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?