Vaulted ceilings are relics of the old days with a grand allure to them that still manage to thrive in our relatively mundane modern spaces. In effect, they cause a great deal of disagreement amongst both professionals and amateurs and homeowners themselves, some vouching for their love for the grandiosity and airiness of the ceilings, while others deem it too wasteful an expense: of time, money, energy, and space.
What are Vaulted Ceilings?
Vaulted ceilings are known by quite a few names, high ceilings, and raised ceilings being a few. But, they are most commonly referred to as cathedral ceilings, and for a good reason. Dating back hundreds of years, the basilicas and the cathedrals of Medieval Europe were the first, and at that time, the only structures to feature modern-day vaulted ceilings.
By definition, vaulted ceilings are arched. But, it isn’t necessary for a vaulted ceiling to be so. Any raised ceiling with a height of no less than 8 feet is considered a vaulted ceiling.
This does not mean, of course, that vaulted ceilings have always been restricted to a particular design. In fact, throughout history the vault has evolved and taken many shapes and forms, both being influenced and influencing the style of its time and the future.
Types of Vaulted Ceilings?
Domed vaults precede the gothic era of cathedrals by several millennia, and the most dated example is found in Cyprus. The circular buildings of 6000 BCE Khirokitia, a neolithic village, used unfired mud bricks to shape domed vaults like a beehive. The beehive vault is also found in Northern Iraq and Crete.
Still, in its crude stage, the domed vault isn’t necessarily considered a proper vault as it revolves around a vertical axis of its own as opposed to a vault that is forced out into the third dimension.
Pitched Brick Vaults
Evolving from the domed and beehive vaults around 3000 BC in Mesopotamia, the pitched brick vault differed itself in the manner of installation of the bricks. Instead of being laid radially, they were placed vertically and leaned at an angle that frees the vault from relying on centering for completion.
Resembling a barrel cut in half in length, a barrel vault is simplistic in design yet imposing in its result when applied with a masterful knowledge of using space. First found in Babylon, built by Sumerian architects with clay mortar and fired bricks, the barrel vault has been featured in ancient Egypt and Assyria and throughout the ancient Roman Empire and Pre-Islamic Persia.
The groin vault marked a distinct shift in vault design and signaled the evolution of architectural ingenuity. A groin vault is created when two semicircular barrel vaults, measuring the same diameter, intersect. Easier to conjure in the mind and tougher to implement in practice, the groin vault was nevertheless used with careful consideration in the construction of the Caracalla Baths in Rome. Evolving from the baths, the groin vault was later used with an enormous diameter of 142 feet in the Pantheon of Rome.
Rib vaults were revolutionary, in both the impressive visage of their design and the sheer complexity of constructing them. At first look, the make of the ribs combined with the dome seems impossible and contradicts the requirements of each. But, this was achieved by first setting up the ribs diagonally, establishing them as centers. The vault was then carried on these ribs. The design was aided by using a semicircular arch instead of cylinders for the ribs, hence giving the look of a domed vault, but with ribs.
The fan vault uses a single curve centering for all the ribs, aided by the four-centered arch wherein the arch’s lower portion formed a part of the conoid while the upper one was expanded to a flexible radius across the vault. The result is an intricate set of ribs spreading like fans or the tail of a peacock.
Road to the Cathedral Vault
The Byzantine and Roman architecture saw a return of the domed vault but with greater complexity, with the domes establishing themselves between arches of great height, each complimenting the other while giving an illusion of a lack of co-dependence, as found most popularly in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Octagonal domed arches were also created to give the appearance of an umbrella while semicircular barrel vaults can be seen in the making of many Romanesque churches.
When the Gothic vault took precedence in the Middle Ages, the vaults evolved from being vulnerable or seen from both inside and outside to just inside. The architects protected these vaults with wooden roofs, and the traditional image of the vault changed, and the roof became more prominent.
Modern-day vaults are created using a hyperbolic paraboloid. It is a surface that has a double curve, with both convex and concave forms present on different axes, be it two axes or more. The magic of a hyperbolic paraboloid is quite simple: two straight lines form the basis of every point on the surface, with the hyperbolic format used for the horizontal sections while the parabolic one is used for the vertical sections. Used mostly in shell roofs, hyperbolic paraboloids are constructed using a set of straight members.
Vaulted Ceilings, Yes or No?
The right answer would be maybe.
Like everything else, vaulted ceilings come with their own set of pros and cons, with the cons depending on when, where, and how you want your vaulted ceilings to be constructed.
The truth is vaulted ceilings are incredibly difficult and expensive to construct if you’re deciding to remodel your flat ceiling. Yes, it is possible to convert your drab and unneeded (and spooky material for horror films) attic into a vaulted ceiling, but any contractor will balk at the task and recommend you not to go ahead with it, or charge you an equally taxing sum for the remodeling. Hence, they are best made during the construction of your house.
Spatial Advantages and Disadvantages
It is true that vaulted ceilings add more space to your house, but only up top and nothing to the floor space. They provide a credible illusion of space when beholden, the immensity of height adding to the wow factor. They also make your house airier, with the addition of a skylight to the vaulted ceiling or with the increased space creating taller windows to bring in more light.
Hot air finds an easy venting area due to the increased height of the vaulted ceiling. But they can also add to your heating expense in winter as you are essentially heating for the space of two rooms while only technically heating one room. The same goes for cooling down your space in summer. You can shave off some expense here by double-glazing the glass around the windows and skylight.
One aspect of vaulted ceilings often overlooked is their ceiling acoustic properties. The high, sloping surfaces can cause sound to bounce around the room, leading to echoes and poor sound quality. This can be a significant concern in living rooms or other areas where clear, quality sound is desirable.
Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate this. Soundproofing materials can be used to minimize noise transmission and echo in rooms with vaulted ceilings. Techniques such as adding acoustic panels or sound-absorbing insulation can improve the acoustics of the space. It’s also possible to incorporate soundproofing elements into the design of the ceiling, for example by adding a layer of sound-absorbing material behind the ceiling cladding.
While vaulted ceilings pose some challenges, with careful planning and consideration, they can create a striking feature in a home.
If this one issue is a non-issue to you, or you feel it is a necessary expense for the sake of relaxing your mind with more nonoppressive space in your house, then vaulted ceilings are for you.
Aesthetically, modern-day vaulted ceilings serve many purposes. Ceiling beams are the in-thing today, adding character to your roof space and making you feel less claustrophobic. Ceiling beams also give a more skeleton-like feel to your house, making it look less mechanical and more relatable. Add to this skeletal allure by covering the beams with wooden planks to give it a more rustic, cabin-in-the-woods feel.
Most trusses these days, including the standard scissor trusses used for vaulted ceilings, are made separately and installed into a house during construction. There are different designs of trusses for you to choose from: Polynesian, clerestory, gambrel, bobtail, oxford, scissors, etc.
Of course, with the right budget and the right architect you can experiment with vaulted ceilings, perhaps use old vault techniques and merge them with the new to have for yourself a vault worthy of flaunting.
But, if you’re running on a tight budget and already have a fully constructed house, vaults are not the best option for you. Tray ceilings and false ceilings are more feasible alternatives to add character and space to your house.
Contemporary Vaulted Ceilings Design Inspiration Follows
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