Vaulted Ceilings: Pros and Cons, Myths and Truths

Vaulted ceiling living room
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Some home design and remodel topics are positively benign. Few people ever get worked up by discussions of baseboards or window trim. Vaulted ceilings are the polar opposite of benign. This highly charged topic provokes strong opinions on both ends of the spectrum; few people have a mild or indecisive reaction to them.

Once revered as the ultimate in home luxury, the vaulted ceiling is either loved or hated by homeowners, builders, architects, and designers. Alternatively known as a cathedral ceiling, one pitfall is that it is a notorious energy-waster. On the plus side, it provides an illusion of a larger space.

Usually built on a new-construction basis, rather than remodeled into a house with conventional flat ceilings, vaulted ceilings have plenty of aspects that require serious thought before you pull the trigger on building a home or addition with one.

Do They Give You More Space or Not?

Truth: Technically this is true, but mostly it is an illusion. Vaulted ceilings do provide more overall room volume, but it is unusable room.

Vaulted ceilings create no floor space. In fact, they prevent you from ever building upward and into that space.

But if it is an illusion, it is an illusion that works. This is the same architectural device that makes large public spaces like Grand Central Station feel open and non-oppressive. Low ceilings and even conventional 8-foot ceilings that are painted a dark color feel tight, airless, and oppressive.

vaulted ceilings pro con
 Illustration: © The Spruce, 2018

Do They Give Your Home More Light?

Truth: Yes, vaulted ceilings can give your house more light. Not only do vaulted ceilings give rooms a light and airy feeling, but they can also help bring more light into a room.

Vaulted ceilings do allow for good skylight placement. Inside, they do a great job of displaying wood beams. Rather than hanging low (and at an awkward angle to be viewed), on the vaulted ceiling they are raised higher and angled better to be seen.

Are Vaulted Ceilings Energy-Wasters?

Truth: Absolutely yes, vaulted ceilings are notorious energy-wasters. Consider this scenario: you have a room whose open space is as big as two rooms, one on top of the other. Because heat rises, it will rise to fill that upper room before in-filling downwards to the lower room, your living space. Essentially, you are heating one space for the price of two spaces. 

Will They Make Your House Look Dated?

Maybe: This claim is more or less true, but it is rather subjective. What is your definition of 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.

Yet vaulted ceilings are also found in other periods. Mid-century modern (MCM) homes often had open, vaulted ceilings. While MCM ceilings do tend to be lower and not as towering as those built during the 1980s, the fact remains: this is wasted space that must be heated or cooled.

Vaulted Ceiling Basics

  • It Is Tough to Retroactively Create One: Knock out the ground-floor ceiling’s drywall. Go up in the attic and with your trusty reciprocating saw start cutting away attic floor joists. Voila: vaulted ceiling. While a great fantasy, it does not work this easily. Eventually, your walls will begin to bow outward, in addition to a host of other house-damaging bad things. Vaulted ceilings are either built into the house from the start, added into an addition, or expensively retrofitted into an existing structure.
  • Scissors Trusses Are Mostly Built Off-Site: For the most part, scissors trusses (and trusses in general nowadays) are built off-site by specialized truss companies. This gives the home builder more time to concentrate on other aspects of the house. Contractors often use off-site built trusses for peace of mind, knowing that most workers can “swing and set” trusses, but fewer can build a good, solid on-site truss.
  • Consider a Tray Ceiling as an Alternative: If you can’t stomach the thought (or cost) of a vaulted ceiling, a tray ceiling is a good alternative. 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. Tray ceilings give the added feeling of airiness, yet allow for maximum insulating value.