"High Design is Looking Up"

By Robin Gallaher Branch

Special Sections Writer

Sometimes you may never want to leave home - that is, if you look up and constantly find beauty.

Architect Jim Fisher and builder Joe Higgs take quite literally the sports and business adage “The bar has been raised” – or in this case, the ceiling.

The two joined forces recently to work on a home’s ceiling in the Barton Creek subdivision. They designed and built an entranceway with a free-standing circular stairway whose focal point is a dome 10 feet in diameter and some 28 feet from the floor.

Throughout the day, the dome seemingly changes colors from roses to oranges to blues and purples as the sun arcs in its course.

Constructed on site, the 18-tread stairway to the second floor in the French country home creates what Fisher calls “a certain rhythm.” Complementary windows on the corresponding wall continue the rhythm as the elevation increases, he says. While the stairs appear to resemble a path to heaven, the dome ceiling returns the compliment, so to speak, by emphasizing the circular stairs, he notes.

Ceiling gazers also hang out in living rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms. Ceilings of the 90’s clearly make a statement, set a mood and quite possibly lift the spirits of those who live in or visit the homes.

“People are putting a lot more emphasis on different ceiling treatments these days,” says Fisher of Impact Design and Architecture Group, Inc. “They want a little more interesting space. And cost-wise, in some cases, ceiling treatments are very economical. And structure-wise, they’re pretty simple to do.”

A. Ray Payne, owner of the firm bearing his name, agrees. “Twenty years ago, an elevated ceiling of anything above 8 feet was a rarity. Now a 9-foot ceiling is considered standard in present construction,” he says.

Payne and Higgs worked together on a 1998 Parade Home at the Polo Club. Ceiling treatments in that showcase house vary from a ceiling sloping to 16 feet above the floor in the formal dining room to a spectacular 21-foot-high ceiling complete with dormer windows in the 20-foot living room.

The living room’s sheet rock walls, painted an off-white, contrast appealingly with the light-colored, tongue-in-groove pine in the ceiling and the warmer tones of the oak flooring.

“The ceiling is as important as the floor in a room,” Payne emphasizes. First of all, a ceiling must fulfill its traditional, structural function: that of weather barrier, that of keeping the outside’s dampness or heat out and the inside’s coolness or heat in.

One of Higgs’ favorite ceilings in the Parade house is the dark-stained tongue-in-groove cypress ceiling in the master bedroom. The flat-beamed ceiling with its cypress center match carries over to the home’s loggia as well.

Architects and builders note that ceilings and there treatments bear different names.
-Tray: Think of a tray ceiling as an upside down wedding cake, Fisher says.
-Coffered: This term covers many ceiling varieties. “A coffered ceiling can be deep and recessed. It’s often highly ornamented with detail and trim,” Fisher says. A true coffer, however, crosses its beams at 90 degree angles, forming interesting patterns of rectangles and squares.
-Barrel: A barrel ceiling rounds up from the wall, usually in a sheet rock encasing, Higgs says. “A barrel differs from an arch in that it is a little more difficult to frame,” he adds.
-Arch: Typically over a doorway, and arch rounds at the top.
-Bull nose: Rounded corners instead of 90-degree corners serve as transitions between walls.
-Faux finish: A popular and fairly inexpensive ceiling treatment that imitates wood, wallpaper, marble or stone.
-Vaulted: A vaulted ceiling angles from the walls to various points or a single point in a room’s vertical dimension.
-Finistration: A term architects brandish about to describe a wall or ceiling and its final treatment, Payne says.

Higgs, partner with his son Keith in Higgs Custom Homes, notes the style of the house dictates the kind of ceiling treatment needed. A traditional home comes with flat ceilings. A Mediterranean style requires more arches and a barrel ceiling or two. An English country home probably has four or five ceiling treatments including a vault.

Ceiling treatments typically open up a room. “The room feels larger. A ceiling treatment adds character,” Higgs explains.

Lighting enhances any ceiling, whether it’s natural light (from windows or a dome) or artificial light (via tracked, recessed, trough or rope lights). “A room can have a variety of interesting lighting treatments and techniques,” Higgs says.

Conscientious homebuilders and buyers who like creative ceiling treatments wonder about their upcoming electric bills. How much will that open space cost to heat and cool? Payne, whose all-electric home contains a 17-foot-high vaulted ceiling in the living room, answers that his monthly electric bill fluctuates perhaps only $3 throughout the year. “The winter and summer balance out,” he adds.

Payne prefers recessed light fixtures as ceilings treatments in most cases. Manufacturers offer poles and extensions for changing lamps, the technical term for light bulbs. “Light fixtures tend to date a house, but recessed fixtures haven’t changed in years,” he says.

Payne suggests buying 130-volt lamps. Several in his studio continue to run even after 11 years.

Fisher encourages Austinites not to settle for a plain 9-, 10-, or 12-foot ceiling. “You can get a very interesting ceiling by following the shape and slope of the roof rafters and carrying them up to a center point, and then flattening them out. It’s cost effective, too,” he says.

Interesting ceilings, however, open up spaces historically reserved for attic storage. Where do people store and hide their stuff? Now people have three-car garages,” Fisher says.

This article was featured on the front page of the "Homes" section of the Austin American Statesman