, any attic which houses mechanical equipment, such as HVAC air-handling systems, must have an access. This access is referred to as a “scuttle hole” and attics which are accessed by scuttle holes are referred to as a scuttle attic.
Besides requiring a scuttle hole for attic access, the building code also provides minimum opening size requirements. For a scuttle hole installed in the ceiling of the home, the rough framed opening must be a minimum of 22” x 30”; in the case of a home where the scuttle hole is in a vertical wall, such as the wall of a garage which is open to the rafter, the scuttle hole must measure the same minimum dimensions. The opening is covered by a simple board, often cut from a scrap piece of drywall.
Many homeowners install a pull-down attic ladder in this space, if the home doesn’t come with one. This can be a bit problematic, as the attic ladder typically requires a 22.5” x 54” hole. As this is larger than the standard scuttle hole size, it is often necessary to enlarge the hole. This isn’t actually as difficult as it may seem.
To start with, for the scuttle hole to have a 22” framed opening width, the ceiling joists have to be mounted with a 24” spacing, rather than 16”. This actually leaves 22.5” between the joists, a bit more than the required 22”.
As for the length, the contractor simply cuts and installs blocks of 2”x 6” dimensional lumber, or whatever size is used for the joists, between the joists, finish out the opening. It is not a problem to remove one of these and reinstall it farther down, enlarging the opening. The drywall for the ceiling can then be cut out, providing a larger opening for the attic ladder to be installed in. Remove the trim molding that’s attached to the ceiling at the same time.
Installing an attic ladder is extremely easy, once the framing has been opened up to provide sufficient room. It is helpful to temporarily install two pieces of 1”x 4” across the ends, overlapping the edges of the hole by ¾” to provide something for the attic stair to sit on, while it is being attached.
The attic ladder is then lifted up through the hole and then set in place, resting on the temporary supports. Adjust the position of the ladder unit, with the hinge end flush up against the header. Door shims can be used on the sides and the far end of the unit to center it. Then it should be screwed into place, starting at the hinge end, with lag screws.
Finish up the installation of the ladder by measuring the height from the floor to the ladder frame. Then cut off any excess length to the legs, according to the instructions supplied with the ladder.
Once the attic ladder is installed, attaching some door & window casing molding around the opening and painting it to match the ceiling will finish out the opening.
What About a Roof Scuttle?
Buildings with a flat roof may have a roof scuttle, rather than an attic scuttle. This is an access hole, for maintenance, allowing access to the roof. This is not normally done in homes, but is common for commercial buildings.
Unlike an attic scuttle or attic ladder, it is important that the roof scuttle be waterproof to prevent rain from leaking in. Security is also a concern, as people could use the roof scuttle as a means of breaking into the building. Both of these problems are solved by installing a metal roof scuttle unit, designed and manufactured specifically for this purpose. Some roof scuttles have a built-in ladder, much like an attic ladder.