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To vault or not to vault the great room?

csteinka10 | Posted in Energy Efficiency and Durability on

My husband and I are getting ready to have our retirement house built in northwestern Virginia (zone 4A). We’re going for a “Pretty Good House” in terms of insulation, windows, etc… It seems that most floor plans with a master bedroom on the main level have a “great room” (approx 18×20) with a 2-story vaulted ceiling. Guest rooms are upstairs, which is perfect for us. We can orient the exterior wall of the great room to face south for passive solar gain in the winter. While a 2-story tall wall of windows would look spectacular, I’m very concerned about heating all that high ceiling area. It seems to me that a 10 or even 11-foot ceiling in the great room would allow for plenty of window space and hold the heat in the room during the winter evenings. So from a green design and building perspective, should a great room be vaulted or not? Thanks for your opinions!

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  1. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #1

    You wrote, "Should a great room be vaulted or not?" I'm not sure what you mean when you use the term "vault" as a verb. It seems that you are asking something like, "Is it better to have a high ceiling or a low ceiling?" Or maybe you are asking, "Is it better to have a horizontal ceiling or a sloping ceiling?"

    The usual definition of a "great room" is a room with a high ceiling -- usually, but not always, a sloping ceiling. So I guess the answer to your question is, "If you want a great room, it's probably going to have a high, sloping ceiling."

    Maybe the question you want to ask is, "Should our house have a great room or just an ordinary 1950s style living room?"

    Ultimately, this is an architectural question, not a building science question. If you want a great room, it's quite possible to build it so that it is energy-efficient. If you don't want a great room, don't build one.

    Some great rooms seem successful to me: properly scaled, airy, and pleasant. Others are architectural failures -- oversized, intimidating, and emotionally cold, so that one can never imagine curling up with a book on the sofa in the middle of the sterile space created by the designer.

    So, what do you want?

  2. Andrew_C | | #2

    Question for you: have you ever sat for any length of time in a room that has 16+ foot ceilings and been comfortable? I have found that people feel more comfortable with lower ceilings. Furthermore, rooms with very tall walls tend to be difficult to decorate well, or inexpensively. Most people, both residents and guests, will tend to migrate out of these big and expensive rooms to more comfortable confines like the extended kitchen area, the den, or the finished basement. So now that big room with expensive decorating and expensive windows sits unused.

    Cost is a personal issue, and I’ll let the building experts tell you whether or not it’s more difficult to build big box rooms with big south windows and still keep them comfortable year round with reasonable energy efficiency. I would spend a little more time thinking about how you would use such a room.

    I know you asked for “green design” and efficiency inputs, but if you spend a lot of resources building something that doesn’t get used, it’s probably not green. I’m a fan of the PGH concept, and I’m also a Sarah Susanka fan.

    Whatever you choose, I hope it’s a pleasant retreat for you in retirement.

  3. user-1072251 | | #3

    Find someone to do a computer simulation of your house; they can probably answer your questions. The Passive House program might work well, but there are others. True, the two story southern glass might bring in plenty of heat in the winter, but it could also bring in plenty of heat in the summer. Not something to go into blindly. You'll also need to make sure your house is very well insulated and air sealed.

  4. gusfhb | | #4

    Andrew is mostly correct

    A big room with a low ceiling looks cheesy, a big room with an over high ceiling is never comfortable

    I am sitting in a room with 7'8" walls and 12' peak and it looks grand as all get out yet has the ability to be intimate

    The late century audacious excess movement is passe.

    Good sight lines and careful planning beats HUGE every time

    and is usually easier to heat [obligatory green content]

  5. davidmeiland | | #5

    I think you're getting excellent answers to your question. A two-story "great room" with ceilings in the 20-foot range is a mistake, in my opinion, whereas a single-story space with high ceilings (whether vaulted or not) can be a really nice area of a house. Using an 8' or 9' wall height, a moderate to steep roof pitch, and a ridge height in the range of 12' makes a lot of sense to me.

  6. csteinka10 | | #6

    Thank you everyone! These are great answers and helped me arrive at a solution I'm very excited about. We're going for the new-old-house look of a colonial/farmhouse 2-story with 4 shuttered windows across the top front, door centered with 2 shuttered windows on each side, big 'ol country porch across the front. The garage is a side entrance with its roof line perpendicular to the house roof line. By putting the great/family room behind the garage at the back of the house we can vault the ceiling a little bit to get an open feeling, but not the open 2-story hotel lobby vastness that results from having the family/great room in the main box of the house. I hope my description makes sense. I'll try and attach a picture to illustrate. Thanks again everyone!

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