Custom builder Steve Hill said that when it comes to today's cathedral ceilings, most of his customers just can't resist the "wow" factor. They love it when guests arrive at their front door and are impressed by the two-story ceilings and grandiose windows.
But Hill, whose Artery Homes builds houses throughout the Baltimore, Washington and Eastern Shore areas, said those dramatic elements can cause the homeowner problems with increased building costs, higher energy bills and wasted space. And many homeowners struggle with ways to decorate the soaring areas and help bring them down to scale.
Builders keep crafting the two-story ceilings because customers demand them. In a 1999 study by the National Association of Home Builders, two-thirds of home buyers said they were shopping for 9-foot ceilings or higher on the first floor of the home.
Patrick and Janet Miller, who live in the Millersville community of Brittingham, said they enjoy the freedom their two-story family room allows for holiday decorating.
"We're able to have a 14-foot Christmas tree," Janet Miller said. Each morning during the holiday season, she walks out of her bedroom and stands on the upstairs balcony overlook, taking a moment to admire the tree and the decorations.
The Millers solved the problem of the heat collecting at the two-story ceiling by dividing the house into two heating zones: The first floor is heated by gas forced air, the second floor by a heat pump.
"Noise can be a problem," Janet Miller said. "If you have children and you have a party, noise carries from the lower level to the bedrooms above."
Builders said building trends always focus on the bottom line. How much is a homeowner willing to pay for extra fuel to compensate for the heat trapped at the 20-plus-foot ceiling far above the living level, or to have soaring walls and ceilings installed?
"There's a difficulty factor built into the pay for painters, dry wall hangers and trim carpenters working with high ceilings and tall walls that raises the cost of building," said Hill, who relies on the expertise of architects, kitchen and bath planners and decorators to massage his ideas into the living spaces. His homes routinely sell in the $300,000-to-$800,000 range.
A two-story foyer is wasted space, Hill said. It's more cost-effective to install two living levels under the roof. High ceilings double the cubic feet that have to be heated and cooled. Consequently, Hill said, they require more fuel.
It's all about more square footage for the dollar, said Phyllis Ryan, vice president of marketing for Interior Concepts Inc., a decorating firm in Annapolis. Despite the trend, homeowners are discovering the monetary and esthetic value of opting for transforming open space into completed rooms, Ryan said.
Considered bonus space, these additional rooms are being used for children's activities or adult hobbies, teen-age hangouts or home offices.
"More than ever, a home represents security," Ryan said. "The world today is not a safe place. Creating a safe environment is important, bringing the world down to a cozy, livable environment."
Many builders are giving buyers more options, Ryan said, to use the space either way. For example, a builder may offer two versions of one floor plan: one with an open foyer or one with a 10-foot foyer and a room built above it.
Ryan said she believes there's a growing trend to create livable, not ostentatious, space. Buyers want their home to be welcoming and more of a home than a showplace, she said. They're eager to visually "unsoar" that 20-foot-plus space and bring the visual level down to a more secure level of living, said Ryan, who heads Interior Concepts model home division.
Interior designers have been using similar methods to decorate the high ceilings.
"If there is a two-story foyer - a relatively large space - we beef up the trim and create a livable level by dividing the space to some degree for a level of visual coziness," Ryan said. "Otherwise, it feels like you're living in the Colosseum."
And, forget that can of ceiling white paint, Ryan said. Today's ceilings are furnished right along with walls, using combinations of trim, paint and wallpaper. Depending on height, there can be as many as six rows of decorative molding applied to the walls and ceiling last popular in the Victorian era.
Decorative details may focus on special lighting. Recessed lighting is a good solution to illuminating high spaces along with hanging fixtures.
Another way to visually lower a high ceiling is with beams, Ryan said. Whether made of natural wood or created from dry wall or moldings, beams are back, she said.
Ten-foot ceilings on the first floor are becoming the new standard for upper-end residential construction, Ryan said. They create the illusion of more space in small rooms, and are easier to decorate than having to visually reduce a 20-foot space to more human proportions.
What determines how well historical elements such as soaring ceilings and Palladian-style windows blend with 21st century architecture is scale, said Gregory J. Segreti, professor of History of Western Architecture at Anne Arundel Community College.
He offers this advice: Bigger is not necessarily better.
"Details should work together," Segreti said, "not call attention to themselves."