If you’re converting your loft into a storage solution, or just want to make it easier to access the boxes already up there, you will need a loft hatch and ladder. You’ll need to enlarge the current opening and remember, if you’re planning a living space in the loft you must install a staircase and not a hatch and ladder.
The reason for this is that a permanent living space must have a permanent means of access. In other words – a flight of stairs. But, if you’re boarding out the roof space for storage, a new loft hatch and ladder is fine and easy to install.
In most properties the hatch to the loft is located above the second-floor landing and, even when using the loft simply for storage, will need enlarging if it is to be used regularly.
It is unlikely that the existing access to the roof space will be large enough for any kind of loft conversion and fitting a ladder will almost certainly require the access hole to be enlarged.
This is a task which can be completed quickly and easily.
Enlarging The Existing Loft Hatch or Cutting a New One
Fitting or enlarging a hatch or roof access hole to accommodate a new loft ladder is essential if you plan to use the attic for light storage.
But as we’ve already pointed out any project other than for storage will require permanent stairs and must comply with the building regs.
Before starting work on enlarging the access hole check that there is sufficient headroom in the roof above the existing opening for the ladder to be fitted and stored when not in use.
For this reason, it is practical to first purchase a new ladder as the manufacturer usually states the recommended size of the opening on the packaging so you will know exactly the dimensions that you need for the newly enlarged access.
In most modern houses the existing access will not be large enough for a ladder and so will need to be enlarged.
This can be done quite easily by firstly marking the area of plasterboard to be cut by piercing the ceiling from above.
Then, cut away the plasterboard before removing and replacing the existing trimmers (the lengths of timber which form the two ends of the door hatch by fitting squarely between the joists). Creating a new roof access hole, rather than simply enlarging an existing one, will take more time.
Try to ensure the position of the new loft hatch is easily accessible and that the ladder will reach the floor when fully extended.
The usual positioning of roof access above the second-floor landing is the most practical solution.
Working from a ladder punch through the ceiling using a tool such as a bradawl to find the joists before cutting a small access hole in the plasterboard.
This hole should only be big enough to allow you to see in the roof space.
Using a powerful torch ensure there are no electrical cables or other obstructions before enlarging the access hole and climbing into the roof.
Don’t attempt any further work until you have placed planks or boards across the joists to make a platform from which you can work.
Safety first. Having already made one hole in the plasterboard you don’t want to make another one by over-balancing on a joist and putting your foot through the ceiling!
Working from your secure platform cut back the joists where necessary (a couple of inches should suffice) so that the trimmers can be fitted.
Once the trimmers are in place you then need to nail the timber linings onto the trimmers before finishing off the newly enlarged loft access with a mitred architrave.
Hinging the loft hatch on the lining will be necessary in order to fit a loft ladder.
Once this is done the job is complete and ready for installing the loft ladder.
But, if the original hatch is of sufficient size to be used as is, and normally only large older houses will have sufficient access, then simply fitting hinges onto the existing hatch will be all that is required.
If not, new loft hatches can be easily made from a sheet of MDF cut to size (at least 19mm thick) but it must be protected with insulation and comply with the building regulations. Read more here on the best ways to fit the hatch.
If using a concertina style loft ladder the hatch may not be easily insulated because of the fitting of the attached ladder.
If this is the case a solution is use an insulated box which sits over the ladder when it is not in use.
How To Insulate
When laying insulation in the roof space a loft hatch needs to be treated separately because, being movable, they cannot just have blanket insulation placed on top.
A method which has often been used in the past was to nail an old sheet over the insulation but a far better, and cleaner looking solution to the problem, is to create a simple box to create a receptacle in which the insulation can be contained.
And, building the box, is a very quick and easy job.
It’s a job which needs to be done because the hatch must be insulated to ensure maximum energy saving efficiency.
To make the box simply cut four pieces of sawn timber (either 4 or 5×1 inches) and nail into position on the four upper sides of the loft hatch to create an open-ended box.
Insulation material, either blanket or loose fill can then be placed inside the box.
Enclose the box by nailing a thin sheet of plywood over the top. This creates a fully insulated and sealed unit.
It is a very quick and easy job but it is surprising how much different the work will make. The extra insulation will help increase energy efficiency and reduce heat loss. Which in turn will of course lead to lower heating bills – so it is good news all round really.
This is one of the small projects that many of us will be easily able to turn our hands too and will repay the effort taken many times over.
Of course, making sure that a loft hatch is fully insulated is no good at all unless the rest of the roof space is laid with proper insulation material under the loft flooring.
A recommended alternative to making and insulating your own is to use one of the vast ranges of pre-manufactured units that are available from a number of companies.
Supplied by specialist companies these look very stylish, are easy and practical to fit and, most importantly, are fully compliant with the building regs including the strict fire safety rules.
Fabricated Loft Hatches
Buying a pre-manufactured / fabricated unit is a great way to not only satisfy the building regulations but they are also aesthetically very pleasing.
Definitely something to consider as they provide a professional finish for a very low cost.
Specialist suppliers have a range of products costing from around £50 depending on the model.
Different versions are available depending on the specification of the loft conversion or dimension of the access hole to the roof.
They can be purchased as either a package with a loft ladder or separately. They are usually supplied with a white, textured finish, spring-loaded catches and are insulated and sealed.
Pre-manufactured units can also be supplied with their own frames which will fit neatly into the enlarged opening you have created and are easily and quickly fitted. They usually require no finishing once they are installed.
Usually opened with a pole pre-manufactured loft hatches are also available with locking catches. So, if storing valuable items in the loft, using a lock on the hatch is an excellent added security precaution.
Choosing a Loft Ladder
For access to the loft a ladder can only be used if you are only using the roof space for light storage; most people will just keep the Christmas decorations and other clutter up there.
If, however, you are looking for something more permanent, then a ladder will not be sufficient.
This is because the Building Regulations prohibit the use of a ladder if you are creating a habitable room.
If you are creating a permanent living area or room than you will need to install fixed staircase access.
But, on the assumption that you are only using the attic for storage let’s look at the different options that are available to you.
Just about all ladders are constructed in either aluminium or wood.
The alloy ladders are usually the cheapest to buy but if you’ve never used an aluminium ladder before you should be aware that they are very noisy when a person uses them.
Wooden ladders are quieter but tend to be more expensive, though many people prefer them to alloy.
There are several different types of ladders, the main ones being:
The sliding loft ladder
Usually attached to the joists in the loft and can be found in either two or three section models.
Very easy to use and probably the most popular.
The folding loft ladders.
Does what it says on the tin. Or rather the rung.
The unit folds up, usually into three sections stacked on top of each other, and is a great space saver.
By far the most popular, and practical, option with the wooden variety being in the most common usage.
The concertina ladder
The ultimate space saver though the least popular option and one which you may only wish to consider if the space is really limited.
We’re talking shoe box here.
All types must comply with British Standards of which there are two.
BS 7553 – G for occasional use
BS 7553 – H for heavy use
Which type of ladder you go for depends on personal preference, the space available and how often you are going to use it. And of course, how easy it is to install.
In most cases it would be advisable to plump for a ladder that can handle heavy use – even if you aren’t planning to use it too frequently.
Remember that it isn’t just how often you will use the ladder that you have to think about – it’s also the weight of any loads you will be carrying up to the loft.
And don’t forget that once you’ve got your ladder you are either going to have to fix a new hatch or, if the original is in good nick, fit that with hinges.
If your property isn’t very old and has a trussed rafter style roof make sure you accurately measure the space above the hatch before selecting your ladder as the amount of room to work in is very restricted with this kind of roof.
Fitting Your Loft Ladder
No matter what type of ladder is to be fitted the basics are the same. The ladders brackets need to be fitted to the inside of the roof space.
They can be screwed directly on to the loft floor which has already been boarded, or to the joists.
After being fitted it is very important to check that the ladder is able to be folded up and down properly, and remains closed up once the hatch has been shut.
Another thing to be considered when fitting a loft ladder is the size of the existing hatch. If it is too small the hatch may have to be enlarged or a new one fitted.
When purchasing the new loft ladder, it may be worthwhile adding a pre-made loft hatch to the shopping list.
As we have already pointed out metal ladders tend to be noisier than wooden ones when they are being opened up and closed. One way to avoid the clatter is to coat the folding section with candle wax.
Aluminium Loft Ladder
An aluminium ladder is a particularly popular solution for householders looking for access to their loft as they are sturdy, but light. They are also easily installed
This type of ladder can be bought including a handrail, trap-door hinges and latch pole.
Depending on the height between the landing and the hatch there are loft ladders which come in two or three sections.
These folding ladders see the different sections stacked on top of another when they are not in use.
When they are to be used, they are folded down and locked in a fully straight position.
Similar to the folding variety are sliding ladders. These also come in two or three sections and when folded up save space.
They are usually attached directly to the loft joists which helps save on cost.
There are also concertina ladders made typically out of 10 or 11 sections which take up much less room when folded up.
They are usually bought preassembled and this makes installation easier. Included in the pack are hinges for the trap door catch and pole hook.
And because of their design they usually require little inside loft clearance.
For people with only small lofts and who are eager to have as much space available as possible telescopic aluminium loft ladders are ideal for access to the roof space.
This type of ladder can be stored in the loft space. The ladder is lowered by using a strap which releases the ladder hatch.
A catch, pole hook and trap door hinges are usually included in the pack.
The ladders usually come from the manufacturers in specific sizes. However, if space is tight, it is possible to purchase one which is made to measure to suit the particular customer’s requirements.
Wooden Loft Ladder
Fitting a wooden loft ladder isn’t too tricky a job. There are several options for which style of ladder to purchase but for anything other than very occasional use a sliding or folding ladder which complies to the BS 7553 – H standard would probably be the most suitable.
Before choosing your ladder first measure the height from floor to loft floor.
Remember to add on the thickness of the joists in the loft, to ensure the ladder will fit – allow enough space in the loft for the ladder to be stored when the hatch is closed.
Some ladders can be purchased in packages which include a new loft hatch but the existing hatch can easily be used if just buying the ladder on its own (the ladder will include the required fittings), although the hatch will probably need to be enlarged.
It is important to get the correct hatch but a new one should only be cut after purchasing the ladder to ensure the correct dimensions are used.
But, in most modern houses the existing loft hatch should be large enough for a loft ladder but if not, enlarge the opening by following the advice on the loft hatch page.
You should not buy a new ladder unless it comes supplied with all necessary fittings including the locking catch for the new loft hatch door.
Good quality wooden loft ladders will be fitted with locks which will hold the ladder either in a closed or locked position and are ‘sprung’ so that it is easy to lower or raise.
Using a ladder, were possible, is a great space saver and of course takes up none of the second-floor area when the ladder is retracted and the loft hatch closed.
The biggest benefit of using a wooden ladder rather than an aluminium type, apart from the fact that timber looks so much better than metal, is that a wooden ladder is so quiet to use in comparison to the noisy, squeaky metal ladders.
With wooden loft ladders there are two common types available – concertina and sliding / extending.
A concertina style ladder takes up less space than a sliding ladder but does require an insulated cover which must be hinged to allow access to the loft when the ladder is in use.
A sliding or extending ladder takes up more space than a concertina type but is the more commonly used for two very good reasons – they are very much easier to use and are almost always fitted with handrails – something which only the very expensive concertina ladders have.
Actually, fitting the ladder to the top of the trimmers in the roof space is quite straight forward and all ladders come with full fitting instructions and is simply a matter of attaching the ladder to the trimmers above the loft hatch.
A good tip is to always drill pilot holes for the trimmer screws as they will be large and can easily split the timber or become damaged if trying to force them home without a pilot hole.
Once the ladder has been fixed to the loft hatch, the hatch itself should be insulated (unless using a pre-manufactured unit which is supplied fully thermally insulated) with a draft preventing seal fitted around the hatch.
Again, a pre-manufactured loft hatch will be supplied with its own seals and all other necessary fittings.