Vaulted Ceilings 101: History, Pros & Cons, and Inspirational Examples

Vaulted ceilings are known, formally and informally, by many names in modern design (such as cathedral ceilings, raised ceilings, high ceilings, to name a few). The concept behind vaulted ceilings, however, stems back hundreds of years. Let’s take a closer look at vaulted ceilings – their definition, history, pros and cons, and some inspiring design implementations.

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Definition:

Vault = an arched form extruded into the third dimension used to provide a space with a ceiling or roof. For the sake of argument, however, this article refers to vaulted ceilings as any ceiling that is higher than the standard 8’-10’ ceiling height (arched aspect not necessary).

Bedroom with vaulted ceiling and large windowsView in gallery

Brief History:

Vaulted ceilings began as an architectural choice only in cathedrals or basilicas centuries ago. Because of the vaulted ceiling’s capacity to visually and intangibly make a space bigger. They could be considered an optical illusion, of sorts…but one with profound effect throughout architectural history (architectural development and considerations of the vaulted ceiling located at Columbia University).

Domes were the first popular vaulted ceiling optionView in gallery

Domes were the first popular vaulted ceiling option – imagine a hollow sphere cut in half. Built at times before history was even history, domes have been constructed out of mud, stone, wood, brick, concrete, metal, glass, and even plastic. The barrel vault (aka wagon vault and tunnel vault) stemmed from the dome and is the simplest kind of vault – a semicircle stretched into a continuous arch. Next came the groin vault, which is where two barrel vaults cross one another and create a true ellipse intersection known as a groin.

Vaulted ceilings comes from medieval timesView in gallery

The rib vault came about in medieval times, where builders set up diagonal ribs first and then built the vaulted ceilings on these. And the fan vault is a fancy, filled-out version of the rib vault, in which the lower portion of the arch forms the smallest part of an open fan and the upper part extends outward like an open fan. (Check out Encyclopedia Britannica for more information on vaulted ceilings.)

PROS OF VAULTED CEILINGS

Larger, Airier, and Grander Look & Feel.

Vaulted ceilings also known as cathedral ceilingsView in gallery

Vaulted ceilings (also known as cathedral ceilings) are beneficial in their ability to create an airy feel in the space and make it actually look and feel bigger than it physically is.

More Natural Light.

More Natural Light with vaulted ceilingsView in gallery

Raised ceilings are often accompanied by more or taller windows…which of course leads to an influx of natural light in the space. As natural light is typically the end-all of great lighting, having more of it is a definite perk attributed to vaulted ceilings. (You may want to consider double glazing the surrounding glass to decrease energy requirements for heating/cooling.

Exposed Rafter Beams add Character.

Exposed beams add characted to the roomView in gallery

Exposed Rafter Beams add CharacterView in gallery

Ceiling beams are hot right now (and have appealed to many for a long time), and vaulted ceilings are a great way to expose and emphasize those beams. This adds character and charm to the space…without a hint of claustrophobia.

Practical Use of Attic “Dead” Space.

Practical for attic spacesView in gallery

Don’t get me wrong – attics can be useful and practical storage spaces. They can also be dead space, though, where nothing ever goes in and nothing ever comes out. For the latter, vaulted ceilings capitalize on this otherwise wasted space and make it much more beautiful for the residents. That’s an incredible bonus.

Increased Visual Interest.

Increased Visual InterestView in gallery

Let’s face it, white builder-grade 8’ ceilings just aren’t all that interesting. A vaulted ceiling is different, unique, and possibly the best feature of the entire space. (Or, if not the best feature, it’s a critical background player.) Vaulted ceilings add oomph to the room’s design and appeal.

Exit Place for Hot Air.

Master bathroom with vaulted ceiling and skylightView in gallery

When designed strategically, vaulted ceilings can provide a much-needed venting area for unwanted hot air. This is particularly beneficial in a bathroom, where drying out as quickly as possible to prevent mold growth is a must. As a bonus to this feature, extra natural light is always in season!

High Potential for Rustic Appeal.

High Potential of A rustic designView in gallery


Vaulted ceilings covered in wood planks provide a space with major rustic charm. Due to their positioning (up high), the ceiling is one of the first things an eye notices. Capitalize on this fact by covering your vaulted ceilings in natural wooden warmth for the ultimate in contemporary rustic design.{found on hfdarchitects}.

Brick Fireplace house design with high ceilingsView in gallery

(Note: The photos used in the “Cons” section of this article aren’t meant to be negative examples; they are still beautiful, inspiring images of vaulted ceilings.)

CONS OF VAULTED CEILINGS

Less Cozy.

Stuning living room with vaulted ceilingView in gallery

With their inherent ability to make a space feel airy and more expansive, vaulted ceilings aren’t, however, great at inducing a cozy, intimate feeling. In a bedroom, for example, a vaulted ceiling might not be the best choice if you’re looking for something cozier in the room’s architectural design.{found on wallmark}.

Harder Everyday Upkeep.

Harder Everyday UpkeepView in gallery

Dusting a ceiling fan or changing a lightbulb on an 8’ ceiling is no big deal – pull up a stool or chair and do the thing and you’re done. But vaulted ceilings require a bit more. Some vaulted ceilings are so high, in fact, that even changing a lightbulb requires the professionals. Consider this fact before you jump into the vaulted ceiling world with both feet.

Increased Energy Usage.

Vaulted ceilings Increased Energy UsageView in gallery

On days that are cold (or hot, in summertime), the larger spaces created by vaulted ceilings require more energy to heat (or cool down). This decrease in energy efficiency can be considered a waste and unnecessarily expensive, because no one really “uses” that extra air up there.

Difficult, Maybe Impossible, to Retrofit.

White kitchen with vaulted ceilingView in gallery

Delightful Vaulted CeilingsView in gallery

One disadvantage of wanting vaulted ceilings when your house wasn’t built with them is that it can be very challenging, invasive, or maybe even impossible, to retrofit them to your space. It’s one of the rare architectural features that generally is best to design and integrate in the early stages of building.