Typically, we have looked to the floors and walls to define the spaces we live in, to tell us where one room leaves off and another begins. But we may have set our sights too low. In some cases, ceilings can accomplish the same things, often with more drama and elegance.
What could be called the manipulated ceiling is making a strong comeback. Pitched, arched, domed or multileveled, shapely ceilings provide refreshing alternatives to the flat and featureless ceilings that have been the norm for the past 40 or 50 years.
From state capitol buildings to county courthouses, and medieval cathedrals to magnificent mansions, non-flat ceilings have long been classic architectural elements.
More recently, residential architects and homebuilders have used architectural ceilings to relieve the boring boxiness of domestic spaces and to emphasize the vertical dimensions of otherwise ordinary rooms. If you go shopping for a new home, the chances are fairly good that you'll encounter them. And if you're planning a room addition to your current home, it's an ideal time to consider incorporating an architectural ceiling. Or you can alter the shape of a ceiling in an existing room -- a remodeling project unto itself.
While there are some ceiling-alteration projects you can pull off by yourself -- assuming you have some basic carpentry skills -- others will require the services of a competent remodeling contractor or even an architect.
For example, if you want to create a pitched or "cathedral" ceiling that follows the slope of the roof and incorporates unfinished attic space, existing ceiling rafters will have to be removed. More than just providing a structural skeleton on which to hang a ceiling surface, rafters also help to keep the walls from caving in or falling out. They also help to hold the roof up. Without them, another system of structural support will have to be devised and that work is best left to an architect.
Although cathedral ceilings are probably the most typical (and among the most costly and complex) ceiling alteration projects, there are other choices, including the following:
*Barrel vault: Stately and graceful, this is an arched, semicylindrical ceiling treatment that works best in rectangular rooms. The ceiling curves up and over from one wall to the opposite wall, usually protruding into the vacant attic space in the process. Bracing the walls and roof and providing a structural frame for a barrel vault ceiling is also fairly complex and will require the services of a building contractor and perhaps an architect. However, if you already have ceilings that are 9 feet or higher, you may not have to deal with the rafters at all. New wood framing surfaced with ordinary gypsum wallboard can be installed below the existing ceiling to produce the curved, vaulted effect.
One of the most attractive locations for a barrel vault ceiling is a long, narrow, high-ceilinged hallway, the kind of hallway that might be found in a Victorian home. Rounding out the ceiling in such a space can go a long way toward softening the tunnel-like character of a hallway.
*Coffer: This is an ornamental structure that is seemingly recessed into a ceiling and is usually round, square or rectangular. Actually, a coffer is usually created not by raising the center of the ceiling, but by lowering the perimeter by means of a soffit to make the center appear higher. (An example of a soffit is the enclosed space often found between the tops of kitchen cabinets and a kitchen ceiling.) A small, round coffer with a centered chandelier is a great way to add drama and prominence to a small foyer. Coffers that echo the shape of a dining table can add elegance to a dining room. Again, a coffered ceiling requires a fair amount of carpentry: 2-by-4 framing attached to the walls and the original ceiling to create a structure that is then surfaced with wallboard to become a soffit.
*Ready-made mini-coffers: These shallow, domelike elements, 4 to 6 feet in diameter, are made of a rigid, plasterlike substance. They can be recessed into an existing ceiling with relatively minor structural work.
*Beams: These can be rough-hewn logs, massive milled timbers, look-alikes made of polystyrene or simply three-sided channels consisting of 1-by-6 boards attached to the original ceiling. Log or timber beams can be structural (when incorporated into a room addition or during a major room remodeling) or, like fake beams, merely decorative. In any case, beams can add significant architectural interest.
Often, though, you need not do anything even remotely structural in order to have a ceiling you can look up to. With considerably less effort and expense, you can rely on strictly cosmetic measures.