How to create dropped ceiling in 1916 home
Bill & Kevin Burnett
Q: Some of the rooms in my house have 9-foot ceilings. Isn’t the standard height 8 feet? That is what the more “modern” rooms in the house are. I’m curious as to why they made some of the rooms 9 feet tall. The kitchen, which has a 9-foot ceiling, was built with cabinets that go all the way to the top and can be reached only by hauling a ladder in from the garage. Was there some logic in 1916 to building kitchen storage that is so inaccessible?
As the kitchen looks quite cavernous, I was thinking of adding a false ceiling to lower it 1 foot and add new lights. This would also hide the beat-up-looking plaster ceiling. I envision the type of ceiling one sees in office buildings with the metal grids with panels that rest inside the squares with frosted plastic panels for lighting.
A: The standard 8-foot ceilings came along with the tract homes of the 1950s. They used gypsum wallboard instead of lath and plaster for interior walls. “Gyp” board was manufactured in 4-by-8-foot sheets and fit perfectly on what became the “standard” 8-foot wall height. Before this, plaster walls could be any height, hence the 10- and 12-foot ceilings of Victorian homes and the 9-footers that you’ve inherited. As to why the kitchen cabinets stretch to the ceiling, making the reach to the top shelves impossible unless you’re an NBA center, we can only guess. Could be the idea was the more storage, the better.
We’ve said many times before that we much prefer trying to maintain the character of the existing architecture of a home instead of shoehorning in some modern design contrivance that appears out of place. We strongly disagree with your proposal to add an industrial dropped ceiling to your 1916 kitchen. That said, we do see the problems and would like to offer another solution that we think will better maintain the character of your home.
Before we offer up our advice, we’ve a few words about dropped ceilings. The reason they are so widely used in offices is that they are flexible. To change a configuration of a room, all one needs to do is move the walls or cubicles and change out the lighting panels and the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning supply. The entire ceiling doesn’t have to come out. Also, if you ever take the opportunity to see what is above the panels in most offices, you’ll see a maze of ductwork, wiring and pipes. What’s gained in usefulness is lost in aesthetics.
We think the better option for you is to frame a new ceiling with 2-by-4s, apply Sheetrock and paint it.
But if the real irritant is the height of the kitchen cabinets that currently reach to the ceiling, another option is to Sheetrock over the existing ceiling to hide the failed plaster and install soffits so the top of the cabinets are lowered to a reachable height. The combination of a dropped ceiling and soffit works well, too. If you drop the ceiling a foot, it’s simple to frame a 2-by-4-foot opening for a recessed fluorescent lighting fixture.
Reframing the ceiling is within the reach of an accomplished do-it-yourselfer. Assuming the room is a quadrangle, snap level chalk lines on all four walls and nail 2-by-4s to the wall studs. Fill in the quadrangle by nailing 2-by-4-foot ceiling joists spanning the shortest dimension of the room at 16 inches apart. This is known as 16 inches on center. Start the first joist 15 1/4 inches from the wall. This allows the edge of the Sheetrock to land in the center of a joist at 4, 8 or 12 feet. If installing soffits, nail blocking in the joist bays every 16 inches. Nail the soffit plate to the blocking.
Building a soffit is essentially building two short walls, nailing one to the wall, the other to the ceiling connecting at right angles. Frame the walls by nailing 12 1/2-inch studs 16 inches on center to a top and bottom plate, forming a finished wall. Make another one in the same manner. Nail one wall to the ceiling joists, the other to the wall. Then nail them together forming a box.
A soffit is a great place to install recessed lighting. Bill installed stereo speakers in the soffit of his Alameda, Calif., kitchen. The soffit in Kevin’s Idaho home acts as a visual divider between the living room, dining room and kitchen, which are in reality one large space.
Cover both the soffit and the ceiling with 1/2-inch drywall. Install the ceiling drywall perpendicular to the joists. Stagger the pieces of drywall so that the end joints don’t line up. This will help inhibit any joint failure. Tape the joints and apply joint compound to the joints. The finish can be either smooth or textured. The choice is yours, but a smooth surface is easier to clean.
So the bottom line is no industrial dropped ceilings. It might be a little more work, but we think you’ll be well advised to keep with the character of your 1916 house.
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Copyright 2008 Bill and Kevin Burnett