Bringing Ceiling Heights Down to Earth : Feel adrift with 15 feet of air over your head? Design treatments can mask that spacey feeling and make tall rooms seem cozier.


When Bridget Skinner decided to remodel her Newport Beach home, there was one addition she didn’t want: high ceilings.

“The architect wanted to do vaulted ceilings, and I said no. It’s a dining space, and I wanted it to feel intimate,” Skinner said.

As a consultant who analyzes business and residential properties according to the principles of feng shui, the ancient study of space as it relates to energy, Skinner is perhaps more attuned than most to the impact of ceilings on the psyche.

Yet she’s far from alone from wanting to cut rooms down to size.


Since the early 1980s, builders and architects have been raising the roof beams, turning out condos, tract homes and mansions with rooms that have soaring ceilings. As the price of land rose and the size of lots shrank, high ceilings became a popular way for builders to create the feeling of space in small rooms.

After living in those tall rooms, however, many homeowners found them to be uncomfortable and impractical. They felt dwarfed by their stratospheric surroundings.

“People say, ‘We bought this house because the living room had cathedral ceilings, but we never go in there because we don’t feel grounded,’ ” Skinner said. “When we’re outdoors, we like to be under a tree or a trellis. When we’re in a room where the ceiling is too soaring, we feel we’re in the middle of a parking lot.”

In short, people like the feeling of a roof over their heads. Some have decided on new homes or room additions with ceilings that top out at 9 to 12 feet; others who own homes with ceilings that soar 15 to 20 feet are finding creative ways to make their towering rooms feel more intimate.


“The new trend is making your home your haven, a place of nurturing, and lowering the ceilings has something to do with that,” said Nancie Lowe, senior interior designer with Homestead House in Irvine. “People don’t want to feel they’re in a massive cube. They want a comfort zone. They prefer a small sanctuary--it’s more of a cocoon or a feeling of security.”

Indeed, many home builders are designing to 9- or 10-foot-high ceilings--what used to be the norm, according to Sheldon Harte, an interior designer with Harte/Brownlee & Associates in Newport Beach.

“Some builders will add just an extra foot or two to the ceiling--it gives the room a much nicer, larger feeling,” Harte said.

At new developments such as Newport Coast, builders have created rooms with 12-foot ceilings instead of the 16- or 17-foot heights in vogue earlier. When rooms start reaching 15 feet high or more, the occupants can feel small.

“I can’t wait for people to get back to more normal ceiling heights,” said Jason Titus, a Costa Mesa interior designer.

It’s all about proportion. Titus considers vaulted and cathedral ceilings that start at the walls around 8 feet and rise up to about 13 feet to be classic and “always lovely” when in proportion to the room. Yet he deplores small rooms that are two stories high when they should be a single-story space.

“A lot of times the . . . room isn’t as wide as it is tall,” he said. “Those are difficult and unfriendly rooms. At that height, most people feel the rooms are uncomfortable. They tend to live in family rooms that have 9-foot ceilings and avoid the rooms with 16-foot ceilings.”

From an interior design standpoint, decorating a room that’s taller than it is wide is “the pits,” Titus said. The windows at the second-story level can be difficult to cover; sometimes, the only solution is to tint them.


Heating and cooling those extra-tall spaces can also be a nightmare.

“In some cases, clients just drop the ceiling and create another room or attic space,” Titus said.

Those who can’t remodel can compensate for too-high ceilings by using interior design techniques.

“You need to bring the plane down visually by creating a line between heaven and earth,” Skinner said. “The ideal line needs to be lowered to 8 to 10 feet, where we’re more comfortable.”

Homeowners can fool the eye by drawing it downward using window treatments, molding and paint.

“It can be as simple as running molding at the [traditional] ceiling height, and painting different colors above and below it so the eye stops at the molding,” Skinner said.

All-white rooms, long favored by builders and designers because they made spaces appear larger, are now being repainted in darker hues that make the rooms feel more intimate.

“If you want to bring the ceiling down, darken the color of the paint,” Lowe said.


In rooms that tower two stories high, window treatments such as drapery that start at the bottom of the upper windows can help “cut the room horizontally,” Titus said.

Another way to make a room appear “human size” is to place art so it attracts the eye downward, Skinner said.

Homeowners can place a large screen in the corner of the room or hang paintings on the wall that begin where the walls would ordinarily end. They can also suspend art such as tapestries and weavings from the ceiling so the bottom edge of the piece begins where the eye expects a ceiling--at about 10 to 12 feet.