Look up. What do you see? Chances are you are reading this magazine in a building of some sort — your home, your office, in the bedroom, in the bathroom. What does the ceiling look like? Is it flat, white and boring? Or is it bold and vibrant with moldings and color, maybe heavy beams and texture?
How about the remodeling projects you are designing and building for your clients? Have you considered the ceilings in that wonderful, new multi-room addition that you plan to enter into next year's Best of the Best design competition?
Sometimes called the "fifth wall," the ceiling of a building or a home or a simple room is as important if not more so than the walls supporting it.
"The first thing I consider when designing a remodeling project is the ceiling," says Greg Conforti of Conforti and Associates, an architectural firm in Colorado Springs, Colo. "Ceilings can set the tone for the whole job. If a room is too large or too small to begin with, we can adjust the height of the ceiling, which affects the entire scale."
Ceilings — and the way they are constructed and treated — can bestow upon their inhabitants feelings of security, warmth, calmness and serenity. They also can deliberately be designed to impart a sense of coldness and authority or — in the case of some judicial, administrative and bank buildings — a feeling of intimidation.
At the very least, left alone and unconsidered, ceilings can become a detriment and detraction to an otherwise well-designed structure. For our purposes, let's discuss several different types of ceiling treatments that we might use in various remodeling projects, especially in newer homes without much interior detail.
Relocating from the Atlanta area to Colorado Springs many years ago was a shock to my sense of well being as an interior trim carpenter. I went from multi-layered stacks of built-up crown moldings with dentil blocking and egg-and-dart friezes to virtually nothing. Except in remodels of turn-of-the-century homes, we're talking no crown, no ceiling trim, just acres of unadorned drywall.
Moldings for the ceiling don't have to be expensive or elaborate. Even a simple 3-inch crown painted a contrasting color to the walls can add a great deal of interest. Add a clover molding to the ceiling 8 to 10 inches out from the crown, paint the clover molding, the crown and the ceiling area between the two moldings the same trim color, and you have the illusion of something more elaborate than it really is.
Ceiling medallions made of either plaster or polyurethane are a very inexpensive way to decorate a tired old ceiling, especially in a dining room, a library or even a master bedroom. Glue it up, paint it an attractive color, hang a light or a ceiling fan from the center, and you have a whole new exciting room.
Check out the medallions, appliqués and other great materials from Outwater Plastics Industries or Architectural Products by Outwater. Another source for moldings that your local lumber store probably doesn't carry is White River Hardwoods/Woodworks Inc.
Beams are another simple way to set your ceiling apart from the mundane. "Beams can break up the scale of the room to either emphasize or de-emphasize other aspects of the existing architecture," says Conforti.
Recycled, reclaimed and antique lumbers are great for that rustic old-world look. You can really make a statement by combining the beams with custom designed corbels or braces to support the beams where they meet the wall. Beams such as these can be load bearing and incorporated into the structure of the house, or they can be installed over the drywall for a purely aesthetic application.
Salvage and antique suppliers with international distribution, such as Vintage Beams and Timbers Inc. of North Carolina and Cox's Architectural Salvage in England, can supply you with everything from solid, ancient beams of oak and elm to Old English brackets with carved ends.
If a solid beam is too heavy for the intended location or there are other complications, there are several lightweight options. We have a small local shop, Staggs Custom Woods, that builds gorgeous two-, three- and four-sided box beams of every desired species. The edges are joined with a lock miter joint that virtually eliminates all seams, resulting in a hollow beam that appears solid. They can also "texture" the beams by hand, giving the appearance of an old, rustic piece of lumber.
Another option is a polyurethane product like those from Faux Beams by Barron Designs Inc. Light-weight and fire-retardant, these beams can easily be installed over existing smaller wood beams, plumbing pipes and electrical wires or conduits.
I have heard the terms "coffered ceiling" and "tray ceiling" used interchangeably my whole career. Definition and usage depends on region. Let's define terms for this article.
According to the Hardwood Manufacturers' Association Web site, "coffer" comes from "the Old French word cofre for 'box' or 'chest.'" Simply put, one or more beams installed perpendicular to one or more other beams makes a simple grid of boxes. Trim each box with an appropriate size crown molding and you've got an outstanding ceiling treatment.
By this definition, an existing ceiling can easily be transformed into a coffered ceiling when remodeling, especially in an older home with ceilings higher than 8 feet. Traditionally, coffered ceilings in homes have been found in libraries, studies and living rooms. In recent years though, we are seeing more kitchens, master bedrooms and even master baths fitted with grids of understated beams.
Coffered ceilings don't always have to be heavy, dark-stained hardwoods. Next time you design a country kitchen, consider using a grid of 4×6-inch or 6×6-inch beams with bead board panels on the ceiling. Paint the beams and panels a soft, creamy trim color for a bright, homey feel.
"Tray" — or even "trey"— ceilings, on the other hand, typically are recessed, and you really have to plan the design correctly for this type of treatment. "It follows the roofline at the wall intersection, then angles from the wall in one to several steps," according to the Hardwood Manufacturers Association.
One or more vertical steps, sometimes combined with an angled rise, can provide a very dramatic effect. Add decorative moldings at the base of each step, and for a romantic feel, you can also install recessed or rope lighting behind a piece of crown molding.
Some remodelers restore Victorians and other older style homes where tin panels are an appropriate choice for a ceiling treatment. Kitchens and dining rooms are great areas to use a tin-type ceiling, either over the entire ceiling or set into a raised center area. You can find many styles of authentic tin panels at places like Brian Greer's Tin Ceilings and Chelsea Decorative Metal Company.
An innovative alternative comes from the Armstrong Company in the form of Tin Look decorative ceiling tiles in six patterns. The tiles install directly to the existing ceiling surface without the need for suspended grids or furring strips. Made from mineral fiberboard with a vinyl coating, the Tin Look ceiling tiles are washable, fire retardant and mildew, humidity and impact resistant.
Armstrong also makes tongue-and-groove wood-type panels in pre-finished paint and wood stains. Like the Tin Look tiles, the panels have hidden seams and are easily installed without a grid.
One last suggestion, albeit an expensive one: With the advent of fiber-optic lighting, you can now bring the night sky into your home.
Over a year ago, our company added almost 2,000 square feet to a beautiful, contemporary home. The project included a 20×30-foot great room, and the homeowner commissioned a local artist to paint a ceiling mural of the sky. We placed more than 400 fiber-optic "pin" lights in three different sizes throughout the ceiling. A wall-mounted control panel runs the whole production, including the recessed cove lighting.
The pin lights can blink and twinkle at various intensities and speeds, providing the owners with a dramatic backdrop for their elaborate dinner parties.