Carol Murto envisioned her empty attic someday becoming a dual-purpose room — an artists’ studio and TV room. “It was such a cool space with high ceilings,” she said.

Craig Pier and his wife planned to take their love for entertaining to the next level. “We wanted a great room for family and neighborhood gatherings. Why not use the attic?” he said.

David and Tammy Durant wanted to create a bedroom for their daughter Margaret in their attic. But first they had to overcome her fear of that dark, scary place. “There were big nails poking out of the ceiling,” Margaret said.

Converting attics into usable space can be a cost-effective way to add square footage to an older home, said Ali Awad, of Awad + Koontz Architects Builders. Unlike a big-buck addition, an attic is “space that’s already built and is like finishing off a basement,” he said.

Attic remodelings can be challenging, however, because of ceiling height restrictions, the need to accommodate heating and cooling systems, and figuring out how to draw in more light, Awad admitted. “But the sloped walls and vaulted ceiling make for a real cozy, cool space you can’t get anywhere else in your house,” he said.

The Durants couldn’t agree more. Margaret has a bright, airy bedroom in what used to be unused space.

“We love this attic,” said Tammy Durant. “It’s hard to think it was empty for 100 years.”

Bedroom retreat 

The house: 1909 Craftsman foursquare in St. Paul. 

The starting point: David and Tammy Durant couldn’t pass up the Craftsman in 2006. It was only blocks away from Metropolitan State University, where Tammy worked. “Margaret was a baby and she giggled at the squeaks in the floor,” said Tammy. “That was a good sign.” 

Why they went up: While the home had three bedrooms on the second floor, they planned to use two of them for a TV room and home office. That meant Margaret would need to move upstairs and “have her own private level,” said Tammy. 

The conversion: Fusion Home Improvement in Edina tore out a wall at the top of the stairs to open up the attic and allow more light and air circulation. The resulting triangular-shaped room is big enough to hold a two-person desk (Tammy used an Ikea kitchen table), double chest of drawers and a Japanese platform bed, which is tucked under the slanted walls. 

Making it comfy: Baseboard heat and a window air conditioner, supplemented by a ceiling fan, keep the bedroom comfortable in summer and winter. The fans, with an aged bronze finish, “continue some of the design elements from the rest of the house,” said Tammy. 

Most valuable feature: The new skylight has a solar-powered shade that can be remotely raised and lowered. “There were only two attic windows, so we wanted the biggest skylight the wall could support,” said Tammy. 

Clever closet: A deep closet built inside the knee wall wraps around the room. David designed and built the bookcases. 

Cost-cutting measures: The Durants did many of the simple but time-consuming jobs themselves, such as painting and staining. They also decided not to rebuild and level the slightly slanted original wood floor. And instead of building a new staircase, they added a supporting banister to the original one. 

The best part: “It’s awesome to have friends over,” said sixth-grader Margaret. “It’s so big we can do plays in here. Her parents are particularly pleased with the room’s soundproof quality. “We don’t have to hear her loud pop music,” Tammy said.

The great room upstairs

The house: 1901 Victorian in Minneapolis’ Old Highland neighborhood. 

Starting point: After living in Coon Rapids, Craig Pier and his late wife, Romelle, wanted to move to an older home in Minneapolis. They bought the turn-of-the century house for its richly carved woodwork on the grand staircase, stained glass windows and glazed tile fireplace. “The kitchen was tiny, but the rest of the house had spacious rooms and unpainted pine woodwork,” he said. 

Why they went up: The Piers often hosted family holiday gatherings and wanted an open room in which to display a Christmas tree and give dinner parties. 

The conversion: The 1,200-square-foot space was drywalled and insulated to create a great room, plus a guest bedroom and bathroom. New wood trim was installed, stained to match the rest of the woodwork, around the attic’s original palladian windows. 

Clever storage: A wall-to-wall window seat hides the mechanical systems and knee walls provide hidden storage. 

Best part: The home improvement project turned the attic into a Victorian version of the basement rumpus room, complete with a vintage rocking horse. “It’s really a fun play area for the four grandkids,” said Pier.

The art of relaxation

The home: A 1913 two-story with a third-floor attic in St. Paul. 

The starting point: In 1985, Carol Murto stepped inside the house in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood and was greeted by heavy drapery. “We pulled the drapery apart and uncovered the original stained glass window and woodwork,” she said. “It was virtually untouched.”

She bought the home for its structural soundness and well-preserved Victorian and Arts & Crafts period interiors, including the original floral flocked wallpaper. 

Why they went up: “I always knew that one day I was going to finish the walk-up attic,” said Murto, who had the space wired for electricity after she moved in. In 2009, Murto’s significant other, fine artist Robert Nicpon, had been renting studio space. With natural light flowing into the three windows, they decided they could turn the 470-square-foot attic into a studio on one side and a TV room on the other. “Then I could move the TV out of the living room, where I meet with clients,” said Murto, who has a home-based business, Channeled Spiritual Healing.

The conversion: Nilles Builders, a St. Paul contractor, put in fiberglass insulation and covered the open rafters with wallboard. “The drywalling wasn’t easy, since the old rafters were uneven,” said Murto. They left the original brick chimney exposed. To keep costs down, Nilles added support boards to the existing staircase instead of rebuilding it. 

Making it comfy: A portable air conditioner cools in the summer and an electric infrared fireplace tucked into a corner heats in the winter. Ceiling fans help circulate air. 

DIY savings: Murto painted the pine floorboards chocolate brown, the walls a soothing sage green and the ceiling cream. “The light-colored ceiling makes it feel more open, and it’s easy on the eyes,” said Nicpon. Murto also added a wood chair rail and stained the new wood trim around the original windows. 

Best part: The couple call the third-floor attic their “sanctuary.” “It’s so peaceful and quiet and far away from the traffic noise on 7th Street,” said Murto.