Attics, Lofts, Basements and Cellars: British vs. American Homes

At the top there are attics and lofts, at the bottom there are cellars and basements. But what’s the difference? And how does use of space in homes differ between the UK and our US cousins? From apex to underpinning, we take a look at the contrast between the household spaces found at each end of the stairs and either side of the atlantic…

Attics vs. Lofts: Attics tend to be odd shaped spaces in the top of a building that has a pitched roof, their awkward shape means they are generally only suitable for storing things. Lofts on the other hand are traditionally bigger and more open. They’re still in the uppermost part of the building (directly below the roof) – but the term has a more commercial historical setting: think Hay Loft and Sail Loft.

Basements vs. Cellars: The general rule is Basements usually have windows or some form of natural light (maybe glass tiles in a pavement above), Cellars don’t. That means that cellars have a more constant temperature and were hence more traditionally used solely for storage: think Coal or Wine. Basements on the other hand have much wider uses, including workshops, recreation and utility rooms.

We see the U.S. take on these rooms in the movies all the time. More often than not as the backdrops to dramatic suspense filled scenes where you just know something is about to make you jump. From thrillers such as the Bourne Legacy and Patriot Games through to family favourites such as Home Alone and Monsters U (and to demonstrate the point we just have to mention an ABC Selfstore favourite – the Oozma Kappa Brotherhood Initiation Scene)…

Attics, lofts, cellars and basements provide the perfect cinematic location to put you on the edge of your seat and do that thing to the hair on the back of your neck. Portrayed as less used rooms with plenty of shadows, they have more convenient-prop-to-hand potential than you can shake a stowed away snow shovel at.

But there are big differences between the average UK dwelling and the homes we see portrayed in American movies. At the heart of it is one thing: space. The UK is a pretty crowded place. Just over 63 million of us have shoehorned ourselves in to 94,020 square miles. That’s an average density of 661.9 people per square mile.

Contrast that with the United States which has 3,794,101 square miles and just over 317m people – a population density of just 88.6 per square mile. It’s a fairly logical step then that income-for-income (at least for the affluent middle classes) houses on western side of the Atlantic tend to be bigger with more Attic and Basement space.

In the crowded cities of the UK basement rooms are no longer spare places to store belongings or house a workshop. The majority have been converted to rentable apartments or office space in their own right. A flight of steel steps, a front door and below street level window bars have become the expected norm in London’s older streets. Some (such as Lacoste’s London office) have even managed to customise theirs. Just don’t feed the crocodile.

Long-gone are the Dickensian days when clockmakers, basket weavers, seamstresses and cobblers had their humble workshop in the basement whilst they lived ‘over-the-shop.’ In 2013 it is more the norm than the exception to find a flat or apartment on every floor of older London properties – which leads us neatly to the other end of the building: loft conversions and attic rooms.

Where there used to be a pitched roof – enclosing an angular and awkward to use space (usually criss-crossed with various roof trusses) – we now find extended flat roofs and additional double glazed windows. Stroll down any period London Street and you’ll almost certainly see several sets of scaffolding and a ‘Loft Conversions by…’ sign.

Modern apartment blocks have seen the end of lofts, attics and basements altogether (except perhaps as basement car parking). And in these modern builds, the top apartment – the Penthouse – is the most prestigious of them all.

Of course, there’s one shortcoming with living on top of one another and converting all the storage space to living quarters. You’ll need to find somewhere else to store things. Which is exactly where we can help. One of our personal storage units is perfect – just think of it as the new basement, attic, loft or cellar.

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