In new construction—and occasionally in very major remodeling jobs—homeowners are faced with the choice of standard room framing on the ground level rooms, or opening the ceiling up all the way through to the sloped roofline. This style of architecture is known as a vaulted ceiling or cathedral ceiling, and for a time it was all the rage.
Many people once considered a vaulted ceiling to be the ultimate in home luxury, but now opinions are strongly divided on this construction style, with many homeowners, builders, architects, real estate professionals, and designers expressing outright hatred for vaulted ceilings, while others continue to champion the style. There is almost no other element of home design that earns this kind of strong polarized opinion. So is a vaulted ceiling right for you?
Vaulted Ceiling Cost
A vaulted ceiling in new construction is no more complicated than standard framing, although it does require special roof trusses, which are usually built off-site. It is more expensive, though. The basic framing construction cost can increase by 5 to 20 percent in a home with a large 20 x 20-foot great room with a vaulted ceiling.
When it comes to finishing the home, there can be some modest cost savings to a vaulted ceiling, since a smaller second-story will require less finish material to complete it. Because the second story has less floor space, it requires less flooring, less trim molding, etc.
But if you want to create a vaulted ceiling where none existed, it can add a lot of cost to the cost of a major remodeling project. Such a conversion requires input from a structural engineer and architect to identify the load-bearing walls and determine if (and how) portions of the overhead ceiling can be removed to open the space up to the roofline. This is conceivably possible, but it is an expensive process, adding as much as $18,000 to $25,000 to the cost of a major remodeling project.
Creating a vaulted ceiling is far beyond the skill level of most DIYers. This is a project that requires you to bring in the pros.
Maintenance and Repair
The single biggest drawback of a vaulted ceiling becomes evident when you ask yourself how you will clean and paint the ceiling, or how you will change lightbulbs or repair light fixtures that may soar 20 or 30 feet over your head. DIYers soon find that vaulted ceilings offer lots of challenges.
There certainly are design benefits to a vaulted ceiling. They give a room far more space, though it should be noted that this is something of an illusion since this space is by no means useable. And vaulted ceilings do indeed make a room brighter, especially when the roof is fitted with skylights or roof windows. By contrast, an open-concept "great room" built with ceilings only 8 or 9 feet high can feel tight, dark, and airless. The appearance of vaulted ceilings can be greatly improved by building in wood beams that span across the open overhead space. Such beams can offer a good place to mount directed light fixtures.
Some designers argue that the time for vaulted ceilings has passed, and that the style now makes a home seem dated. Many people hate vaulted ceilings because they view them as a relic of an earlier, excessive period and a vestige of the 1980s and early 1990s. However, vaulted ceilings were also found in other periods, and homes built in these styles can look very good with vaulted ceilings.
Mid-century modern (MCM) homes often had open, vaulted ceilings; though MCM ceilings do tend to be lower and not as towering as those built during the 1980s. A vaulted ceiling in a one-story ranch rambler (which falls into the mid-century modern category) may sound unusual, but it can be a very effective style that converts a boring tract-home residence into a vintage home. Vaulted ceilings can also look wonderful in rustic, cabin-like homes.
Vaulted Ceiling Installation
In nearly all cases, vaulted ceilings are built during new construction rather than remodeled into homes with conventional flat ceilings. Vaulted ceilings have plenty of complications that require serious thought before you pull the trigger on building a home or addition with one.
- Special roof trusses are required: For new construction, a home with a vaulted ceiling requires special trusses that must be built off-site. Most construction teams can easily “swing and set” manufactured trusses, but fewer can build a good, solid on-site truss, especially of the type needed for framing vaulted ceilings. If the roof is to be framed with standard rafters rather than trusses, the construction usually requires cross-beams to support the roofline.
- It is very difficult to retroactively create a vaulted ceiling: The process requires knocking out the ground-floor ceiling, then cutting away floor joists, which almost always requires the installation of new support beams and vertical posts—a major engineering modification. Many homes use trusses to support the roof, and vaulted ceiling conversions require that the attic framing be altered to properly support the roofline.
For some people, a tray ceiling is a good alternative to a vaulted ceiling. A tray ceiling looks like a conventional, 8-foot, flat ceiling, but with a center flat portion that is raised about a foot or so above the surrounding surface. Tray ceilings give the added feeling of airiness, yet allow for maximum insulating value.
Comfort and Convenience
Vaulted ceilings are notorious energy wasters since room heat naturally rises into the empty space where it offers no benefit. Because rooms with vaulted ceilings are often fitted with skylights or roof windows, energy loss can be more pronounced. Finally, vaulted ceilings tend to be draftier, simply because of the natural convection patterns caused by warm air rising and cool air falling. Some of this can be mitigated by installing extra insulation in the ceiling or installing ceiling fans to force warm air down into living spaces, but the reality is that these spaces will often feel chilly and drafty in winter, especially for homes built in colder climates.
But vaulted ceilings do make rooms undeniably brighter and airier. Many people find this merit alone is worth the drawback of winter chilliness.
Vaulted Ceilings vs. Standard Construction
From a new home-building viewpoint, a vaulted ceiling is no more complicated than standard construction, where the house is framed with two full stories but it does raise the cost of construction by 5 to 20 percent. And remember that vaulted ceilings reduce the amount of livable floor space in the home. Depending on the size of the vaulted room, the amount of total available floor space can be reduced by as much as 20 to 50 percent, since the second story is greatly reduced in size.
Is a Vaulted Ceiling Right for You?
A vaulted ceiling may be right for you if your home style is compatible with the look, and if you are willing to accept the more difficult maintenance, increased energy cost, and winter draftiness that comes along with the bright, spacious feel. But understand what you're getting into when directing the construction team to go ahead. It's worth consulting a real estate professional to determine if a vaulted ceiling will be a good selling feature for your home.