Great strides have been made in recent years in making conventional homes look less boxy and more architectural and spacious. But two of the most effective and sought-after innovations -- cathedral ceilings and open floor plans -- can actually have a negative impact on livability.
Now, this isn't a blanket indictment. But it is a warning to weigh carefully the consequences of buying or building a home that offers one or both of these so-called improvements.
Spaciousness -- either real or perceived -- isn't rated in just visual or physical terms alone. It also carries emotional and psychological weight. And how you feel in certain kinds of space should be taken into consideration when you're trying to decide how much space you need and want and how much you can stand. So, before you raise high the roof beams or knock down the walls between rooms, remember: Lofty ceilings and wide-open floor plans can be daunting as well as dazzling.
Let's take cathedral ceilings first. During the 1980s, many builders responded to rapidly rising home prices by building smaller houses. To make these down-sized houses look and feel bigger, they were often designed with cathedral ceilings. But while a steeply pitched ceiling can emphasize the vertical volume of a room and contribute to the illusion of spaciousness, it can overwhelm a room and the furnishings and people in it.
To get an idea of the effect, try to remember how you've felt while inside a real cathedral or a large church. Humbled? Not surprising.
Reaching symbolically toward the heavens, the ceilings in cathedrals were deliberately designed to be awe-inspiring. They were also deliberately designed to convey a message: The mere mortals who sat far below were relatively insignificant and subject to a higher power.
Now, what's good for a house of worship is not necessarily good for a home. For one thing, instead of the hundreds or thousands who gather under the gables of a real cathedral, usually only two or three gather in a living room or family room. And the truth is that all that vacant space hanging overhead can make you feel intimidated, exposed and vulnerable.
And because emotional and psychological comfort are every bit as important as physical spaciousness, it may well be wiser to think in terms of chapels instead of cathedrals. A pitched ceiling does not have to follow the pitch of the roof. Scissor trusses -- a rafter system that pitches the ceiling at a gentler angle than the roof -- can yield all the extra height you'll need.
If you're building from scratch, another alternative is simply to build walls that are 9 or 10 feet high and then install a flat ceiling. The extra foot or two can make ordinary-sized rooms look and feel larger without making you feel smaller.
Another option for taming a too-tall cathedral ceiling is to use exposed rafter-height ceiling beams of rough-hewn timber or peeled logs.
Elevated space has visual weight. Beams can help visually "lift" an excessive amount of overhead space so it seems less oppressive.
Eliminating walls between rooms is another way architects, builders and remodelers have made interior spaces seem larger. Besides actually working against coziness and feelings of security, one of the major drawbacks of open floor plans is the lack of privacy.
Imagine, if you will, members of a family of four trying to occupy a so-called great room or combination family room/dining/kitchen all at the same time. Now, if they're all doing the same thing at the same time -- dining or watching television, great. But how typical is that? It's probably much more likely that one wants to prepare dinner, one wants to watch television, one wants to study for an exam and one wants to listen to CDs.
Suddenly, the great room is not so great and an all-things-to-all-people space has become dysfunctional. Chances are, three users are going to have to retreat to their own bedrooms just to get away from the noise, and the fourth will be left sitting in a room with all the spatial charm of an airplane hangar.
Master bedroom and bath "suites," areas usually occupied by only two people at a time, are just as fraught with peril. Even though doorless bathrooms and whirlpool tubs in the bedroom often look appealing in home magazines, remember: Sounds travel. If you're a particularly sound sleeper, you may be able to ignore the splishing and splashing and gurgling and gargling going on. But you'd have to be in a coma to ignore the high-pitched whine of a hand-held hair dryer or the buzz of an electric shaver.
One solution to the problems created by open floor plans is to build in flexibility by adding double hinged doors or slide-away pocket doors to the partitions between two or more contiguous spaces. That way you can have spaciousness when you want it, privacy when you need it.
Another remedy is simply to rethink the wisdom of open floor plans in the first place. Visualize how you really live day in and day out and discover how you feel about issues such as privacy, solitude and serenity. High, wide and mighty combo rooms may look dazzling from an aesthetic angle. But what kind of space makes you feel at ease? Small rooms can evoke feelings of intimacy, warmth and safety in ways large rooms rarely can. And they cater to our nesting instinct in ways large rooms almost never do.
In the end, moderation is usually your best course of action. Despite the common longing for ever-larger rooms and ever-larger houses, bigger is not necessarily better. How a home lives is far more critical to domestic bliss than how big it is.