When we want to define one space from another, we typically use a wall. But once there is a wall, there is also an impenetrable barrier to views and to conversation, which is not always desirable. As houses have become more open, with family rooms, kitchens, and informal eating areas combined into one “great room,” differentiation between activity places has diminished. Most great rooms have all three functions unceremoniously stuffed into a large rectangle of space.

You can also use ceiling height to identify which space is the most important in a room and which is subordinate to it. The photo above shows a study that opens off a master bedroom. The study has a lowered ceiling, which is a continuation of the shelf above the windows in the main space. The shelf and study ceiling are a bit like the lid of a box, and the space below is clearly smaller and less dominant than the adjacent vaulted-ceiling area.
Grey Crawford You can also use ceiling height to identify which space is the most important in a room and which is subordinate to it. The photo above shows a study that opens off a master bedroom. The study has a lowered ceiling, which is a continuation of the shelf above the windows in the main space. The shelf and study ceiling are a bit like the lid of a box, and the space below is clearly smaller and less dominant than the adjacent vaulted-ceiling area.

There is an alternative, however, that retains the desired openness between places, but still gives each its own definition and character. By lowering parts of the ceiling, you can sculpt the spaces to identify and define each of the activity areas within a room.

Ceiling height variation is one of the least frequently used yet most effective tools for defining space. Although most people are surprisingly sensitive to variations in ceiling height, many of us have the almost reflexive belief that lower ceilings are bad and higher ceilings are good. But, in fact, any ceiling that is all one height is rather boring, no matter whether it's high or low. The art of the ceiling plane lies in creating contrast — using lower ceilings for less important or more private spaces, and higher ceilings for more important or public spaces.

Adapted with permission from Home by Design by Sarah Susanka, published by The Taunton Press (2004).

Varying the height of a ceiling within the same space and from one room to another helps define spaces and give each area its own character.
Grey Crawford Varying the height of a ceiling within the same space and from one room to another helps define spaces and give each area its own character.

Another tool used to separate one space from another is the floating shelf. This can be used in much the same way that you would a soffit, except that it is open above, which means it can also double as exhibit space or as a light cove. When a floating shelf spans across open space, as it does in the home shown here, it effectively delineates one “room” from another without obstructing the view. If a soffit had been used here, there would be no view to the higher ceilinged area.
Grey Crawford Another tool used to separate one space from another is the floating shelf. This can be used in much the same way that you would a soffit, except that it is open above, which means it can also double as exhibit space or as a light cove. When a floating shelf spans across open space, as it does in the home shown here, it effectively delineates one “room” from another without obstructing the view. If a soffit had been used here, there would be no view to the higher ceilinged area.