In new construction—and occasionally in major remodeling jobs—homeowners are faced with the choice of a standard ceiling height or opening the ceiling to the sloped roofline. This style of architecture is known as a vaulted ceiling or cathedral ceiling. Many people once considered a vaulted ceiling to be luxurious, providing an open, airy, and grand feel in a space. But now opinions are strongly divided, with some homeowners, builders, designers, and others finding the style dated and not energy efficient. So is a vaulted ceiling right for you?
What Is a Vaulted Ceiling?
In essence, a vaulted ceiling is any ceiling that angles up past the typical 8- to 10-foot flat ceiling height. The footprint of the room remains the same. However, the added ceiling height can give the illusion of more space.
Types of Vaulted Ceilings
There are several different types of vaulted ceilings, including:
- Domed: These ceilings slope down from a center point.
- Barrel: These ceilings form a curve across the space like half of a round barrel (or a semicircle).
- Groin: For groin vaults, two barrel vaults intersect perpendicularly, forming a curved X shape.
- Rib: These ceilings consist of rows of exposed beams that come to some kind of central point.
Vaulted Ceiling Advantages
Creates a Feeling of More Space
While vaulted ceilings don't give a room any more usable floor space, they do create a more spacious feeling. By contrast, an open-concept "great room" built with a ceiling that is only 8 to 9 feet high can feel tight and airless in spite of its large footprint.
Vaulted ceilings can indeed make a room brighter, especially when the roof is fitted with skylights or other types of windows. They also can provide more wall space for floor-to-ceiling windows. And they allow space for larger light fixtures to hang from the ceiling.
Vaulted ceilings can add lots of character to a space compared to a basic flat ceiling. Plus, wood beams that span the ceiling can further increase its visual appeal, and they provide a place from which to mount light fixtures. In terms of specific design styles, a vaulted ceiling can add midcentury modern flair, though those homes generally had lower vaulted ceilings than homes built in the 1980s. A vaulted ceiling in a one-story ranch rambler can be an effective way to convert a boring tract-home residence into a vintage home. And vaulted ceilings can also look wonderful in rustic, cabin-like homes.
Vaulted Ceiling Disadvantages
A vaulted ceiling in new construction is typically no more complicated than standard framing, though it does require special roof trusses that are usually built off site. But it is more expensive. The basic framing construction cost can increase by 5 percent to 20 percent to add a vaulted ceiling to a 20-by-20-foot great room.
When it comes to finishing a home with a vaulted ceiling, there can be modest cost savings because it means a smaller second story. So the home will require less in flooring, trim, etc., to finish the second floor. But on the flip side, the vaulted ceiling does cost you some usable living space on your second story, and that might in turn lower your home value. For instance, you might have to trade an additional bedroom in your home for the vaulted ceiling, but the bedroom often would add more value when it comes time to sell.
Furthermore, if you want to create a vaulted ceiling in an existing home, it can be a very expensive remodeling project. Such a conversion requires input from a structural engineer and an architect to identify the load-bearing walls and determine whether (and how) portions of the ceiling can be removed to open the space to the roofline. This is conceivably possible, but it can cost as much as $18,000 to $25,000.
Difficult to Install in Existing Build
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. It is very difficult to retroactively create a vaulted ceiling in an existing structure. The process requires knocking out the ground-floor ceiling and 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.
Maintenance and Repair Considerations
The single biggest drawback of a vaulted ceiling becomes evident when you ask yourself how you will clean or paint the ceiling (and clean or repair any windows in the ceiling). You'll also have to consider how you will change lightbulbs or repair light fixtures that soar 20 or 30 feet over your head. Many homeowners must bring in professionals for tasks they could typically do with a standard ceiling height.
Vaulted ceilings are notorious energy wasters because room heat naturally rises into the empty space where it offers no benefit to the occupants. Energy loss can be more pronounced with vaulted ceilings that are fitted with skylights or other windows. Moreover, rooms with 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 these spaces will often feel chilly and drafty in winter, especially for homes built in colder climates.
Is a Vaulted Ceiling Right for You?
A vaulted ceiling might be right for you if you like an open vibe versus a cozy space. But you must be willing to accept the more difficult maintenance, increased energy cost, and winter draftiness that come along with the bright, spacious feel.
It's also worth consulting a real estate professional to determine whether a vaulted ceiling will be a good selling feature for your home based on buyer demands in your area. Some designers argue that the time for vaulted ceilings has passed, calling them a relic of the 1980s and early 1990s. They say the ceilings now can make a home seem dated. However, vaulted ceilings were also found in other periods, such as the midcentury, and homes built in these styles can look good with the ceilings.
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 an added feeling of airiness and design appeal, but they don't cause the draftiness or energy inefficiency of vaulted ceilings. They also are typically cheaper to build and easier to maintain for homeowners than vaulted ceilings.