DIY


Open up the world above – How to create great ceiling access.

A step-by-step guide to creating storage and adding value to your home by installing an attic stair and attic flooring.

attic stair options

How to unlock the hidden storage space in your home, add value, and create a clutter-free living space.

Let’s face it, we all have stuff. Some of us have lots of stuff. While being a zen minimalist might be on your to-do list, most of us hold onto various possessions for a future occasion. Are you guilty of this sentimental sin too?

For most of us, our stuff clogs up a wardrobe, shed, or garage. Before we know it we are tripping on boxes of toys being stored for the next expected new born (or lego for the next generation…). Or we are wiping mould off prized photos and books that we had to chuck in the damp underfloor as the neighbours were coming for tea. Are your cupboards chocked with storage?

storage clutter image

Surprisingly, not many of us think to formally use the hidden space above our heads. In fact, with housing becoming even more expensive for Kiwis why are we not opening up this valuable real estate for regular use?

In Europe, it’s common to store items in your ‘loft’. In America they store things in the ‘Attic’ and in New Zealand we often just chuck a box in the abyss that we call a ‘roof-space’.

How about we start to do things properly by installing formal pull-down attic stairs with organised attic storage.

The attic space is often well vented and dry. This makes it ideal for suitcases, camping gear, sports gear, or memories you want to pass down the line.

Here’s a guide for how to create attic storage properly, and it won’t break the bank (especially if your house is gaining in value week after week…).

#1. Assess the attic space

Grab a ladder from your friend or neighbour and venture up into the attic. You’ll often find a small hatch somewhere in a hallway, laundry or hidden in a cupboard. Bring a good torch to have a look about in this new frontier.

 

#2. Check your ceiling insulation

It’s best to have insulation that is thick and continuous. Insulation should ultimately be over 200mm to capture heat (see http://www.energywise.govt.nz for more details on best insulation practice in NZ). It should also not be squashed by boxes or boards as this will push the air out of the fibre (which is the thing that actually insulates). I’d suggest getting more insulation installed if it’s thin and patchy. Missing or poor insulation will make you feel cold in winter. It can also cause overheating in summer as insulation works both ways — keeping heat in during winter, and out during summer.

attic insulation damage
Picture: heat loss through squashed/missing insulation.

#3. Judge the height of the attic

Can you move around in there?

Can you move around in there? Idealy if you want to use it for regular storage I’d recommend that the highest point of the attic be no lower that 1 metre.

 

#4. Go to the area that has the tallest standing (or crouching) area

This will be the best location to enter the ceiling space via an attic stair from below. It’s also the best place to stack storage boxes.

 

#5. Decide where you would like the attic stair system installed

For most folks this is usually over the central hallway as the head room is often greatest in this area.
Pull down attic stair installed in hallway

installed attic stair features

#6. Assess the area for pipes, cables, hot water cylinders, and ventilation systems

Lift up the insulation to see if there are any pipes or cables where you want the stair installed. If there are, you may need to consult an expert to re-route them, or you might want to find another spot for the stair system. Most stairs will take up 600 x 1300mm of ceiling area which is quite small. So keep looking until you find a good spot.

 

#7. Note the chosen area and climb back down from the attic

Check the ceiling where you intend to have the stair installed. Look for light fittings or smoke alarms that may prohibit installation.

 

#8. Floor space

Make sure the floor area below the intended location of the stair is free from furniture. Most of these retractable stairs will need around 2 square metres of clear floor space to drop down onto.

 

#9. Measure the ceiling height

Grab a tape measure and run it up the wall from the floor. Make sure you go right to the ceiling. Note down the ‘floor to ceiling height’ (also known as stud height). Ceiling heights can vary depending on the age of the house. Modern homes from 1970 are typically 2.4 metres. Houses built in the 1930s to 1960s could have a 2.7 ceiling height. Older villas of 1900 are often very tall (between 3 metre and 3.5 metre ceiling studs). You may need a special length of stair for these.

 

#10. Choose an attic stair

Like most things, there are always a world of options. However, the height of your ceiling is the deciding factor. For a ceiling stud height of 2.4m to 2.8m you would need a stair that extends to 2800mm. For taller ceilings in older homes you may need a stair that goes to 3250mm (these can cost a little more). For ceilings greater than 3.3m you will need a custom made stair system – view our shop for more

attic stair features

Picture: features of some attic stair choices

 

#11. Useful attic stair features to consider

Aim to purchase a stair unit with an internally insulated hatch if you can. This will save expensive heat-loss in the long run. Draught seals are also good extras to look for. Consider a unit with a handrail. These are really useful when carrying boxes into the attic. Rubber feet can also help protect wooden polished floors. It’s also worth paying a little extra for pre-painted hatches as these are professionally spray painted and will blend with the ceiling.

#12. Contact an expert

Once your confident that your home can accommodate an attic stair it’s time to choose your stair system and book a builder or handy-person to install it. It’s often worth having a ‘plan B’ location just in case they find a structural issue or hazard in the preferred area. Installation can take 3–6 hours in most cases. There will be some noise and debris whilst they are cutting and framing the access in the ceiling.

Most stairs will have a wooden border glued to the ceiling around the hatch. Sometimes this will need a coat of paint to blend with the ceiling colour after the installation is complete.

For a more detailed guide on assessing for an attic stair read our resources section.