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What Is a Cathedral Ceiling?

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  • Written By: Michi Beck
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 24 June 2014
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A cathedral ceiling is a term given to a ceiling — the interior surface of the overhead, or roof, portion of a structure — that is significantly higher off the floor than most standard ceilings and typically features a slant or curve to reach its uppermost point. The name stems from the cathedral ceiling’s popularity in places of worship. It also can be an architectural feature in a place of business or in a private home, where it also may go by another name.

The most noticeable features of a cathedral ceiling are that it is taller and more open than a standard ceiling. A typical wall is 8 feet (2.4 meters) high where it meets the ceiling, and a traditional ceiling is that height from the floor. It is horizontally flat, stretching straight across the room from one wall to the other. When a structure has a cathedral ceiling, the ceiling rises up from the joint where it connects with the wall and usually reaches a point or peak near the middle of the room or follows the roof line of the structure. There is no specific height that a ceiling must reach or maintain to receive the cathedral designation, and the term is more closely related to the way the ceiling is designed than its specific height.

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Not everyone calls a cathedral ceiling by that term. It is also sometimes called a tray ceiling or a vaulted ceiling, and it can be enclosed with sheet rock or open to the attic rafters, depending on how it was designed. Many older homes with tall ceilings have exposed rafter beams, adding to the overall look of the house. Newer homes are less likely to have this particular design feature, although some of them do have beams that can be seen, either because of a lack of sheetrock or because the beams have been placed on the ceiling after the sheetrock was put up, as an aesthetic option. Whether the beams are exposed or hidden, a cathedral ceiling will be sloped and will add drama and flair to a building.

Cathedral ceilings are often seen in church building design, especially in sanctuaries, because they catch the attention of parishioners and remind them to look heavenward. Some structures also may feature a ceiling with a cathedral’s height and shape but with glass instead of typical ceiling materials. This look is popular with those who take an environmental approach to building and want to let the sun shine in to provide natural lighting.

Any structure that has cathedral ceilings must have proper insulation to protect against moisture damage and extreme temperatures. Without insulation, there is the potential for serious problems that can't be overlooked just because the ceiling is a striking feature of a building. A newer home with a cathedral ceiling should already be properly insulated, but it’s best to carefully check out an older structure with that feature, to ensure that it is safe and sound.

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