By Ann Robinson and Annie Vernon

If you’ve read our columns, you might be getting the picture that we believe in defining the spaces of a home — from public and private spaces to circulating paths to gathering space. Defining spaces in usable and beautiful ways is the heart of architectural design.

Last week we talked about creating gathering spaces around the popular concept of a great room. However, even within the openness of a great room, the individual functions of the kitchen, dining area and sitting room need to be set apart and defined in the design.

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The ceiling beams in this 1920 bungalow living room make the space more interesting, and the decorative beams around the opening to the dining room set apart the two rooms while leaving the space open.

In the past we’ve mentioned a variety of ways to define space short of adding full walls, such as columns, furniture and floor finishes. Today we call your attention to the space above you. There are several ways a ceiling can help define even the open areas of your home.

Beams: Often when opening up an area, a bearing wall needs to be removed. This can be done with the addition of a beam to take on the load the wall was carrying. A beam can in turn play a key role in defining space in a home.

Whether or not this beam should be exposed depends on where it is in relation to the new area. If an exposed beam will appear random, then it can be tucked in the plane of the existing joists, above the existing ceiling. This is more expensive but sometimes necessary to define your space better. In other situations, exposing the beam is a great way to define space, and you can capitalize on the effect by the adding other decorative beams.

Varied ceiling height: The typical home has approximately 8-foot ceilings throughout. One way to make these 8-foot ceilings appear higher is by strategically lowering parts of the ceiling 6-12 inches. Lowered portions could be appropriate over circulation pathways or over sitting areas, which benefit from a cozier feeling.

Vaulted ceilings give drama and excitement to spaces. But vaulting a ceiling can be an involved and expensive process. Older homes were generally constructed with individual roof rafters, which lend themselves to removing the ceiling and capturing the space found in the attic. In newer homes, roofs are more commonly created with prefabricated trusses, which have to be removed and replaced with individual rafters in the areas you wish to vault.

Finish material: Ceilings can be dressed up to impact the feel of a room. You can contrast the ceiling finish with the wall finish by adding paneling such as bead board or tongue-in-groove wood, changing texture or color, or adding a pattern of trim or beams. One trick to make a room feel taller is to add a trim band on the walls about a foot below the ceiling and paint the portion above the trim the same color as the ceiling.

Light fixtures: A chandelier in effect lowers the perceived ceiling and defines a certain space, usually over a dining table, game table or counter. The pattern of general ambient lighting, such as recessed lights, gives order and definition to a space. Up lighting tends to make a ceiling feel taller, while track lighting will emphasize things below it on the wall.

As you walk around your house today, we hope you glance up now and again and start noticing the role your ceiling can play in defining the space in your home. As always, we welcome your home architect design questions at

Ceilings: the lowdown on what’s up