Ceiling Remodel: From Flat to Cathedral
Reframing exploits unused attic space and helps to open up a cramped ranch house.
Synopsis: When builder Mike Guertin was remodeling a ranch-style house in his neighborhood, one of his tasks was to open up the low ceiling of the family room. In doing so, Guertin transformed a flat-ceilinged room into one with a cathedral ceiling. Before Guertin started working, he came up with a ceiling design, then began the demolition, taking care to save (and ultimately recycle) the existing ceiling joists, which saved some money at the lumberyard. Guertin also did some extra work fixing a sagging roof with tapered shims. This article includes a sidebar on determining when it’s necessary to consult an engineer for a remodeling project.
Most of the homes in my neighborhood are ranch style, built in the late ’50s and early ’60s. They all seem to have low ceilings that often measure 88 in. high, which makes them feel cramped and dark. Such a low ceiling is especially out of scale in a 16-ft. by 18-ft. family/living room, as was the case in a ranch I was remodeling. A quick peek in the attic confirmed that the framing was conventional rafters, not trusses. This meant that I could transform the room by adding a structural ridge and reframing the ceiling. The new ceiling would add about 42 in. of height at the center and improve the character of the room. By recycling the existing ceiling joists, I’d need to buy only drywall and a bit of lumber.
Finish the design before starting work on the demolition
I had two options for the ceiling design: a monoslope vault that ran uninterrupted from the exterior wall to the interior bearing wall; or what I would call a gable vault, which created a false ridge in the middle of the room. This second option seemed in keeping with a ranch house, more so than the monoslope of ’80s contemporary-style homes. To gain the greatest height in the new ceiling, I decided to insulate and drywall right to the underside of the existing 2×6 roof rafters.
Before tearing out the plaster ceiling, I moved the rock-wool ceiling insulation to another part of the attic to minimize demolition mess. I also rerouted electrical wiring that crossed the ceiling joists. In the attic, I slipped in a pair of 2x12s long enough to span from the gable end to the bearing wall in the hall that would support the roof once the ceiling joists and strapping were removed. The old ceiling joists act like rafter ties for the roof, resisting the outward thrust of the rafters and preventing the exterior walls from bowing outward. A new structural ridge beam beneath the ridge would accomplish the same goal.
Careful demolition saves both the floor and lumberyard expenses
I covered the hardwood floor with moving blankets, then a layer of 6-mil plastic for protection and for easier cleanup. The old 16-in.-wide gypsum board and 1 ⁄2-in.-thick plaster are easiest to remove by pulling them down along the seams. I usually start by knocking a small hole with a wrecking bar and letting the weight of the plaster assist the removal, working my way across the ceiling. Don’t forget to wear a good respirator and eye protection when doing this kind of work.
The strapping usually can be pried off the ceiling joists without much of an effort. Rather than beating everything to a pulp with a wrecking bar after I’d cleared the rafters, I used a reciprocating saw fitted with a bimetal blade to cut the toenails pinning the joists to the plates; this process prevented the joist ends from splitting. Once the nails had been removed, the strapping and the joists would provide much of the lumber needed to frame the new ceiling.
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