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What Is a Recessed Ceiling?

A recessed ceiling, often known as a tray ceiling, is an architectural feature that elevates a room's aesthetic by creating a raised section or inset, adding depth and dimension. This design element not only enhances the visual appeal but can also improve lighting and the sense of space. How might a recessed ceiling transform your living space? Explore the possibilities with us.
B. Turner
B. Turner

A recessed ceiling is a type of home ceiling design used to add elegance and style to a room. In this type of design, the center of the ceiling appears to be recessed above the perimeter of the ceiling by anywhere from a few inches to a foot or more. Builders use perimeter soffits and different types of trim molding to create this recessed appearance. The soffits and trim serve as a frame around the recessed portion of the structure, which adds visual depth to the room. This type of ceiling may also be known as a tray ceiling in some regions.

Traditional recessed ceiling structures require careful planning prior to construction. The home's piping and ductwork are routed to to the perimeter of the room so they will be covered by the soffits. This allows the builder to maximize the height of the recessed area. Lumber is used to construct square or rectangular boxes at the joint where the walls meet the ceiling, forming the soffits. The soffits are then covered with drywall or sheet wood and finished with paint or stain.

A recessed ceiling, also known as a tray ceiling, is designed to add elegance and style to a room.
A recessed ceiling, also known as a tray ceiling, is designed to add elegance and style to a room.

Once the soffits have been formed, builders use crown molding and other trim to finish off the recessed ceiling. The crown molding is typically placed between the soffits and the recessed portion of the ceiling, which draws attention to the design while adding depth. These ceilings are often designed with traditional crown molding around the perimeter to match the elegant look of the design.

Some designs may be constructed on a smaller scale, generally without the use of trim or molding. Instead, a smaller recessed area is created within a standard ceiling and used to frame recessed light fixtures. This adds architectural detail to a room without changing the overall style as much as a full recessed ceiling.

To create a recessed ceiling during remodeling, many builders rely on pre-fabricated kits. These kits include molded metal frames that can be fastened to the ceiling around the perimeter of the room. They combine the look of soffits and molding to create the appearance of a traditional recessed or tray ceiling.

The paint and color scheme can also have a dramatic impact on the appearance of a room. By painting the molding and trim a different color from the ceiling or soffits, homeowners can add even greater depth. This can help make low ceilings appear taller, and make a room appear larger than it really is. Others add tin ceiling tiles into the recessed portion of the ceiling to create a classic, yet stylish ceiling design. Many people also use these ceilings to highlight an antique chandelier at the center of the recessed ceiling.

How To Make a Recessed Ceiling

With their spectacular look, recessed ceilings can add elegance and dramatic flair to any room.. First, you must ensure that your interiors can adequately support a tray ceiling. You may first consider structural integrity, but it's also important to maintain adequate amounts of physical space inside your home. Proper construction and installation are also important keys to getting the look you want.

Proper Ceiling Height

Most building codes mandate a minimum ceiling height of eight feet — around 2.45 meters. While this doesn't preclude installing a recessed ceiling, you are limited in the thickness of your drop-down border. Even with a border measuring 5 centimeters or less, you can add subtle sophistication to your interiors. Anything thicker than that and you risk making your spaces feel cramped. If you're working with professional installers, they can recommend the best drop-down border thickness to create the effect you desire.

Lighting, Paint and Molding Options

When you're thinking about installing a tray ceiling, you must also consider how lighting will impact its final look. A recessed ceiling paired with a chandelier can create a stunning look, especially in dining, living and bedrooms. But chandeliers aren't your only option. Tray ceilings are often accompanied by accent, cove and recessed lighting, all of which can be concealed above the drop-down border. Pendant lighting is also a good choice for a tray ceiling. A single large pendant can work well in your space, but don't discount linear pendant lamps or multiple pendants in different sizes clustered together.

As for ceiling colors and moldings, you have many options here as well. One popular approach is to paint the recessed ceiling area darker than the drop-down border to create the illusion of height and depth. The reverse, pairing a dark drop-down border with a lighter ceiling, can also draw the eye upward. You can also paint the both drop-down tray and the ceiling in the same shade. Other possibilities include crown molding around the interior perimeter, stenciling and tin ceiling panels inside the recessed ceiling portion.

Costs of Installing a Recessed Ceiling

It can be difficult to determine the final cost of installing a tray ceiling without first doing some research. Prices for professional installation vary throughout the United States, ranging between $2 and $6 per square foot. As for self-installs, homeowners pay an average of $1.79 per square foot for materials alone. These costs don't include any lighting you choose to accompany your tray ceiling.

Tray Ceiling Installation 

Whether you're hiring a contractor or going DIY, it's important to understand the process of installing a tray ceiling. If you're retrofitting an existing room and want to recess a tray into an existing ceiling, you may need to modify the existing ceiling joints or trusses. This technique requires a professional and should only be attempted if a structural engineer gives the go-ahead.

Installing a drop-down border could be the easier option if your current ceiling height allows for it. You'd attach the drop-down frame onto the ceiling's perimeter, then cover it in drywall and paint as you desire. This type of installation can be done either by a professional contractor or an experienced DIYer.

Another alternative is to create a faux recessed ceiling. This is a great option if your interiors have low ceilings or you don't want a dramatic difference between the perimeter and the center ceiling area. You can accomplish this by installing flat trim molding around the edges, then painting the center of the ceiling in a darker shade than the molding border. You could also paint the trim molding in a lighter shade than the ceiling to achieve a similar effect.

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    • A recessed ceiling, also known as a tray ceiling, is designed to add elegance and style to a room.
      By: Santiago Cornejo
      A recessed ceiling, also known as a tray ceiling, is designed to add elegance and style to a room.