As far as controversial architectural elements go, vaulted ceilings are some of the most divisive, with some designers praising them for their grand, lofty flair and others deriding them for being outdated, not to mention wasteful of energy. But vaulted ceilings have been around for millennia, so it’s likely that they’re here to stay in some capacity.
What are vaulted ceilings?
In architectural terms, a vaulted ceiling is a self-supporting arch above walls and beneath a roof. Some of the first vaulted ceilings can be traced back to a neolithic village in Crete, built roughly seven thousand years ago. Since then, they’ve been found around the world across ages, perhaps most notably in Gothic cathedrals and in domed spaces like the Pantheon in Rome. Different styles of vaults include barrel, groin, rib, and fan.
As vaulted ceilings relate to the contemporary home, however, they have a bit of a different definition. “A vaulted ceiling extends upward from the walls to a center, creating a volume of space overhead,” says Jade Joyner, co-founder and principal designer of studio Metal + Petal in Athens, Georgia. “They extend a typical flat ceiling to take advantage of unused roof structure space.”
That’s roughly similar to the true architectural definition, but there’s one major difference: they don’t have to be arched, instead following the roofline in a more triangular form. This style of vaulted ceiling is known as a cathedral ceiling. “Cathedral ceilings normally mirror the roof structure and have sides that slope and meet at a ridge in the center,” says Maggie Cruz of Miami-based Maggie Cruz Interior Design. “Today most people use the terms “cathedral” and “vaulted” interchangeably.”
What kind of spaces are they best for?
Vaults can be styled in a number of ways to match the look of your home, whether that’s modern, rustic, or industrial. “The softness of an arched ceiling can add the perfect touch for a modern structure,” says Maggie Griffin, who runs her eponymous firm in Atlanta and Gainesville, Florida. “A vaulted ceiling is a wonderful excuse to incorporate reclaimed beams or industrial cable supports to round out your look, too.”
As for specific rooms, they can really be used anywhere your home structurally allows, from bedrooms to bathrooms—but you’ll most commonly find them in great rooms and open kitchen-living-dining rooms.
They offer a sense of grandeur and spaciousness. Opening up a ceiling often creates a sense of airiness—you are, after all, providing a lot more overhead space in a room!
They allow for bright natural light. With all that extra height comes extra space for tall windows or skylights, both of which contribute to a room’s brightness.
They occupy otherwise wasted attic space. If you have a ceiling that can be opened up, you can make practical design use of “dead” space through a vaulted ceiling.
They’re a dramatic design feature. They’re certainly something to look at in a room, and they can be customized to fit your house’s aesthetic. (Vaulted ceilings are particularly popular in both rustic-style spaces as well as midcentury-modern ones.)
They waste a lot of energy. “Homeowners should consider the fact that higher ceilings do lead to higher energy bills, as there’s more space to heat or cool,” says Ashley Moore, founder and principal designer at Moore House Interiors in Tomball, Texas.
They’re harder to maintain than normal ceilings. Need to change a lightbulb in your vaulted ceiling’s recessed lighting or dust an exposed beam? Better get an extra-tall ladder.
It’s difficult to retrofit a space to include them. “From an engineering standpoint, you’ll need to make sure your roof structure supports a vault,” says Cruz. “Special trusses that come engineered for a vaulted space are required.” If you don’t have the right roof or ceiling structure, you’ll either have to pay up to install it, or you’ll have to forgo the vaulted ceiling entirely. It’s much, much easier to install a vaulted ceiling in a new build, when you can plan for it from the get-go.
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