Home Renovation Ideas: Exposed Joist Ceiling

Exposed Joist Ceiling

A stylish home renovation idea for your new project could be an exposed joist ceiling. We covered this briefly in a previous blog about design changes, but it’s a great topic to discuss further.

Leaving the structure exposed is a bold architectural move,  that in many cases can be the defining design element of a space or building. Some famous examples are the Pompidou Center in Paris (Renzo Piano + Richard Rogers), Hearst Tower in New York (Sir Norman Foster) the Beijing National Stadium, aka Bird’s Nest (ai WeiWei and Herzog + de Meuron) or the Capital Aikikai dojo in Silver Spring, MD (Mangan Group Architects).

Architects discuss exposed structure as a design element philosophically, by referring to the honesty of the design. The skeleton wants to be revealed so to speak, so that the building is not hiding anything. To be honest, the structure and other materials of a building should be represented in their truest nature. This idea was formally presented by the British architecture critic John Ruskin in his 1849 book, The Seven Lamps of Architecture.

For your project, leaving the ceiling joists exposed is a great way to define a special space or increase your ceiling height. Plus, it looks really cool.

As with most cool design elements we tend to work in, actually achieving an exposed joist ceiling is not as simple as browsing Pinterest and sending the pictures to your contractor. The three main concerns we have with this design are Code, Aesthetics and MEP.


In many jurisdictions the International Residential Code is the document with which your project will have to comply. On the topic of exposed structure, or more specifically, Fire Protection of Floors (Section R302.13) the code allows exposing the structure of the floor above if you keep it to a small area (less than 80 sq. ft), have sprinklers, or use 2X10 lumber or bigger. This basically means you can’t use a plywood web joist as your design element. You must use dimensional lumber or engineered wood beams.


Given the above, the first decision should be what structural material to actually use for your structure. We particularly like the look of lumber, but you will need to choose high-quality boards, likely graded #1 or higher. Do you want to paint them? Stain them? Trim them with a nicer veneer?

You also have to consider the rest of the building materials you will see. The plywood that is probably going to be used for the subfloor above isn’t meant to be seen, and won’t look great. It will probably have painted on brand names or other identifying marks. This exposed area, between the joists, could be finished with drywall, beadboard, reclaimed wood, sanded plywood, the list goes on and on.

There is also the issue of how the structure itself is supported. Normally the 2nd floor joists will sit on the 1st floor walls, but you can’t leave this area exposed for a few reasons, insulation being a primary concern. You could use joist hangers to hang the floor joists on an architectural grade beam but you will need to pick an architectural grade hanger…these are also not items that are generally built with the intent of being displayed prominently.

MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing):

Do you need to get any pipes, wires or ducts across your ceiling where you intend to leave it exposed? That could complicate things. The easiest solution would be to route any plumbing or ductwork  to avoid your exposed ceiling area. Ductless mini-split HVAC systems are becoming very popular, and can help resolve this issue. You could also choose to run any ducts parallel with the structure. Check out how we did that at our Mangan Group Architects Studio.

Plumbing pipes need to be insulated, and there is not a great way to make this look good.

Electrical wiring should not be exposed either, but can potentially be hidden above your ceiling finish material. As mentioned above, you can finish the space between the joist with a number of different materials. If you add some 1x3 furring strips before attaching the ceiling finish you will provide yourself a channel for routing the needed electrical wiring.


As you can see, lots of thought has to go into actually creating that exposed ceiling look. With proper planning and an understanding of some of your limitations there's no reason you can't create this in your project too. Comments? We'd love to hear your thoughts!

Home Addition - One Project Start to Finish - Part 4b

This is a detour from part four of a series of posts that will attempt to tell the story of one project from beginning to end, from concept to completion. It is based on a typical home renovation project in Montgomery County Maryland, but many of the issues convey to most jurisdictions throughout the United States.

Part 1: Home Addition - Where to Start

Part 2: Home Addition - Set a Budget

Part 3: Home Addition - Zoning

Part 4: Home Addition - Designs

Part 4b – Design Changes

This isn’t a planned part of the process, but homeowners asking for major design changes is not uncommon. Your new addition is a huge investment and you want it to be perfect! It’s ok to change your mind about the design of your project, but the earlier you can make up your mind on major decisions, the better. It’s relatively easy to change the scope of the project when it’s still in the Preliminary Phase. The later you get in the process, the more difficult and costly a change could be.

In our example project, we all loved the spacious, double height kitchen. The large windows and balcony allowed views of the back yard and provided light into the master bedroom. As we started to move this design into the next phase, Design Development, the clients began discussing an alternate approach. As great as this kitchen is, the renovation would add more value to the home with a complete second floor.

Though we were sad to see the open-riser stair removed, the new concept allowed for some new design opportunities. The clients still desired high ceilings in the kitchen, and we were able to leave a portion of the ceiling joists visible. Exposed structure is often an attractive detail that can be modern or rustic, and added nearly a foot of ceiling height to the kitchen. A few windows and doors changed, but the kitchen design stayed mostly the same, so the clients were able to get their second floor without losing space in the kitchen.

The roof also stayed mostly the same, so the additional work for this seemingly major design change was limited to configuring a new second floor. The Preliminary level plans, sections and 3D views allowed the clients to get a good feel for the space and decided that their new second floor concept would work for them.

Which design do you think is best?

Home Addition - One Project Start to Finish - Part 4

This is part four of a series of posts that will attempt to tell the story of one project from beginning to end, from concept to completion. It is based on a typical home renovation project in Montgomery County Maryland, but many of the issues convey to most jurisdictions throughout the United States.
Part 1: Inception
Part 2: An Actionable Plan
Part 3: Site Assessment

Part 4 - Schematic Design

Schematic Design (sometimes also called Preliminary Design or Conceptual Design) involves solving the big picture issues of your program. By the time it’s complete you should be presented with a design that accomplishes your goals and could feasibly be built.

At first this may be a simple as bubble diagrams…laying out a day in the life of how you use your new space to better understand how the spaces relate to one another. By the end you should have a good idea of what your new space might look like.

Schematic Design of a new kitchen

An important part of Schematic Design is ensuring that the concept which is presented could actually be constructed. Issues like structure, code requirements and construction methods should all be minimally accounted for. These items are far from resolved, but at the end of Schematic Design you should have a design that has considered and made provisions for these requirements. For example, your new project has a stair. At the end of Schematic Design you may not know what the stair is made of but you should know how long and wide it needs to be satisfy residential stair requirements and to reach the level to which it ascends. You may not know exactly what your walls will be made of, but you know they aren’t going to be single lines with no thickness. You may not know the exact framing layout of a new roof, but you understand that the structure needs to be deep enough to satisfy insulation and venting requirements.

Design Considerations

This list could go on forever, but here are a few of the typical items we are asked to consider when helping a client with a new addition:

Natural Light/Solar Exposure. Do not underestimate the importance of how your space is oriented. Breakfast rooms are different places when they can get morning sun and family rooms open on to westward decks very nicely for evening entertaining. Simple exterior shading designs can let southern sun through in the winter (providing free heat) and protect against the hot summer sun.

Views: Think about the opportunities you have for exterior views (it can increase the spatial depth of the house). Is your new space visible from the front door? Do you want an open concept or smaller more intimate spaces?

Noise: If you are on a noisy street you may want to locate that new master suite on the back of the house. If you have teenagers you may want some separation between your bedrooms and theirs. If you have young children you may want to be close enough to hear them.

Flow/Circulation: Picture how you use the spaces, coming home from work, cooking and eating meals, entertaining, doing laundry, etc. From wake up to bedtime picture how the relation of the spaces will work.

 Massing: You need to think about the massing of the addition. Typically, the roof will set the tone for this. Often the existing house has some general massing elements that the addition can do well to play off. Roof styles can be a part of this. Bump outs, bay windows, etc., can also help break up some boring massing.

Home Addition - One Project Start to Finish - Part 3

This is part three of a series of posts that will attempt to tell the story of one project from beginning to end, from concept to completion. It is based on a typical home renovation project in Montgomery County Maryland, but many of the issues convey to most jurisdictions throughout the United States.
Part 1: Inception
Part 2: An Actionable Plan


Montgomery County Zoning Map

Basic Zoning Research & Plats:

Zoning laws are in place to manage density and preserve or create neighborhoods, parks, commercial areas, etc. To this end, zoning laws will legislate how much structure you’re allowed to build on your property and for what it can be used. For this reason, zoning research must always be one of the very first steps when considering a potential addition. For a more detailed description of zoning requirements see our recent blog on Zoning Research.

When you buy a house, part of the settlement process typically requires a new survey to be done. A plat will be produced, which is a drawing that serves as a legal description of the property. This is done in metes and bounds. You can also search this link for your Montgomery County Plat.

Plat of a neighborhood in Takoma Park.

The plat will help your architect determine what size addition you will be allowed to build, based on zoning requirements such as setbacks and lot coverage. Although the zoning laws attempt to be as uniform as possible, every site is different and the zoning laws often require interpretation. For this reason, you may need to have some preliminary design work done that can be checked with the local authorities for conformance to the intentions of the local zoning regulations.

Increasingly such issues as water run-off, tree preservation, and other environmentally related areas of concern are being regulated and codified.


If for some reason you have a compelling need to do work that does not conform to the zoning regulations most jurisdictions have some type of variance process. To receive a variance you will typically have to show a reason why your design needs cannot be accomplished within the zoning guidelines, and even then you will typically have to show some type of hardship and probably have a public hearing.

Home Owners Association (HOA) Research:

Many established communities have Home Owners Associations (HOA) that have differing levels of jurisdictional authority with regard to what you can and can’t do to your property. Their mission is usually to keep the aesthetic feel of the community in tact by regulating how the “streetscape” feels. In many cases maintaining the neighborhood feel from the street becomes the primary mission of the HOA and though this can at times be constraining, it often lends to a stabilizing effect on property values.

Takoma Home Office field measure notes

House Measure and As-Built Drawings:

With some basic zoning research done it’s typically safe to proceed with the design portion of your project. The first step here is to get an accurate understanding of the existing conditions of your house. Existing plans will be helpful but your architect should be doing field measure verifications and developing their own set of “As-Built” plans upon which to base the renovation design work and drawings. We will come to your house and spend a few hours drawing your floor plan, measuring dimensions of all the rooms, doors, windows and taking tons of pictures. When we get back to the office we use these notes to create an accurate 3D model of your house. This model serves as a record of the As-Built conditions of your house and becomes the baseline for all design work moving forward.

Takoma Home Office Existing Conditions As-Built