Matt Roule, Chad Carter/131Shapes

What with low ceilings, ductwork, large beams, and columns, basements are a design challenge. To make that lower level feel spacious and inviting takes physical maneuvering and a bit of visual magic.

“The only real way to make the space bigger is to dig out the ground, which is costprohibitive,” says Chad Carter, who, together with Matt Roule, is a principal of 131Shapes, a design/build company in Pittsburgh. “So you have to work around and integrate problems into the design.”

Matt Roule, Chad Carter/131Shapes


You can sometimes add another foot to a room’s head height by revealing the joists from the floor above. Here, Roule and Carter sanded the floor joists, put a clear finish on them, and built the bulkhead around them to hide mechanicals. “The big white expanse [of ceiling] in a low-ceilinged basement gives a closed-in feeling,” Roule says. [Editor’s note: This project won a Merit Award in Remodeling’s 2008 Design Awards.]


Matt Roule, Chad Carter/131Shapes

You could build the ceiling down around an obstruction to create an enhancement, such as a tray ceiling, or leave ductwork exposed for a modern, urban feel. In this basement , Roule and Carter created space using three different ceiling plans: fully drywalled, opened with exposed joists, and showing visible ductwork. They created a central core with a hallway under the ductwork; low head-height didn’t interfere with the main spaces — the theater room, bedroom, and bar/kitchen areas. They designed a bar under the core and actually added a low revealed bulkhead to mimic the bar’s shape, transforming an obstruction into a design element.


Sometimes all it takes is for a visitor to have a sense that the room is larger. Light-colored ceilings, for example, will make the space feel taller. Narrower rooms appear taller than square rooms.

Uplighting adds the perception of ceiling height, but it can be difficult to arrange because wall fixtures need to be 16 inches from the ceiling, Carter says. Sconces work well, as do lights along the shelf below a tray ceiling. Here, uplighting in the hallway makes the space feel taller, as does the V-shaped element in the ceiling.

Carter’s other tricks: Cut doors a few inches narrower to make a space feel taller, and to make trim and moldings smaller. “The mind will make these things the correct size,” he says, adding that, in some cases, he has lowered the ceiling in key spaces, such as an entryway, so that when you enter another room the ceiling feels higher.