When designing a room, don’t forget to look up.
(David T. Price)
The ceiling represents a substantial portion of the finished area of a room and offers a lot of opportunity to add design and definition to an area.
If your home is on the small side, your ceilings may be adding to that cramped feeling. Without adding square footage to your home, you can make rooms feel larger by considering the ceiling and changing its architectural design.
If you remove the sheet rock or plaster from a ceiling exposing the attic space, you may be enamored with the increased volume that is added to the room. It may seem there are only a few ceiling joists in the way of a beautiful new vaulted ceiling, but don’t get too excited yet.
Those innocent looking horizontal and/or diagonal ceiling joists are very likely critical structural components. If you cut these out to create a vaulted look, you may compromise the structure and stability of your roof.
Before the 1950s, most houses were stick-framed, meaning that the roof rafters were individual boards. Since the 1960s, homes have been built with trusses which are prefabricated, triangulated units used to form the roof line and to provide the interior horizontal structure to which the ceiling finish material (usually sheet rock) is attached.
Both of these roof types have issues when it comes to trying to remove a ceiling: The stick framed roof provides a much more open attic space, but the 2-by-4 midcentury roof joists are braced with numerous diagonal boards that run from the rafters down to existing walls.
Before removing either the braces or the walls below, the roof load needs to be redirected and accounted for.
If you have a roof structure created by the use of trusses, you can’t just cut into the bottom chord without compromising the structural integrity of the truss. If you want to change the ceiling height in a home built with trusses, you may have to rebuild that whole section of roof.
A look into the attic will help determine the type of roof structure you have.
If you are certain you are going to do the project, tearing down the ceiling material will expose the entire roof loading system to view.
In any case, before you do anything, you will need to hire a structural engineer to make a quick field visit to your home and to produce a drawing and instructions that will allow you to move forward without compromising the roof structure. When you change the structure of your roof, you are definitely entering the realm of needing a building permit.
If you are working with a residential architect they will most likely have a consulting structural engineer that they will recommend to you.
If dealing with the structure of your roof feels too daunting, there are options other than the vaulted ceiling that will add dimension and design interest to a room.
Among the more stylish ceiling profiles are tray ceilings. A tray ceiling is a generally square or rectangular architectural feature that is inverted or recessed into the ceiling plane. This option can be fairly simply implemented with a stick-framed roof. The basic purpose is to break up an ordinary flat ceiling line and to create a variety in ceiling height. Tray ceilings add dimension, drama and architectural interest to your home. Strategic paint color, lighting and crown molding are used to beautify and accentuate tray ceilings.
If you do not want to remove the existing ceiling, try changing its appearance by adding finishes to it.
Victorian-style homes can be accentuated by adding tin panels to the ceiling. A more rustic mountain or Tuscan look can be attained by adding a natural tongue-and-groove paneling.
Bead board adds a craftsman or beach feeling to a room.
A coffered ceiling is created by adding small faux beams in a boxed pattern over the ceiling. These can be trimmed with wood and molding for a more elegant look, and the space within the coffers can be dressed up by adding paneling over the existing sheet rock finish.
Lighting design is critical when refitting a ceiling, so don’t neglect to update this aspect of your room.
Interestingly, variety in ceiling height can give the appearance of added volume in the room.
By slightly lowering small portions of a ceiling (with coffers or soffits, for instance) the rest of a typical eight-foot-high ceiling can be made to feel higher. Variety in ceiling height is a wonderful tool to enhance your interior design. It can be used to define areas of separate function (such as a dining area in a great room) and to vary the psychological impact and appeal of different parts of your room (such as creating a cozy window seat with a lower ceiling and intimate halogen lighting). The third axis of your room is a great opportunity to add design and to change the entire feeling of any room. Work with an architect and a structural engineer to help you choose the best design for your home and to make sure it stays standing in the process
Architects Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the founders of Renovation Design Group, www.renovationdesigngroup.com, a local design firm specializing in home remodels.