Eyes up: Raising the ceiling can dramatically change a room
By Melissa Rayworth
Architects tend to look skyward: The ancient Greeks built coffered ceilings in their temples. Romans introduced the barrel vault. Medieval builders constructed Gothic arches and Renaissance domes to inspire the masses.
Centuries later, the impact is the same, says architect Kevin Lichten: “The ceiling of any room has the potential to be the most dramatic and mood-altering part.”
American builders in the early and mid-20th century did embrace flat ceilings. Frank Lloyd Wright would manipulate the impact of a flat ceiling by designing it lower near a room’s entrance. “So when you came in the room and he popped it up, you felt that you’d arrived somewhere,” says Lichten, founder of the architecture and design firm Lichten Craig.
Trouble is, many other midcentury home-builders didn’t get Wright’s message. America’s suburbs are dotted with high ranches and split-level houses with flat and noticeably low 8- or 9-foot ceilings.
Some homeowners are opting to change that, removing a low, flat ceiling and extending it all the way up to the roof. It’s a big project, but it can powerfully change the look and feel of a home.
PIGGYBACK ON OTHER CONSTRUCTION
If you’re already doing heavy remodeling — perhaps removing walls to open up a kitchen and dining room — consider raising the ceiling in those rooms, suggests Chip Wade, contractor and host of HGTV’s “Elbow Room” and “Curb Appeal: The Block.” The expense and challenge of redistributing the roof’s load can be shared by both projects.
If you’re not making any other changes, then raising a ceiling is an expensive choice, similar to putting an addition on your house, says Scott McGillivray of the DIY Network series “Income Property.”
Yet it can be worth the investment.
“It changes the feel of the whole space,” McGillivray says, so there’s no harm in getting estimates and considering the project.
Last year, McGillivray was part of the team that renovated a small bungalow in North Carolina, turning it into HGTV’s “Urban Oasis” for 2015. The cramped little home with ceilings “barely 8 feet high” became an open, airy retreat because of a new cathedral ceiling.
Once the ceiling was lifted, “Bam! The place felt monstrous,” McGillivray says. “And you get a tremendous amount of light if you do some skylights, which is what we did.”
EVERY HOME IS DIFFERENT
Get estimates from engineers or architects who can think creatively about your particular home, says Wade.
“It needs to be someone who can see the engineering side first” and will consider more than one approach, Wade says.
Raising the ceiling of an older, pre-1950s home can be simpler than doing so on a newer home, says McGillivray, because older houses were often built with rafters rather than prefab trusses. Exposing rafters doesn’t change the structure of the roof, so it’s a smaller job.
Removing modern trusses and rebuilding the roof’s support is a larger project, usually involving the addition of a huge center beam running the length of the room.
Older, Victorian-style houses are likely to have a very pitched roof, adding considerable height to a room. So you can raise the ceiling to a game-changing height by exposing those vintage rafters.
OTHER CEILING OPTIONS
If raising your ceiling is too expensive, consider easy, decorative fixes like metallic ceiling tiles and coffered panels.
You can make the most of a decorative ceiling through “vertical tricks,” says Lichten. Try installing paneling vertically up to the ceiling, or adding tall, vertical windows to create the illusion of height.
Or try making the ceiling artificially lower at the entrance by adding a few inches of soffit above the doorway.
“There’s a basic human need to feel this vertical force in a room,” Lichten says. “So anything you can do to bring the eye upward, to bring it skyward helps.”3