Going against the grain...two story family room vs 10' ceiling.

December 6, 2017

My wife and I (as some of you know) are in the early stages of planning a new home build. In talking with a few designers (not licensed architects...yet :) , we've struggled to find the right solution to an otherwise seemingly simple problem. We want three bedrooms on the second floor, with a guest bedroom on the main floor that can be turned into a master down the road.

As she and I sketched ideas out, it's apparent that the two story family room we had always both assumed we would incorporate, is causing the layout on the second floor to seem quite odd. Every solution seems to add unnecessary square footage, and odd hallway space.

I know it would be much simpler to just do a normal (or even a 10') ceiling height in the family room, and run with the second floor, but part of me wonders if I would be happy.

Why the desire for the two story great room? We will have really great views, and a southern exposure to allow a lot of natural light to spill in. I felt that we could really take advantage of these to things in the main living spaces (open concept) with a two story family room at the heart of it all.

I'm concerned about energy efficiency (including heat dispersal/cold spots), as well as sound deadening, both of which can be challenging in a two story family room.

So, what is the consensus on two story family rooms? Is it a 90s/early 2000's trend? Or can it be practical?

Curious to hear your thoughts.

Comments (39)

  • Kristin S

    Many on here aren’t a fan of them for the reason you list, and also because with views, that means only the family room has the view v. another room upstairs having it as well. That said, we currently have one and love it and are planning one for our new home, too. I think it’s a matter of figuring out what trade offs you’re willing to make and what matters most to you.

  • PRO
    Virgil Carter Fine Art

    Well...without a specific design to see and critique, all one can do is generalize. So...

    --A 10' ceiling height on the first floor is very generous and gracious; it does not create a cramped feeling; it allows a great deal of natural light if window heads are placed high as possible and the windows are large;

    --If you have your heart set on a higher ceiling then go for it. It doesn't necessarily be a full two stories high. For such a design in a two story house, however, most logically the higher ceiling living room space will have to be located on one end/side of the design, and all of the two story space will have to be stacked and located elsewhere, along one side of the living room.

    --Locating the two story space on two opposite sides of the living room requires a large balcony or other open (lost use) space for access to each of the separate portions of the stacked two story space. This is generally more expensive and wasteful.

    --Energy efficiency and sound deadening are challenges in all houses of any size, height and shape. Fortunately the challenges are solvable by folks who know who do design and construct properly.

    Good luck on your project!

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  • cpartist

    Anything higher than 10'-12' feels like a public space versus a home's space. I personally feel the warmth and intimacy is lost. I have 10' ceilings with 8' sliders and I'm sure if I had great views (I don't), I'd be able to see them because the majority of the time you're in a living room, you're sitting and looking out.

  • worthy

    I recall a 1955 home I lived in as a child with a great room ceiling sloping up to 16 feet. The acoustics of live playing Chopin's Funeral March on a dark and stormy night were amazing!

  • miss lindsey (still misses Sophie)

    "I know it would be much simpler to just do a normal (or even a 10') ceiling height in the family room, and run with the second floor, but part of me wonders if I would be happy."

    Which part of you wonders that? One thing I've learned about myself is that I tend to spend more time worrying that I will regret something, than I do actually regretting the decisions I make.

    It sounds like you're worried that you will regret letting go of a long-held vision of a two story great room. But you need to make your decision based on the facts of your current situation, not on a presumed regret.

    The truth is, 10' ceilings are generous and have benefits other than the ones you've identified:

    -easier and cheaper to block that southern light in the months when it isn't an asset.

    -easier to clean, repaint, repair, change light bulbs.

    -already mentioned but worth repeating: that phenomenal view can be enjoyed from second floor too. It might actually be *better* when viewed from 10' higher!

    -complete elimination of the "what do I do with this enormous wall" dilemma.

  • aprilneverends

    I think it can work when you have several heights both grand and intimate, cleverly designed together.. like Virgil said..

    I can share my experience-we spent, until recently, several years in a townhouse that had two story ceilings in living and dining, yet 9 feet in the kitchen and family room, and 10' ceilings upstairs. Yes it included sort of a bridge upstairs but it was then-ideal layout for us since we wanted distance between the master and kids' bedrooms. So lost space indeed but it looked very gracious and we needed space less than that distance)) we specifically bought it for that layout because we had to have mix of closeness and separation. it really depends on what family needs are. So we had that mix of more grand and more intimate..the community got a prize for architecture though. or so they say lol.

    yes, bedrooms on the second floor were harder to cool and to heat..surprizingly(to me at least) only kids' ones..the master was okay somehow. Master was on top of "regular height" space..maybe that played a role? I wouldn't know, I sense has something to do with physics and in such cases I become as dumb as one can be))

    When we were looking for a new house(the one we reside now) we were less concerned already with space vs privateness balance, and more in another bedroom, so our parameters changed somewhat.

    I'd look at it in the context..your individual context..most things can be executed well or executed poorly. Find the balance that's right for you. Chances are if executed well will continue to appeal.

  • littlebug zone 5 Missouri

    I just googled Wall of Windows View and got this picture. These ceilings surely aren't more than 10 feet tall - and look at the VIEW!

  • jn3344

    If I had it to do all over again I would just do 9' (or 10' I guess) ceilings in the GR.

  • phooneycat

    We had a 2-story great room in our last house and the acoustics were horrible. If there were two conversations happening at the same time, it was very hard to hear. Lots of echoing. Our master bedroom was upstairs and just off the great room and I couldn't sleep in in the mornings because I could hear my children downstairs--they sounded like they were right next to my head. It was hard to hear our TV unless you turned it up quite a bit and if we did that, we disturbed our sleeping children. We solved this by putting in in-ceiling/in-wall speakers, which helped tremendously. But no more 2-story rooms for us.

    Our friend has a 2-story living room and den and he has beautiful views of the lake and mountain. But he told me that he wouldn't do it again if he had known how noisy it would be. I think his architect could've done something different with the ceiling to take advantage of the view. Just something to consider.

  • PRO
    Virgil Carter Fine Art

    Acoustics can be a challenge in rooms of any size, shape and height. Depends more on surfaces and finishes, although the HGTV inspired "open plans" certainly do have built-in acoustical, visual, privacy and plain ol' smell problems...ever burn toast in a kitchen which is part of an open-plan arrangement?

  • PRO
    Mark Bischak, Architect

    I had a client that wanted a vaulted ceiling in their master bedroom . . . until I pointed out he could literally practice his free throw shots in there if he put a backboard above the head of the bed.

  • PRO
    Virgil Carter Fine Art

    Was he with the Pistons?

  • mgh_pa

    We have a lot of windows in our kitchen now on an 8' ceiling and it's not terrible.

  • jimpats

    I certainly appreciate the theatrics of a 2 story family room/foyer etc., but personally I prefer 1 story setup for all the reasons listed here. We chose to do 10’ ceilings on 1st floor and 9’ ceiling on 2nd floor. It does not feel cramped or closed off. We even went with 1 story foyer and no regrets so far. But then that was our choice which me and Mrs always wanted.

  • PRO
    Virgil Carter Fine Art

    FWIW, one of the aspects which has always made Mr. Wright's house so inviting, unique and timeless is that he always had spatial variety in his houses, whether the houses were large or small. Entries and corridors might deliberately small and low, but turn a 90-degree corner and suddenly one sees an expansive space with a high ceiling, often with continuous clearstories for extra natural light.

    Any visit to any of his houses is always a wonderful experience based on his ability to modulate space and to create variety and drama (where appropriate). A lesson for HGTV!

  • Carolyn T

    I have had two homes with cathedral ceilings in the family/great room, but both were on an end of the home and not in the middle. Loved both rooms and did not feel as if any space was wasted. It also allowed the noise in the room to be further removed from the bedrooms.

  • PRO
    Mark Bischak, Architect

    No, he is an owner of another team.

  • jimandanne_mi

    mgh_pa, that's a beautiful room!

    My husband was adamant that we build an energy efficient home, so I had to work at getting him to agree to 9' ceilings on the first floor ("That's 11% more to heat & cool than an 8' ceiling!"), since I don't know of any new homes being built in our general area that have ceilings lower than that and I was concerned about resale. While the 9' ceilings make the main rooms look attractive (DR/Library, Living Room, Breakfast Room (that's larger than the large DR) which is open to the Kitchen, Master Bedroom), none of them will ever feel as cozy as the slightly smaller similar rooms in my previous home with 8' ceilings. We have beautiful views in all directions and I love the house and surroundings, but I still miss the coziness that I had before.


  • PRO
    Virgil Carter Fine Art

    Anne, never let your husband see any 1700s Colonial houses with the minimal head height, rooms, stairs, everything. One can carry "efficiency" too far in the 21st Century...! :-)

  • David Cary

    On energy use, you can be down to zero with 8 or 10 foot ceilings. Even 2 story rooms although definitely harder. Walls are only one source of energy loss (usually about 50% of the total) so the difference between 8 and 9 feet is closer to 5%.

    I can see a 2 story room for a view if it is a mountain. We rented a mountain house with a 2 story great room and it was really needed to see the top of the mountain. Otherwise, if the view is at the same elevation or below, a 6 or 7 foot window on a 10 foot wall is generally pretty good.

  • Architectrunnerguy

    Be careful with them. I put 80 thoughts about design here a while back and one of them was: "44. Be careful with two story spaces. Most have all the
    warmth and intimacy of the lobby of a Hyatt Hotel.
    " That doesn't mean to say it's "No" to all spaces like that as in architecture, context is everything. I did one for someone here but it was a "barn house" and with all the heavy beams and posts, etc. like many barns have, there was context. More going on there than just taking a typical two story colonial and carving out a "dramatic space" in the interior.

    But good luck with your build. Exciting times ahead!

  • Jennifer Koe

    In the typical suburban American home, a 2-story living room definitely strikes me as a dated look reminiscent of the late 90's early 2000's.

    In my search for an already built home (2 years of looking), there was one home that had everything I wanted .... but it had that 2 story living, and after some thought, I just couldn't compromise on it. Not only because it looks dated to me (and there's no way to fix it, really), but because it wastes so much energy. I think many of us have become much more energy-conscious in the past decade, which is partly why we have outgrown this 2-story look.

  • mgh_pa

    Thanks, everyone. I'm still very torn. I really need to get a design down (hence my need for an architect/designer) to play with options. I'm a competent DIY guy, but an architect I am not :)

  • PRO

    In my son's last house, there was a very high beamed ceiling in their family room. It had a huge stone fireplace and loads of windows to look out over acreage. It was lovely...except at night when it was cold and drafty.

    I think one must stop and think about what time of day one typically uses a room. Dining rooms are usually used after dark and the colors must reflect this and give a cozy feeling. Great rooms are only sat in on weekend, and if there are children with multiple activities and errands to run, not even that much then. So all those fabulous view are lost, unless one is on a hill looking down at the lights of a city. And it WILL feel cold on a cold winter's night.

    Then there is the noise from below that goes upstairs. I was once in a house where, from my bedroom on the 2nd floor, I could hear the clanking of the dishes/glassware/silverware being unloaded from the dishwasher.

    Just not a good idea at all. 9 ft ceilings are very, very nice, 10 max.

  • sunnydrew
    My 2 cents worth. Use 10' ceilings for the Great room and entire first floor. Build your fabulous master bedroom suite now on the first floor (unless you have a new baby) and enjoy one level living. Let your guests have the second floor when they visit.
  • Kristin S

    So interesting how people perceive things. We find ours very cozy, not at all hotel-lobby feeling. I’ll have to work on making sure we retain that feel in he new house.

    Here is what we have now (pardon the mess, please). Also, just noticed that the dimension was shrunk down top to bottom. For reference it’s about 22’ at peak.

  • opaone

    When our neighbor was trying to sell their home that was WSW facing on a beautiful lake with astounding sunset views, she said that the two story family/living room was the number one negative. It was purchased, at a discount, by a builder who put a master suite in the second floor portion.

    From an energy standpoint these are one of the top no items. Heat rises and in a two story space the heat all rises in to the ceiling area. It's not unusual for the living space to be 65f and the 2nd level balcony to be 85f. That's expensive.

  • PRO
    Virgil Carter Fine Art

    So many generalizations! High ceilings are bad! High ceilings are spacious! Low ceiling are bad! Low ceilings are comfortable!

    And energy...

    Come on folks. It's all about the specific design and how it relates to the entire house. And the OP's desired life style. No one can generalize about the pros or cons of a low or high ceiling. There are all good. And they are all bad. It all depends on the design.

    If the OP can post some specific designs, we can certainly react to them. If the OP has an architect, the discussion there will enable a variety of options to explore and evaluate.

    Here's a floor plan by Frank Lloyd Wright. Can you guess where the high and low volume spaces might be? Or do you think everything is a 8-foot, 9-foot or 10-foot ceiling?

  • miss lindsey (still misses Sophie)

    Well to be fair, the OP did ask for everyone's personal perspectives...

    "So, what is the consensus on two story family rooms? Is it a 90s/early 2000's trend? Or can it be practical?

    Curious to hear your thoughts."

  • PRO
    Virgil Carter Fine Art

    Personal perspective: opinion vs. professional experience. Take your pick! :-)

  • nidnay
    I love a two story room with a wall of windows. I designed my current home with ten foot ceilings on the main floor, and I would like them higher. I would have gone two story but couldn’t swing it because I was unable to free up space on the second story due to constraints with stretching out the first floor (creek in the way). I think though that 15 or 16 feet might give you the feel you’re looking for if you made sure to add lots of windows. We custom built one house where the family room had 15 foot ceilings and it totally satisfied my need for a two story. Loved that had floor to ceiling windows.

    Many say they don’t like tall ceilings due to a lack of coziness and intimacy . Tall ceilings never strike me that way. I LOVE the space and open feeling....especially with lots of windows. What I don’t care for is a two story room with large swaths of sheetrock where windows could have been installed. That, to me is a total waste....tall ceilings need tall windows.
  • ILoveRed

    My best friends house has a very tall ceiling in the great room, perhaps 20 ft. to a lovely peak with beams. It is not exactly cozy but it is very comfortable. She is very good at decorating and creating that kind of space.

    we rented a lake house last summer on Lake Michigan with a very high great room and lots of glass (Michigan side). Beautiful sunset but every evening the house turned into a giant greenhouse. Just absolutely miserable.

    our new house has beautiful views. I had no desire for high ceilings. Been there done that. Small building envelope due to setbacks. The views are good out of our tall windows in our ten and nine ft ceilings..thanks to our architect.

    OP....the two story room will definitely cost you and make it more difficult (not impossible) in planning your spaces. Consider your budget. Lots of room above those high spaces.

  • ILoveRed

    Sunnydrew...exactly what we are doing, lol. Except for the new baby thank heaven!

  • ILoveRed

    Kristin...your room is very comfortable looking and I love that light fixture.

  • sheldonandliza

    This post is a couple years old now, but i'm curious to know what you chose. Are you happy with it?

  • Architectrunnerguy

    I try to dissuade my folks from two story rooms. Plenty of other methods to get "drama" into a house in often subtle ways that often are more powerful.

  • mgh_pa

    We compromised and built a single story with a 1.5 story great room. We're very happy with how it's turning out.

  • PRO
    Jeffrey R. Grenz, General Contractor

    Why isn't the fireplace installed and inspected prior to drywall?

  • mgh_pa

    They hung the ceiling panels to allow the sprayers to get in and start putting in the NuWool. The section above the fireplace was left open on the backside (in the room behind it) for installation of the vent, inspection, and then they will come back finishing spraying in that section once it's closed up. The fireplace installer was backed up, and the inspector gave us the okay for this, since the fireplace is just framed. We will durarock, lathe, and stone once everything is done.

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