Kitchen After

Kitchen Before

Homes built before the advent of efficient heating systems and proper insulation often used fireplaces both as a source of heat and a place to cook.  Lower ceilings and smaller rooms were much easier to heat with fireplaces, therefore many period farmhouses were built with a seven-foot or so ceiling height.  Today, we can increase the insulation, install state of the art mechanical systems in these wonderful old homes, but we cannot raise the ceilings of most rooms without major construction.

I personally like the contrast within a home between low ceilings in some rooms and taller ceilings in others.  Usually over the course of centuries, a farmhouse will expand to include both low ceilings and taller spaces.

When the major living space within a home has very low ceilings, we are often asked to help the owners make the most of the space they have.

There are usually only 3 options:

1.      Open up to the floor/roof above (which won’t work if there is a needed bedroom above).

2.      Drop the floor level (which rarely is a good solution).

3.      Work with the low ceiling.

In many old homes, there are beautiful beams and wide board planking just above the sheetrock.  The most cost effective way to change the character of oppressively low ceilinged spaces is to expose the historic structure and increase the amount of light coming into the room.  French doors and additional windows brighten up the space while allowing for good ventilation. The addition of a fireplace can add to the ambiance of the room and focus attention on the details.

Kitchen After

kitchen After

Wiring for the lights was run in exposed painted pipe.  This worked well with the rustic beams and the 200 year old floor boards.

Few people notice the ceiling height which is less than 7′-0″

By Published On: July 14th, 2010Categories: Miscellaneous, Renovations40 CommentsTags: ,

About the Author: James Crisp

James M. Crisp has been an architect for well over 30 years. His architectural firm, Crisp Architects, designs projects throughout New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. In April of 2007, Taunton Press published 'On the Porch' by James M. Crisp and Sandra Mahoney.

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40 Comments

  1. Nalinee Nippita July 15, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    IMPRESSIVE as usual.. !

  2. Madalene Eichelberger July 16, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    This is a good post about homedesign.I really enjoyed your article and have subscribed to your website’sfeed.

  3. Jim Hysaw July 19, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    Jimmy …. keep it up … this is one of the most well maintained and functional web sites I have ever seen …. plus your work is magnificent! …. Jim Hysaw

  4. Kathy March 29, 2011 at 9:36 am

    Because of these pictures, we are putting in an offer for a 1920’s farmhouse today. We loved the property and the exterior, but we weren’t sure if we could live with the seven foot ceilings. I’m so inspired by your work.

    Kathy
    Bristol, TN

  5. James Crisp March 29, 2011 at 9:38 am

    Thank you so much! Good luck with your old home, please send photos.

  6. Karen Lehman June 17, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    I just bought a house with low ceilings and I have to admit…I was pretty dejected. These pictures give me hope though. Thank you for the inspiration!

  7. James Crisp June 17, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    Good luck with your project

  8. Elaine January 9, 2012 at 1:14 am

    Mr. Crisp,

    This is a beautiful outcome! We’ve recently bought a 1924 little old cottage/bungalow in Portland, OR, that doesn’t have a ton of character left (much original stripped away), and I’m wondering if it’s worth getting a professional in to draw us some plans. This makeover is amazing!

    1. Can you please tell us more about the furniture and finishings in the dining/kitchen?

    2. Also, any recommendations for how we find someone like you out here?

    Thanks!

  9. James Crisp January 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Dear Elaine,

    Thank you for your kind words. I must admit that I was not involved with the selection of the furniture or fixtures. I can’t imagine working witout a thoughtful plan to go by. You might try http://www.houzz.com. You can search your area for architects and designers. Keep me posted.

  10. Darlene Marchone September 12, 2012 at 11:59 am

    I am looking at a sm. cottage farm house built in 1934.The upstairs room are all on a slant including over the tub in bathroom. It has been renovated not sure why they left it that way. It has a Metal roof. Will I be able to open up the ceiling?

  11. marylou kachel March 26, 2013 at 7:26 pm

    Hi James have some questions we are buying an old home 1700’s and they have the beams exposed in the upstairs bedrooms and the downstairs dining rm and living room have plaster on the ceiling would like to expose those ceilings also is it alot of work if you google 745 main st birdsboro pa. 19508 the house listing pictures are on that sight let me know what you think thanks marylou kachel also the wall between the dining room and living room would like to open that archway

  12. James Crisp March 27, 2013 at 3:45 am

    Looks like a neat old house! It will be a lot of work, but worth it-good bones. You should have some great beams under the plaster.

  13. Paula September 24, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    This idea of the exposed beams may have changed our minds about buying a house built in 1810 with 7 1/2 ceilings. What do you do with the wiring and the plumbing? Do you have the added expensive of rewriting the house? I guess you just cross your fingers and hope for beautiful beams underneath. Beautiful work. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Wilma Cupstid October 17, 2013 at 4:30 am

    I’ve been looking for ideas to update our 1987 built home. Your designs give me hope that something can certainly be done. I appreciate that you have taken the time to share your expertise with others. In my eyes you’re brilliant. I look forward to seeing more of your ideas. We have a very narrow stairway and a living room kitchen with low ceilings – looking forward to seeing more of your work. Thank you so much for sharing.

  15. James Crisp November 4, 2013 at 5:50 am

    Good luck!

  16. Rhiannon March 20, 2014 at 10:04 am

    This is the set of pictures I always seem to be coming back to when I am looking at remodeling for our newly bought old house. My friend described it as “idiosyncratic”: 1860s original but it has been added on to at least twice and the second time involved physically moving it to a new foundation. We have 7ft 5inch ceilings in the kitchen, a small family room and dining room with exposed beams coming out of the plaster. The layout is even similar for the dining room, kitchen and staircase up to the second floor. Additionally we have wood posts running through (I think the current kitchen used to be a back porch long ago).

    Anyway, I love these pictures and will definitely show them to whomever I can wrangle in to helping me remodel. Scary thought as we really have no idea what is behind all of the walls but I absolutely love this design. The lighting in pipes is a great idea as well. And I really love the wood (beadboard?) from the staircase.

    Long story short: Kudos!

  17. Neil April 28, 2015 at 1:02 am

    Just curious – what did you do about the floorboards in the rooms above?I’d like to expose the ceilings downstairs, but just wondered how to still be able to have exposed floorboards upstairs – there are a lot of gaps for dirt to fall through

  18. James Crisp April 28, 2015 at 6:56 am

    The floor joists were deep enough to add a layer of rigid insulation and apply old wood over it to seal the kitchen from the dirt above.

  19. Steph May 20, 2015 at 8:23 am

    Beautiful work, James! What is the average cost per square foot to expose ceiling beams? Specifically, for a garden level brown stone.

  20. Annie May 26, 2016 at 7:27 pm

    This is beautiful! Just wondering why you said lowering floors is rarely a good idea – we have a 1930’s house that we want to somehow get higher ceilings and are considering lowering floors. There is a second story and I doubt the beams are as pretty as these. And I would assume raising the roof (and both stories) would eat up a lot of our budget. Thanks for the insight!

  21. Robyn November 27, 2016 at 11:27 am

    What is the best way to go about figuring out if this is an option in a house with 7 ft ceilings? We are considering a house built in the 50s, and we are not sure if this is even doable in the particular house. Hire a contractor? I just love your work, and I’d love to be able to do something similar in this house we are considering.

  22. Marcella La Monica January 4, 2017 at 2:38 am

    Hi! I have an older home in the 1950s and want to expose my beams from the attic by removing my ceiling to make my space look larger. My garage is attached to my home and the beams are exposed in there, kinda looks like a vaulted ceiling. Do you think it would be costly and too much work to remove my ceiling or is it more than just removing the ceiling to accomplish a more spacious feel? Thank you for your time :)

  23. James Crisp January 4, 2017 at 7:40 am

    If I were you, I would do what I normally do. Get the name of a good contractor and ask him or her for an estimate.

  24. Marcella La Monica January 4, 2017 at 5:24 pm

    Ok. Thank you!

  25. Tom January 5, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    I own a 1928 English Cottage outside Chicago which I am trying to sell. I finished the upstairs with insulation and drywall a few years back. The ceiling height is 6 foot 8 inch with different peaks. This makes the living area smaller. Is there a way to make it look larger without taking off the whole 2nd floor? Prospective buyers don’t want to bend over to get from one end to the other. I am trying to keep the cottage look on the exterior.

  26. James Crisp January 5, 2017 at 10:32 pm

    I’m sorry, I can’t really help you without seeing the situation. It sounds like an irreconcilable problem.

  27. Claudia Marieb April 15, 2017 at 6:45 pm

    Hi James, This is a great post giving a lot of us hope!
    I’m thinking of buying an old house with 7′ ceilings, some with the beams showing through. I measured from the ceiling of first floor to the floor boards of the second floor, trying to get a sense of if there is enough wasted ceiling space to work with do something like what you describe here. If my convoluted thinking makes sense. It’s 8 inches from the ceiling to the floor boards. Do you think this is enough to work with to be able to do this?

  28. James Crisp April 15, 2017 at 6:59 pm

    Sounds good!

  29. Adam W. July 26, 2017 at 12:34 am

    Hi I’m in the process of buying an 1930 one family two level home, the ceilings on the first floor are 7ft my height is 6’3″ I love the location and the backyard. I’m just lost about the ceiling height. What are my options other than removing/pushing 2nd floor? I would like to make the whole first floor as an open concept but I’m not sure if I can remove all the wallls. We’re houses in 1930 build strong?

    Thanks ,
    Adam

  30. James Crisp July 26, 2017 at 6:34 am

    You will need to get a structural engineer and or an architect to confirm which walls can be removed. You may have to add support beams and posts. if you don’t want to move the ceiling up or lose space above or drop the floor, the only thing left is to remove the plaster or Sheetrock like we did in the project I wrote about. Good luck!

  31. KELLY WILSON December 20, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    I’ve just stumbled upon this site. For the people stating they have old homes from the 1930’s, in my life, that is considered brand new. lol. My home was built in 1790. My ceiling height is 6’5-6-‘7. I am trying to find a way to raise the height, but unsure what to do.

  32. James Crisp December 20, 2017 at 3:21 pm

    Kelly,
    You have 3 options: 1. Expose the joist like we did. 2. Raise the ceiling/roof. 3. Drop the floor. The last two options are quite expensive.
    Jimmy Crisp

  33. Mary Shannon December 21, 2017 at 7:14 am

    I am making an offer on a home with low ceilings that will require a great deal of renovation in central New York. It looks to me that over the years the previous owners have added several layers of floors and perhaps even ceilings. I am wondering if you sometimes find that to be true. I am looking forward to your home show next summer. Perhaps if you travel to the Syracuse area, you might take a look at this for me. Thanks for the photos and encouraging words about low ceilings. I am more confident about the house after seeing your work.

  34. James Crisp December 21, 2017 at 7:19 am

    Hope to see you.

  35. JB February 16, 2018 at 10:50 pm

    Are these beams likely to be present with any low ceiling, no matter the age of the house? We’re considering a rancher built in 1970, and it has great potential but I don’t think I can get past the low ceilings (7 to 7.5 feet). It’s kind of a heartbreaker, because we really love the place otherwise. Are the joists/beams a common feature of houses from that era, or is it only likely to be found in much older homes? Thanks for this informative piece — it’s great to be able to consider a wider range of homes.

  36. James Crisp February 17, 2018 at 7:46 am

    No, you would only find the antique beams in an antique house. In a 1970s home you will probably find 2×8 or 2×10 ceiling or floor joist which look like today’s standard framing lumber. Even in old homes it is rare to find great beams which have not been compromised over time by plumbing and electrical runs.

  37. Staci Warden September 30, 2020 at 11:35 am

    I am looking at a home with too-low first floor ceilings and too-high second floor ceiling in the front half. Can I just raise the ceiling/floor without touching the outside structure? thanks, staci

  38. James Crisp September 30, 2020 at 11:47 am

    Dear Staci, It depends on how the house was built. It is not easy to just pick up a ceiling and the floor above. My guess is that you will have to demo the ceiling/floor and rebuild it. You should contact a local engineer.

  39. Steve Norwood October 12, 2020 at 12:26 pm

    For my off grid cabin in the hot Arizona desert, I am building an addition including a small budget basement with very low ceilings, with cathedral ceilings on the upper floor. The basement level may stay cool in summer without air conditioning. Although my stairs and egress will meet code, my average 6’4″ basement ceiling height does not. At this stage, I could lower the treated wood floor joists 7 1/2″ (one additional stair tread), by hand digging, but is it really worth all that work when I can leave the 2 x 6 ceiling joists uncovered? After reading your article, I think I’ll leave the ceiling joists exposed, but not sure how to finish them to look more like antique beams?
    Thanks for your article.

  40. James Crisp October 12, 2020 at 1:39 pm

    My suggestion would be to paint the ceiling joists. To make them look convincingly antique would be a lot of work. If you really want to go that far, I would ask a furniture Refinisher their opinion.

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