Vaulted Vs. Cathedral Ceilings


Ceilings are more than structural supports between walls and levels within a building: They are the sixth wall and an important aspect of any interior design. While the standard might be for builders to erect flat, level ceilings, you can choose from a multitude of styles. Vaulted and cathedral ceilings are among them.

Simply put, a cathedral ceiling has a center point that extends beyond the height of the walls, and its slope often mirrors the roofline. Conversely, vaulted ceilings may feature a single sloping side, unequally sloping sides, or a curved or arched appearance. Both vaulted and cathedral ceilings add instant drama and depth to an interior, introducing a sense of spaciousness and volume in even the smallest of rooms.

Cathedral Ceilings

Cathedral ceilings are symmetrical and are often part of the roofing system; the interior of a cathedral ceiling hides the view of the rafters to those below. In many cases, this contribution to the roof means that the cathedral ceiling is also part of the thermal envelope of the building. While it is possible to insulate between the roof rafters, many homeowners will find the job poorly done, resulting in an increase in heating and cooling costs.

Vaulted Ceilings

One wall of the room is often taller than the opposing wall, creating asymmetry and many stylistic variations to vaulted ceilings. Vaulted ceilings need not mimic the slope of the roofline, and they are not connected to the rafters.

Some of the more common vaulted ceiling styles include:

  • Barrel vaults – sometimes called tunnel or wagon vaults – are semicircular and form a consistent arch from one end of the room to the next. 
  • Two barrel vaults, intersecting at 90-degree right angles to create ribs, are known as a groin vault.
  • A more intricate ceiling, generally more gothic in nature, might have a series of ribs. The rib vault features diagonally arched ribs, typically either four sections divided by ribs or six sections intersected with three ribs.
  • Concave ribs that move outwards from a central point create a fan vault.
  • A domed vault is recessed into a standard ceiling to create a focal point.
  • A cloister vault is a variation of a dome vault and features a square or polygonal base instead of one that is spherical.

Practical Matters

Any high ceiling can prove difficult to access without extension ladders or scaffolding, making cleaning, painting, or even changing light bulbs much more challenging.

Pitched roofs can also be difficult to illuminate, particularly when they are asymmetrical. Some types of light, depending on ceiling height, will not provide sufficient ambient or task lighting, instead bathing a portion of the walls and the space in light, while other areas remain shadowed.

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