Informative Ceilings

Don't forget to pay attention to the ceilings of your listings -- they give important clues about the home's style and history.

April 1, 2007

The Vatican's Sistine Chapel is home to what may be the most legendary ceiling in the world. Painted by Michelangelo in the early 1500s, the vaulted ceiling masterpiece continues to inspire and awe thousands of visitors every year.

The ceilings of your listings may not be quite as spectacular or command such a large audience, but that doesn't mean they should be ignored. As Michelangelo surely realized in the four years it took to complete his work at the Vatican, ceilings can shape the way a room looks and feels. They also tell a lot about when a home was built and its architectural style.

Types of Ceilings

Start taking a closer look at the ceilings in your listings, and encourage your clients to do the same. These are the main types of ceilings you're likely to find:

  • Tray ceilings have a flat raised central panel with sloped planes angling down to meet the walls. It indeed looks like an inverted tray. This type of ceiling is seen in older houses with traditional architecture and in some new construction. The raised ceiling adds height to a room.
  • Cathedral ceilings that follow the home's roofline and have a high central ridge. This ceiling gives a sense of great soaring space. Architects and builders have been using cathedral ceilings for centuries, borrowing from the style so common in places of worship. Expect to find this style of ceiling in great rooms.

  • Flat ceilings are the most universal and basic. The beams in the ceiling are concealed so there is just a flat horizontal surface. This style lends to a simple, clean look.
  • Dropped ceilings are lowered from the natural ceiling height, often times to conceal structural elements such as beams, recessed lighting fixtures, and air ducts for heating and cooling systems.
  • Coffered ceilings have a series of sunken panels creating a grid-like pattern. This is typically seen in formal settings with high ceilings.
  • Beamed ceilings have exposed support beams made of wood or metal. A beamed ceiling is seen in a variety of home styles, including converted lofts, farmhouses, and even "classic six" apartments in New York City. A beamed ceiling adds detail and height to a room. In some styles, such as a Spanish Colonial, the wood beams are emphasized with rich painted colors.

Light and Height

Regardless of their style, most ceilings have one thing in common — they provide light to the rest of the room. Ceilings are where you'll find skylights, recessed lighting fixtures, track lighting, hanging fixtures such as chandeliers, or surface-mounted light fixtures. The wiring for all of these (except the skylight!) will likely run through the ceiling.

Ceiling height also sets the tone for the room's overall feel. What makes a ceiling high or low?

The typical height is about 8 feet, although many current buildings mandate that a ceiling in a residential building be only 7 feet. Anything above 9 feet could be pointed out as above average; something that could grab the attention of potential buyers.

You'll likely notice that on a home's first floor, ceilings are often higher than in the more private rooms upstairs. Tall ceilings make the room feel airy and light, while lower ceilings can create a cozy, intimate setting. In Prairie-style architecture, you'll often find low ceilings; in fact, some rooms at Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water in western Pennsylvania are so low that tall people will actually hit their heads.

Decorative Trends

Besides the actual shape and structure of the ceiling, there are decorative elements to notice. For example, during the Tudor period in England, ceilings in fine houses often had elaborate decorative plasterwork that created detailed designs on the ceilings. In some houses today decorative plasterwork on the ceiling is still seen, providing for a more formal feel.

On the ceiling around the canopy of a chandelier or hanging fixture there might be a medallion, which is a type of decorative molding. The decoration of a ceiling might also include crown molding that goes over the upper-most section of a wall and around the edges of the ceiling.

Tin ceilings were popular in the United States in the late 19th and early 20thcenturies. They are seen still in loft spaces, bistros, and Western saloons to name a few spots. Tin ceilings add great detail and can be installed new in a renovation — they look best with a high ceiling.

The final decorative element to consider is color. People often paint the ceiling a plain old white by default — treating the ceiling as an afterthought. True, painting ceiling can be trickier than the walls, but a splash of color can complement the overall color scheme of a room.

For a unified look, home owners can paint the ceiling the same color as the walls; this works particularly well with lighter colors. When the walls are dark, try using a paler shade of the same color. Or, add some zing with a contrasting color.

Start Looking Up

Ceilings are much more than just the top of the room. Pay attention to the details above you, and you may just see style and history that separate your listings from the rest.

Leslie Banker is co-author of The Pocket Decorator (2004) and The Pocket Renovator(2007),  published by Universe.


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