Installing new attic access and stairs

DSC_0003After making our decision on knocking out the ceiling in the nursery bedroom — we decided against it, which you can read about here — I moved on ahead this weekend with installing new attic access and stairs in this bedroom. When we eventually get around to remodeling the basement and turning that into a rentable apartment, we’ll lose 95% of our storage space down there, so getting access to our attic and new storage space is a must. And this is the time to do it with the room in full remodel mode already.

Because of the angle of our roof, the only possible location for the attic access was in one of the front two rooms. There’s a gradual slope on our roofline from back to front until about 10 feet from the facade, where it slants up at a sharp angle to provide the illusion of three stories from the front, which is pretty common in DC rowhouses, complete with dormer windows that look into the attic.

Partially because the other room is already finished and dust-free, I decided to put the access in this smaller bedroom. It made sense for other reasons too. With all of the plaster removed from the ceiling right now and only lathe and insulation on the ceiling, there’s no easier time to put it in.

Though the room is small, I picked a spot right inside the door where the ladder will always land in a spot where there’s no furniture, since it’s basically over the closet and the bedroom door.

Friday night after work I picked up the lumber I’d need for the new framing and the attic staircase itself. I ended up getting this Werner model after spending a week looking at reviews of Louisville, Werner and Century ladders. There’s little physical difference between everyone’s base wood ladder model, and reviews were pretty mixed on all of them. But Werner is a brand of ladders I know and they have much better info on their website (videos!) about proper installation.

Saturday morning I started cutting away the lathe from the rough opening I was going to need to make so I could stick my head up in the attic and install the support framing I’d need before I could cut the joists. Our ceiling joists are only about 16″ apart, so I needed to cut one entirely out for this ladder, which goes in a 22.5″ x 54″ rough opening. After putting bracing across the joists, I cut the joist with the circular saw on one end, and with a handsaw on the other end because of how close it was to the overhead light wiring.


With the support framing in place and the joist cut out, I started building the framing for the opening. I used one ceiling joist as one long side of the rough opening, and then built in a frame for the other two sides. I used joist hangers and doubled up the headers on each end to make the opening extra strong and then attached those doubled headers to the ends of the joist where it was cut to give the cut joist some strength


The bulk of the header framing in this photo is hidden behind the support slats to temporarily hold the ladder assembly in place while squaring it and nailing it down permanently.

The ladder and cover is all one big piece that you stick up in place and then anchor it down temporarily while you measure and square it out. I had to put in shims on most of the sides to square it up. If you don’t get it square, there’s a good chance the door won’t close properly.

After I got it squared and anchored temporarily , the slats came off. Then I put in the permanent fasteners, and that was about it! I finished about 20 minutes before a dinner party at our house. I was still in the shower when the first of our friends arrived.


It works like a charm and feels nice and sturdy.


Today I cut up some 4×8 plywood into 2×4′ planks for some temporarily flooring in the attic. But I’m not putting those down permanently until we solve our next dilemma: insulation.

We have old blown-in insulation that’s been there for a long time. It’s matted down in some places, and a good deal of it is even black! or dingy looking — especially in the places there were roof leaks for years before we bought the house. I’m definitely going to re-insulate the attic as soon as possible, but I’m unsure if I should try and remove all of the insulation that’s there before I blow in more loose insulation, or just blow in the new over the old. Or if I should think about doing batts with a vapor barrier instead, which we don’t have upstairs at all.

Anyone have any thoughts on this?

In addition to whatever mold or dirt is in the insulation, it’s also full of dust and trash from the roof replacement. Pat your hand down on the insulation gently, and a literal cloud of dust blows up in the air. There are also these peculiar little black rocks mixed in with the insulation in places, not everywhere, but I can’t tell if that was part of the insulation, or something from the previous roof (or a previous previous roof?) I’ve read about some asbestos vermiculite I think, but I can’t tell if that’s what this is. (Cue the worried parents comments in 5-4-3-2…Just so you know, I kept the bedroom door closed and an exhaust fan in the window during this whole project, and I never work near any dust at all without my MSA respirator on.)

It was a seriously productive weekend here, but like all jobs that get completed, it highlights more things I need to do, and more questions to be answered. More pics below. The ceiling drywall will go in this week, hopefully. Which means I can be wrapping the bulk of this room up by next weekend.



The skylight structure

Attic north from stairs

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