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Pros & cons of keeping a low basement ceiling exposed/unfinished

Kirsten E.
4 years ago
The current plan for the basement of our custom build calls for 7’ high ceilings finished with drywall. For context, we are taking an existing home in the Midwest, finishing the basement, redoing the entire first floor, and adding a second story. I’ve included the intended basement floor plan (not depicted is a recently added fireplace). The picture of the blueprint might be a little small, but this post is about the family room half of the basement, which is approx. 500 sq ft. This space will be used daily as a media and game room.

My husband is 6’4” and I would like to consider the pros and cons of alternatives to drywall that might make the space feel taller. After researching drop ceilings, drywall ceilings, and exposed ceilings on google and Houzz, I am intrigued by the idea of an exposed ceiling. I would appreciate some real time/first-hand input on the pros/cons of an exposed ceiling before discussing with our build team on Wednesday. Below is what I’ve compiled thus far:

PROS OF KEEPING IT OPEN
- higher ceiling
- I like the industrial look
- cost efficient
- easy access to what would otherwise be behind the ceiling

CONS OF KEEPING IT OPEN
- loss of sound insulation (not sure of cost, but would be interested to know if acoustic drywall or something placed beneath the floorboards upstairs could combat this)
- loss of heat insulation (not super concerned because we will have a large fireplace and will also have zoned HVAC)
- unsure on how this might affect the appraisal/mortgage process if square footage is considered reduced
- not sure how you’d keep it from getting cobwebby without constant dusting

I’ve also included a couple of pictures of the current state of the basement. While debating color combinations for the space, I’ve been toying with the idea of a dark ceiling for a cozy, cave-like feel (example pic included). I realize that might seem counterintuitive to the desire for a higher ceiling, but the desire for the higher ceiling is more practical than aesthetic (due to my husbands height).

Thank you for any insights you can provide!

Comments (40)

  • Kirsten E.
    Original Author
    4 years ago
    Thanks for what I hope was intended to be a helpful comment @TheCooksKitchen, but you seem to have missed some of the detail in my post. As stated, it’s a custom build, but we are keeping the basement, opening up the main floor, and adding a second floor. As such, the height of the basement is what it is. Further, this 6’4” man is in good, tall company in Viking territory, where the average existing basement (including the one he grew up in) is between 6’8” and 7’0”. So, while perhaps not an ideal height for a tall man, it clearly wasn’t a deal breaker for this tall man...With all that being said, if you have any helpful feedback, I’d love to hear it!
  • just_janni
    4 years ago

    I like the black open look. the black hides the "messy" things that your subs won't be thinking about as being visible. It will require a lot of light (and I am guessing that pic has a LOT of supplemental lighting that you can't see.)

    The ceiling is what it is. Work to keep the smaller ductwork possible (4" high velocity maybe?) as the last think you want is giant spiral duct or a huge ass return protruding 1' or more below the joists. DO make this decision on what's exposed NOW - as the electrical will have to be in conduit and can't be romex - so there will be different costs (i.e. not necessarily cheaper for the open decision) however, you'll never have to tear out your ceiling to move a floor outlet on the first floor or fix a potential leak.

  • bry911
    4 years ago
    last modified: 4 years ago

    As a tall guy growing up in the land of low basements, here is my take. Finish the ceiling with drywall (no texture) and paint it white. Move ductwork to the floor or against the wall. Sunken lights or lots of lamps and go one shade darker on the walls than your intuition tells you.

    While open ceilings create the illusion of height when you are far from them, obstructions in the plane of the ceiling will shorten the room when near them. A 6'4" person will walk comfortably under a 7' ceiling once used to it, but will always duck under 7' beam on an 8'ceiling. As you walk under the floor joists you will want to duck every 16", but will be completely comfortable once the same ceiling is finished smooth.

    That is my experience anyway.

  • lookintomyeyes83
    4 years ago

    dust and cobwebs, exposed insulation, pricier air ducts/grilles as you need ones meant for 'open ceilings'.

    It's undesireable. Shimmed drywall would only add an inch or so, and look much better, and ve easier to keep clean.


    (My sister has a similar height basement)

  • bry911
    4 years ago
    last modified: 4 years ago

    Ductwork is easy to handle. Put it on the floor and make it a bench seat, theater stage, etc. If you can't get on the floor, get it to the wall and creat a built in around it. If you have floor and wall intrusions with plumbing and HVAC then create a framing effect with soffits on both side walls, floor and ceiling and put something interesting in your frame.

    ETA. Not a designer... just had to deal with this a few too many times.

  • Kirsten E.
    Original Author
    4 years ago
    These are very helpful considerations; thank you all! It’s good to know that the exposed ceiling might come with “hidden” expenses that knock cost-effectiveness off of the pro list. @bry911, I really appreciate your tall-person perspective. I know exactly the feeling you are describing and that “am I going to clear it?!” sensation definitely isn’t something he’d want to live with daily...

    So the cons of exposed are now outweighing the pros, though it’s not entirely off the table yet! At least I can still do a dark ceiling with drywall and it would be less of a color-commitment. Have any of you been in a space with a low, dark drywall ceiling? Did it feel cozy or claustrophobic? I haven’t experienced one personally, but I have been in low basements with dark walls and I loved it!

    As for lighting, we are planning all recessed with maybe a fixture over a pool table which will be on the left (stair) side of the basement. We can add as much or as little as needed/allowed for by the space. That will be finalized during the lighting walkthrough, which isn’t for a while, but I will definitely want to decide whether to go dark before then!
  • PRO
    Beth H. :
    4 years ago
    last modified: 4 years ago

    i was going to mention painting the open ceiling black. I like the look.

    as for cobwebs, well, a rag on the end of a broom or a long vacuum attachment. I'm sure husband will get used to the low spots.

    the other pro to doing it this way is, if you don't find that it works, you can always drywall, providing everything else done to that point is the same whether you keep it open or sheet rock it.

  • Kirsten E.
    Original Author
    4 years ago
    Thank you, @BethH that is a great point - it would definitely be easier to add to than remove from!
  • printesa
    4 years ago
    last modified: 4 years ago

    We were considering doing the unfinished ceiling (our ceiling in the basement started at 9') and looked into soundproofing. Since we decided to finish the ceiling, there was no need to soundproof everything, but we did soundproof a music room. You can use for the floors upstairs mass loaded vinyl.

  • CLC
    4 years ago
    last modified: 4 years ago

    I would drywall it, no question. It will look better (in my opinion), and might stay significantly cleaner. The floor above it will be like new construction, with all the construction dust that comes along with that.

    The storage room of our finished basement has unfinished walls and ceilings, and the room is so dusty. We are constantly finding little “piles” of sawdust and construction related dust, which works its way through the expansion joints in the subfloor above (new build), and falls down throughout the room. I suppose it will eventually taper off as the house ages, but we are hanging a ceiling in there this summer just to keep the dust in the ceiling, which will keep the room cleaner. It would drive me nuts if we were dealing with that kind of dust in our family room.

  • Kirsten E.
    Original Author
    4 years ago
    @Metzlipp thank you for the photo; that looks awesome and is a gorgeous color! It sounds like @CLC has had serious dust issues with the open ceiling; how has your experience been? Since my husband is the clean-freak (and as a result does most of the cleaning) I have tried to make design choices with a priority focus on ease of maintenance.

    @Printesa would I be able to use the vinyl under engineered hardwood? We’ll have carpet in the basement and engineered hardwood on the main.

    Thank you all for the helpful points and first hand experiences; I really appreciate your time!
  • printesa
    4 years ago

    Yes, it can be used under hardwood. You can look it up and the sellers five instructions as to how it needs to be used

  • RES, architect
    4 years ago
    last modified: 4 years ago

    It would have been easier for members to understand your question if you had called your project an "addition/renovation" instead a "custom build". Less contractor jargon would help too.

  • Kirsten E.
    Original Author
    4 years ago
    @printesa I did google and there were at least 5 manufacturers that came up with various versions, so I’ll see if our builder has a preference between them given our intended flooring. Thanks!
  • Kirsten E.
    Original Author
    4 years ago
    last modified: 4 years ago

    @RES I didn’t say it was a new build; I said it was custom build of an existing structure. Given the clear distinction between the two, I’m surprised that would be confusing to a designer or architect...especially given that the context provided thereafter made clear that we chose to keep the foundation, hence the ceiling height not changing.

    Fortunately, despite my apparently confusing - albeit correct - use of the common term “custom
    build”, many members were perfectly capable of understanding the question and providing helpful comments. Perhaps because the question was quite simple and clear: what are the pros and cons of drywall alternatives and/or dark ceilings in a basement with a low ceiling. Please feel free to contribute if you have something helpful to add!

  • yvonnecmartin
    4 years ago

    When we painted our unfinished basement ceiling white it made all the difference in the feeling of the space. That said, your idea of a dark color is also possibly attractive.


    To prevent dust and dirt coming down to the basement through the floor above, my contractor cut thin plywood pieces to fit between the rafters and nailed them in before painting everything. It looked very finished.

  • Kirsten E.
    Original Author
    4 years ago
    @yvonnecmartin Thank you! Have you had any issues with sound traveling up or down from the main floor? Also, just to be sure I have an accurate mental picture, do these ceilings depict your contractor’s plywood solution?
  • PRO
    Anglophilia
    4 years ago

    I have pretty much what you describe, but more of my pipes and ductwork are below the beams themselves. I call it a semi-finished basement and I detest it. Why? You many not have some of the problem I have as your sub-flooring will be plywood; my 1948 house has wood planks and the dirt from tongue and grove floors above works its way to the subfloor and then comes in through those very large spaces in the plank flooring. It means that I have dust, dirt, spider webs - you name - which makes it very hard to keep this basement clean. My computer and all my "desk" stuff are down here and constantly covers with dirt and dust. So is everything else.


    I cannot put any kind of ceiling in as it would be too low for code. If I were 15 years younger, I'd spend the money to have my basement dug out so I could have a ceiling down here. I like having a basement - prefer to have my washer & dryer down there, and love having the mess of my office/computer/printer/sewing machine/serger down there. But I sure wish there were a way to keep it cleaner.

  • B Carey
    4 years ago

    In our current home, our main floor ceilings are 8 ft and basement was 7 ft. We added drywall to the ceiling when we finished the basement. I know you said custom build, but I'm going to assume this is an addition as I don't think many in the Midwest are building new homes with 7 ft basements. The midwest homes I have seen with the black painted ductwork are not generally as bright as we need to make it through winter. It can work on a budget, but won't give you as nice of resale either. Since your husband can clear either ceiling (mine is 6'1), do the drywall as the ceilings will appear higher. The drywaller should be able to apply a very light texture.

  • Kirsten E.
    Original Author
    4 years ago
    @BethH thank you for the link; I love the step by step! @BCarey thank you for the first hand experience! To clarify, our house is custom design working within a pre-existing footprint. The unfinished basement and main level exterior walls will be pre-existing, but everything from the basement finish to the new second story are our custom design. The city considers it a new construction because more of 80% of the structure will be new.
  • PRO
    Mark Bischak, Architect
    4 years ago

    I am 6'-4" and have a post war bungalow in Metro Detroit with a basement floor to underside of structure dimension of 7'-0". Just paint everything above head black after all the construction is done. It may help if you have radiant heat so there are no ducts below the floor joists to deal with.

    Your husband has my sympathy.

  • GreenDesigns
    4 years ago

    ”Saving” the 20K that it would have taken to dig that out to something with a usable and modern expected ceiling height will cost you way more than that to try to work within a self limiting footprint. Plus the issue you are dealing with now. It could be so much better with just another foot dug.

  • PRO
    GN Builders L.L.C
    4 years ago

    Pros, you save some money.


    Cons.

    Dark ceiling will make the ceiling look lower and the room smaller... Feeling that the ceiling is on top of you and it becomes the focal point.

    Noise from the upstairs.

    Gives the unfinished look and feel like something is missing or it shouldn't be there.


    I can see if the entire basement is not finished and you want that clean look you get a guy in there with a sprayer and let him get creative spraying everything white.

    It will look somewhat OK if you have a 10' ceiling but when you have a low ceiling and everything is done nice and the ceiling left unfinished it becomes an eye sore... but to each its own.


    Good luck

  • PRO
    Mark Bischak, Architect
    4 years ago

    One thing to allow for if you are considering lowering the basement floor is that the basement's existing concrete slab is about 4" thick and rests on the top of the foundation wall footings and structural post footings. Dropping the floor 4" would put the new slab's top surface flush with the top of the existing footings. Dropping the floor any further will create a step at all the existing footings, and you do not want to disturb the footings.

  • Kirsten E.
    Original Author
    4 years ago
    @MarkBischack and @GNBuilders thank you for the helpful comments! We are definitely not interested in digging out anything. Cost and delay aside, I like the cozy, cave-like feel of the basement and was looking to perhaps regain an inch or two that we’d lose with drywall, not regain an entire foot. Even though I am not at all opposed to drywall (and hubby prefers it), I like to consider all of my options! That’s one of the reasons I wanted a custom design. Hence, my drywall-alternative exploration! Based on my initial concerns and the feedback here, I’m leaning away from an exposed and/or dark ceiling. But I would still love something with some visual interest. If anyone has any thoughts on a wood ceiling in a basement like the one pictured below, I would love to hear them. It seems like 9/10 times I bring up wood, the builder warns us about warping and dashes my dreams...

    @GreenDesigns Your unhelpful and unsolicited opinion has already been addressed at length. If you actually are an industry professional as you claim to be, I’m surprised you find it so difficult to imagine that someone would have a different preference than your own. Or even a preference different than the vast majority perhaps. I also hope you actually answer the question being posed to you by clients - or perhaps you are only unhelpful on the Internet. In which case, I’m not sure why you’d want your business name attached to it...regardless, I hope this thread will be useful to future users, so please don’t muddy it with your personal preferences stated as fact.
  • PRO
    GN Builders L.L.C
    4 years ago

    Kristen, this ceiling in the picture is very popular in Europe, I'm sure it's starting to hit the commercial market around here by now.

    I was a few months ago in Brussels and they just connected my hotel to adjoining building and they used this in the hallways. The planks were about 3" wide and they snap into a track. Above that they used fiberglass insulation sheets with black backing so when you look up you don't see anything above.

    It's a nice system, not sure what this runs around here Per SF because there is not much residential demand around here, but these type of ceilings starting to show up in commercial buildings.


  • Kirsten E.
    Original Author
    4 years ago

    @GNBuildersLLC Thank you!! I was still a little concerned with dust and sound penetration with a wood ceiling, but the fiberglass insulation sheets sound like a potential solution. I'll seek pricing for that as well (and am expecting to be disappointed but I have to ask!).

  • GreenDesigns
    4 years ago

    All insulation has to be covered with drywall, not plastic, or sprayed with an intumescent costing. It’s a fire hazard otherwise.

  • Becky
    4 years ago

    All insulation has to be covered with drywall, not plastic, or sprayed with an intumescent costing. It’s a fire hazard otherwise.

    Is this correct? I was told the paper just had to be removed from the insulation in areas of my unfinished basement.

  • LH M
    4 years ago
    Kirsten, you ask about dust. Our basement isn’t dusty at all. With the bare rafters, noise does carry but we’re a small family of rather quiet people so it’s not been a problem. Our decision about the ceiling was to make the best of the space we had. It serves us well.
  • JP Haus
    4 years ago

    The basement ceiling height of the house we lived in when our kids were teenagers wasn't much higher than yours. My husband sprayed the underside of the main level floor matte black, covering all pipes and ducts. If you DIY, be sure to use a good respirator mask. Our son was the same height as your husband (now slightly taller) and my husband was just a tad shorter. Neither one was bothered by feeling as if they were about to bump their heads.


    We had no issues with dust. As for noise in the basement, I think it was only noticeable when someone overhead wore high heels. I didn't find that the sound of video games or movies in the basement carried upstairs any more than in a later house with a drywall ceiling.


    My family liked the look and I was happy to put the money that would have been spent on a finished ceiling toward other things in the house.

  • suedonim75
    4 years ago

    A family member just painted their basement ceiling black like you insp picture and it looks amazing!

  • ghatta
    4 years ago
    Code in Minnesota says you have to have your basement ceiling drywalled with 5/8 drywall for fire reasons. You should check on that. We are now in process of removing it and adding dropped ceiling for ease of wire running in the future. We hope to reuse some of what we remove on the walls as we had our basement framed but not finished.
  • kriii
    4 years ago

    I like the look of the painted ceiling. It could also be painted white if there is a concern about black making the room feel closed in.

  • Angel 18432
    4 years ago

    We have that wood slat ceiling in our condo in Aruba. No insulation above it, just black fabric so we can't see anything above.

  • Tara H
    3 years ago

    @Kirsten E. I am Curious what you ended up doing? We are trying to decide the same thing. I love the wood slats photo!


  • strategery
    3 years ago

    It's a custom build and you are taking an existing home. Umm, wut?

    7' ceiling is virtually unheard of except for Hobbits, and your husband is 6'4".


  • PRO
    Virgil Carter Fine Art
    3 years ago

    A year old thread? I'll bet the OP has worked it out by now.


    FWIW, if someone is going so far as to excavate and build a basement, why wouldn't you go an extra foot and a half so that you have habitable and enjoyable space in the basement, especially if it's going to be used very frequently?


    Anything else is simply shortsighted in the name of expense rather than convenience.