Staircases help homeowners pull down more storage space

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Homes come in a host of shapes and sizes. There are tiny abodes and large baronial estates; compact condos and roomy townhouses; spacious apartments and functional flats. Each has its own style, design and idiosyncrasies.

One thing, however, is common to virtually all living spaces -- they are "storage challenged" -- there's never enough storage space.

In the housing frenzy that followed World War II, production homes were turned out with small closets, a one-car garage and small (or no) basements. Basements became scarce except in regions where they were a necessary part of construction. Even then, basement size was abbreviated.

More than a half-century later, the average size of the American home has grown by more than 40 percent, there are more and larger closets and multi-car garages, yet the storage picture has grown worse. Americans have become a society of pack rats, amassing so much stuff that an entire industry has evolved -- on- and offsite mini-storage.

The need for adequate storage space can be dealt with in several ways. First, if you panic at the thought of getting rid of stuff, you need to get over it. If you don't, you will forever be surrounded by cluttered closets, cramped attics, bulging basements and storage bills.

Weed through old clothing, shoes, audio and video equipment, toys, furniture, house wares and decorator items. It's an opportunity to share them with family or friends or to make a charitable donation with a tax deduction.

After undertaking this purging room by room, if things are still too tight, try organizing the space. Closet and storage organization systems have become a top home-improvement addition.

If you've already cleaned and organized closets and still need help, before calling in the contractor to add on, look at a more cost-efficient alternative; look for existing space where storage can added -- such as a garage, basement or attic.

Garages and basements are popular for storage because they are usually easy to gain access to. The attic tends not to rank as high because it is generally cramped; joist rafters and insulation must be dodged.

Since this would become the home to boxes of holiday decorations, the opening to the space would need to be generous and the prospect of going up and down a ladder was daunting. Enter the pull-down staircase.

A properly installed pull-down staircase is neither dangerous nor difficult to operate. On the contrary, it is convenient, safe and easy to use.

Find out if a pull-down attic staircase is for you by answering the following questions:

Does your attic have enough head room and floor space to justify the cost and work?

Are there pipes, ducts or other building components that must be moved that will significantly increase the cost?

Will existing ceiling joist support the additional storage load? If not, can the joist be beefed up?

Can a pull-down staircase be installed so that it can be fully extended and easily and safely accessed?

Where will the pull-down staircase be located and how will it affect the appearance and value of your home?

If you can't answer these questions, enlist the services of a qualified contractor and-or engineer who can.

And, be sure to check with your local building department to determine if a construction permit is needed.

Pull-down staircases come in various shapes and sizes, are built of different materials and are rated to carry a specific load -- you and whatever you are carrying. Staircases come in varying widths and lengths. Some hinges and springs are better built than others. Don't take shortcuts. Buy the best staircase that you can.

Installing a pull-down staircase is similar to installing a pre-hung door -- except it is on a horizontal plane. So, if you feel confident about installing a door, you might be able to tackle this project.

Depending upon the joist spacing in your attic, usually only one joist must be cut out to make room for the staircase. The joist that is cut is "headed off" with framing at a right angle to the joist. This creates the rough opening into which the staircase frame is anchored. The rough opening should be slightly larger that the outermost dimensions of the jamb -- usually about a half inch all the way around. This space allows for shim shingles to be installed between the frame and the rough opening. Construction screws should be driven through the jamb, shims and into the framing. Follow the manufacturer's instructions to the letter to ensure the staircase will be safe and easy to operate. Finish the job by installing expandable foam between the jamb and the rough framing, and case the opening with wood trim.

If you will be installing the staircase in a garage or carport, the door must be fireproof to meet fire code. One means of achieving this is to install a solid-core fire door separate from and below the staircase. This will require the staircase frame to be held up slightly higher in the opening to make room for the fire door and jamb.

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