Attic Conversions – Exempted Development?

Lisa Murphy deals with this often confusing issue and outlines some recent planning decisions on the matter.

In order to constitute Exempted Development and thereby negate the requirement to obtain Planning Permission for a development, Class 1, Part 1 of the Second Schedule of the Planning & Development Regulations, 2001, stipulates that any extension, alteration or conversion to part of a house shall not exceed 40 m². Where the house has been extended previously, the floor area of such previous extension, taken together with any new floor area, shall not exceed 40 m².

These are the stipulations under which any extension or alteration to a house must be complied with if seeking to carry out ‘Exempted Development’.

Of late however, there has been considerable focus given to the question of whether the floor area of an attic space is included in the cumulative floor area calculation for Exempted Development, arising it appears, from a specific An Bord Pleanála case, reference number 06D.RL.2477.

The content of that An Bord Pleanála case related to a decision made by Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council to issue a Declaration stating that alterations to the pertinent dwelling exceeded the Exempted Development area threshold. This decision was arrived at on the basis that the total additional floor area provided to the house, including that of the attic conversion, exceeded 40 m².

The subsequent appeal lodged with An Bord Pleanála over-ruled the decision made by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council on the basis that the attic conversion, was part of the original floor area of the house, and should not therefore be taken into account in terms of calculating cumulative floor area thresholds for Exempted Development for the subject house.

This case has drawn a great deal of interest, in that the conclusion reached appears, on the face of it, to allow the conversion of an attic without a requirement to include the floor area in the cumulative floor area limitations for any other extension / alteration to a dwelling.

The Order issued by An Bord Pleanála states the following in relation to the matter concerning the attic floor area;

‘the existing second (attic) floor of the property was part of the original floor area of the house and should not be taken into account in relation to Condition and Limitation 2(a) of the said Class 1.’

 This paragraph read on its own, would certainly appear to indicate that An Bord Pleanála consider an attic floor to be ‘part of the original floor area’ of a house, thereby excluding it from the need to be calculated within cumulative floor areas for Exempted Development. As such, the case attracted the attention of a number of people involved in the planning sector and has been the subject of CPD discussions

When the above An Bord Pleanála conclusion paragraph is put into context with the Inspector’s Report however, it appears that the conclusion was reached on the basis of a different reason.

Firstly, the decision made by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council that the development did not constitute Exempted Development, was on the basis that the development exceeded 40 m², and the floor area of the attic had been included in this calculation.

Upon an internal inspection by the An Bord Pleanála Inspector however, it became evident that the attic room was original, i.e. it was incorporated in the initial, overall construction of the house. A full height gable window was noted in all of the houses within the development (30 no.) and it was concluded that the stairway leading to the attic floor was also original.

The ‘original floor area’ referred to by An Bord Pleanála, related to the fact that an attic floor was constructed during the initial construction of the house pertinent to that particular case and that case only.

In our opinion therefore, this case is not one that is representative of having a precedence set in terms of calculating floor space for Exempted Development.

On reading the Inspector’s case, NLA consider that another question has been raised without any real clarity being given and this same question is not definitively answered in any unified manner by Local Authorities;

As we have already outlined, it was stated that the Planning Authority considered the attic conversion to be a ‘recent alteration’ to the dwelling and the subsequent over-ruling decision by An Bord Pleanála was hinged on the fact that it was not recent, but part of the original construction. The question that was not answered here was, if the attic conversion had been recent, would the floor area then have been reckonable under the limitations for Exempted Development?

Clearly, the issue remains ambiguous, which is not aided by the fact that the Local Authorities are failing to take a unified stance. Some are stating quite specifically that the floor area of an attic conversion is not reckonable, some that it is, and some simply remain tight lipped.

Our own conclusion therefore is that there is obviously a need for greater clarity in terms of this issue, given that consultants and the general public must resort to An Bord Pleanála cases for set precedents of what constitutes Exempted Development. There should not be a need to delve into their case archives for guidance. The development regulations must be more transparent and in doing so, will eliminate the seemingly constant doubt and inability to define this matter on the part of our Local Authorities.

There also needs to be a closer relationship between the Planning Regulations and Building Regulations. For instance, obtaining Planning Permission for an attic conversion with dormer windows, does not automatically deem the development compliant with Building Regulations in the event that the relevant standards have not been achieved. It also follows that Exempted Development may not achieve the relevant Building Regulation standards and will hinder the classification of a house for future sale. This disparity has a knock-on effect throughout the sectors and undoubtedly needs to be addressed to put an end to the misinterpretation and misconceptions surrounding the area of attic conversions in this country.

So, whilst we have not offered any level of comfort on this matter, the point is perhaps that in each case, it would be wise to seek some form of assurance and guidance from your Local Authority prior to undertaking what may, or may not, be Exempted Development.