Lisman Studio
Designers transformed a flat ceiling by adding false beams and glazed, burnished pressed paper to create the illusion of a copper ceiling.

While we devoted the past three columns to flooring, this week it is time to look up and discuss the project hanging over your head: ceilings.

The ceiling is often a seriously overlooked aspect of your house's appearance. While walls, flooring and exterior work are important when it comes to remodeling, if all of these features are fresh and new and the old ceiling remains, the house may still look dated. On the other hand, a new, up-to-date ceiling and lighting can be the final piece of the puzzle that adds the finishing touch to your remodel.

Varied ceiling height: The typical home has approximately 8-foot ceilings throughout. One way to make 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 small sitting areas, which benefit from a cozier feeling. If you don't want to lower a specific area, try adding a false beam — say, 6 inches wide by 8 inches deep — between two spaces (such as your dining area and family room) and see if it does not make the existing ceiling feel higher.

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. Homes built after about 1960, however, generally have roofs that were more commonly constructed with prefabricated trusses. To vault an area in this situation requires removing the trusses — and hence, the roof — and rebuilding it 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 the texture or color, or adding a pattern of trim or beams.

Interior designers often paint the ceiling one shade darker than the walls to add drama (which will also make the ceiling feel lower). If you are trying for the reverse result, 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 height and defines a space, such as a dining area, master bathtub or kitchen counter. A well-designed pattern of general ambient lighting, such as recessed lights, can give 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.

Beams: Ceilings become increasingly important when you are defining spaces in open areas of your home. 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 that the wall was carrying. A beam can in turn can 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, hidden away above the existing ceiling. This is more expensive but sometimes necessary so your ceiling makes sense with your floor plan. In other situations, exposing the beam is a great way to define space, and you can capitalize on the effect by adding other decorative, nonstructural beams.

Whether you do a major project such as vaulting the ceiling or just repainting and adding a new light fixture, updating your ceiling can significantly impact your space. As you walk around your house today, glance up now and again and consider if your ceiling can play a more dramatic role in your home.


Architects Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the founding principals of Renovation Design Group, www.renovationdesigngroup.com, a local design firm specializing in home remodels.