Jen’s *new* mid mod home in Florida has a beamed ceiling… she needs to add insulation… and writes in for advice: Does she need to keep the beams?

Jen writes:

Hi Pam,

I just recently found your blog and love it already! You’ve got tons of great info, and I’m desperately hoping that you and/or your readers can help me out with some advice. A few months ago my partner and I purchased a unique, mid-century home in St. Petersburg, FL. It has tons of great features and even more potential, but we’re having difficulty making design decisions. And so far, we haven’t been able to find anyone with an MCM mindset locally (designer, contractor, etc) to help.

Our immediate issue is in our living room, where we have exposed beams on a high angled/sloped ceiling. There is currently no insulation up there, and it is desperately needed, but I hate the thought of losing the look of the exposed beams. Our current plan is to insulate and drywall the ceiling flat, then add faux beams. We also plan to replace 2 ceiling fans with MCM style pendants and remove or replace existing track lighting, possibly adding recessed lighting instead. If we do faux beams, we need to determine how many and what size. If we do less than the exact size and number of beams that we currently have we can save some money, and it would still have the same effect, but they won’t match up with the exposed beam ends visible on the exterior of the house. Is this a big no-no? It wouldn’t be too obvious since there isn’t a contiguous view of the beams inside to out, but there are 3 high windows that could allow the interior beams to be seen from the exterior of the house. Oh gosh, does any of this make sense??

Please let me know what you think. We’re at our wit’s end, paralyzed by indecision! ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m happy to provide more pics and more info – anything needed. Thanks! jen

Thanks, Jen for your nice comments about the blog, and for sending in your question. I’ll open it up to readers… But this time, I’ll start with my thoughts:

  1. Great house!
  2. Insulate the ceiling for sure — you must do what you must do, especially when it comes to saving energy.
  3. If you want, I think you can get away without recreating the beams altogether — by painting the ceiling and the back part of the wall that is still white. You seem to have that dusty blue going on below – put that on the ceiling and sort of “L” it to the back wall. Leave the white space on the sides (between the beige of the wall and the blue of the ceiling) and around the front windows alone. It think the whole scheme might be quite dynamic… sort of Mondrian, but not too too, because a sky is blue, too. Keep picking up that orange, too, throughout your decor.
  4. I don’t have a big problem with the ceiling fans — they are appropriate for your climate. Maybe get them in an antiqued brass base with wood blades, though… to add additional texture to the ceiling if you dispense with the beams.
  5. That ledge below the high front windows is perfect for a lighting solution. Is there some kind of uplighting there? For sure should be – would be fabulous!
  6. With a room that large — and a ceiling so high — I am not sure how good cans are going to do you … Those spots – they’re for the entry way, I get that, I think. Gosh, this whole issue of lighting is a big deal. I don’t have cans in my 45 x 15 living room/dining room — I have all task lighting — lamps. I prefer that for living areas. There are cans in my kitchen, though, because you don’t put lamps there.
  7. Paralyzed by indecision: We’ve all been there! Trust your gut. Good luck, the house is happy you found it.

Readers, what do you think Jen and her partner should do? Beams? No beams? ….  ?

  1. 61futura says:


    Just a few points here:

    1. You said that you’ve only owned the house a few months. Maybe putting up with higher electric bills in the summer will be offset during the cooler months. That’s what we have to do–high bills for about five months a year and very low bills during the spring and fall.

    2. It seems to me that you wouldn’t need much insulation during the winter as the average low in your area during Dec-Jan is 52-55 degrees. That’s pretty warm, really, especially since the average high temperature during those months is 70-72.

    3. What color is the roof? A white one would not absorb as much heat in the summer.

    4. We once rented an old house that didn’t have any insulation. The heat or AC ran all the time and the house never did really get warm or cool efficiently. We had someone look at it and it turned out that the heat pump was too small for the house. Maybe that’s your problem?

    Hope this helps and good luck.

    1. Jen says:

      We already know our HVAC is inefficient, and we do have heat pumps. Plural because we have 2 units and both will need to be replaced before too long. The advice we’ve been given is to button up the house as much as possible first (thus, addressing the LR ceiling now), in order to more accurately calculate the capacity we need. Hopefully, we’ll then be able to go with smaller, less expensive units when we do replace them.
      Yes, we do have a white roof already. IT has some sort of granular stuff on it…it ends up all over the yard every time it rains.
      We purchased the house in November and went through a recordbreaking cold winter, so we have actually seen both temp. extremes already. It’s not good either way. ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. 61futura says:

        OK–well it sounds like you have everything under control…in that case, the only thing that I can say is that I vote for keeping the beams white and as original as possible. Good luck with whatever you do!!!

  2. Heidi Swank says:

    I agree that you should keep the beams and insulate from the roof. My neighbor had a similar problem. He just added the extra insulation under the roofing. It raised his roof line just the tiniest bit. Can’t tell now, and he has those beautiful beams still. Keep the beams! ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. J.D. says:

    Wow, whole lotta comments on this one, so sorry if I repeat any suggestions or points already made. This is a great question though, and highlights something I think may be pretty common…
    There are a lot of pros and cons to beamed ceilings, they are beautiful and interesting, but also a poor choice as far as insulation goes, the beams easily become dingy with dust and dirt and are difficult to clean, and because they are usually minimally wired, there is not much overhead lighting causing the spaces to look exceptionally dark at night.

    Because your beams and ceiling have been painted monochrome white, much of the intended visual impact is lost, everyone still notices the nice high ceilings, but the actual character of what the designer intended is in my opinion lost.

    So I vote for the drop ceiling, leveling it off at the bottom of the beams. You will still have a fantastic high ceiling, but one that you can #1 insulate (Florida!) and #2 add some nice recessed lighting, maybe even add some additional ducting for your HVAC if you think you need it. (Home Depot by the way recently got in a great ceiling fan in teak & steel, very MCM/ Danish looking and just around a C-note each, check ’em out, I think they would be great in this space!)

    If the beams were unpainted, or your house located elsewhere, I might vote otherwise- I can’t side with painting the beams, (I’m never one for painting woodwork, and especially beams which are usually rough-cut… It just looks cheap to me to see rough sawn lumber painted.) and I also have to respect the need and desire for a more energy friendly option.

    And by the way, if it is not already there, absolutely add some indirect up lighting on the ledge under the windows, you can even play with colored lighting and create some very cool effects!

    1. Jen says:

      I agree 100% about painting the beams. I never would have done it, but it is what it is. It really doesn’t look very good up there…it would need some cleaning up, etc. to make it look pretty if we were to keep the inside as-is.

      I wonder what you (and everyone else?) thinks of doing an all-wood ceiling. Armstrong makes ceiling planks, I’m sure there are others. We’re trying to price it out now. I’m sure it’ll be high. It would warm up the room, but darken it too (depending on the finish). But would it be too much wood if we did wood floors later? grrr…. it’s so frustrating to try and figure everything out at once!

      Oh, and yes, there is lighting already up on the ledge. We have some colored LED lighting elsewhere in the room; I’m sure it’ll make it’s way up there eventually. ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. J.D. says:

        A wood ceiling would be nice, it could be left a natural color or kind of a Heywood-Wakefield “champagne” color and not darken the room too much. The same kind of boards that the original ceiling was made with- tongue and groove w/ chamfered edges- is still available and reasonably priced. An advantage here is that there would be no need for additional support structures to be installed as it would be with drywall or bead board wood panels. (Finishing would be a bear though!)

        I personally would not do wood ceilings and wood floors together. With wood floors, I would stick with conventional drywall ceilings, maybe even with gold-flecked acoustic popcorn for the extra vintage feel. If I went with the wood ceiling, I’d go large black slate with next to zero grout lines, or perhaps even stained concrete with some funky rugs.

    2. J.D. says:

      Some side notes that might help…
      I’ve seen several of these ceilings here in Arizona, save for humidity, our climates are not too different. The rooftop insulation methods do not work in my opinion, and the result is usually unpleasant ascetically. I’ve never known someone happy with the result given the cost. The problem is that for insulation to work its best, there needs to be an air space between the insulation and the space being insulated… rooftop insulation does not provide that. One other big concern, asbestos. Most gravel style roofs like you describe have asbestos under the gravel, perfectly safe under normal conditions, but since the gravel has to come out before the cool coat goes down, it’s gonna be a problem. Upgrading with a steel roof would avert these issues though, since it is usually laid with a new support structure over the top of the old roofing, you gain a slight air gap and don’t have to disturb the current roofing material.
      Heat pumps are the way to go in south, but older ones are notoriously inefficient. An older house was probably set up originally for a swamp cooler. Swamp coolers use only a few registers, and large duct work. Heat pumps work best with smaller ducts and multiple registers, (something you can install with a drop ceiling) and to really work at its best, you have to run your ceiling fans with a heat pump… air circulation is key with heat pumps.
      I have some hard won experience in learning these things, not with my own home so much as the trials of others.

  4. jkaye says:

    Wow, early this morning I glanced at this post when there were no responses, and now there are over 30. Readers LOVE it when someone has a wonderful house with some sort of issue to resolve.

    I think it’s important to save the existing interior beams, since they are a continuation of the exterior beams. They definitely seem to lead you into the house, and then continue their sweep through the house. I think you would give up a major architectural element if you covered them over, and I don’t think lowered beams would feel quite the same. I would do research on roofing materials, and see if you can find some insulation products that could work there.

    The front door on the exterior shot isn’t the same as the front door on the interior shot — or am I looking at two different sides of the house or what? Would be nice to have some color on the exterior side of the door, maybe the orange or one of your other interior accent colors. Wonderful house, good for you!

    1. pam kueber says:

      i had comment moderation still on from when i was out of the house all day on wednesday. oops!

    2. Jen says:

      Thanks! We recently installed a new Crestview front door (the one with the windows). Some of the pictures are from before installation and show the old door. The new door still needs to be painted, and we’re pretty sure we’re going to paint it an orange similar to the big orange “thing” currently sitting next to the door.

  5. Jen says:

    Wow! Thank you! Thank you everybody for your wonderful responses and comments! To address some questions that have come up:

    – The paint was done by the previous owner. That color is EVERYWHERE in the house. It will change eventually. (open to suggestions!!) We’re also going to replace the flooring, probably with wood. The tile is awful.

    – The house was not built by anyone significant and has no historic pedigree that we’ve been able to determine. It was built in stages between ’50 – ’53. There aren’t any similar houses in the neighborhood. We are definitely concerned about reducing the value of the home, but we also want to make smart modernizations where we can. Especially in regards to energy efficiency. Our electric bill is through the roof!!! (pun intended)

    – We’ve also considered insulating from the outside. The roof is right on top of the ceiling you see – there is no space in between. (The rain is so loud!) The problem is, we don’t really need a new roof. It’s also pricey, but insulating from the inside and finishing it is going to be also. Kristin – the Cool-Vent product that you mentioned looks very interesting…we haven’t seen that before and are looking into it now. Thanks for the tip!

    – We’ve also considered doing an all wood ceiling, although the assumption is that it would cost a small fortune. ๐Ÿ™‚

    – There is already faux in the room – that brick is not brick. The brick pattern was “drawn” into the wet stucco. The curved half wall that Mel loves (we do too) has the same faux brick. It’s actually just concrete block and is hollow. (A planter once, maybe?) The dark brown top is wood and lifts right off. Please don’t tell my 3 yr old!

    – There is lighting up on the ledge already!

    – You all make good points about the recessed cans. We thought of it as a “modern” replacement for the track lighting. Although if we replace the fans with pendants, that should be plenty of light for the room, really. Ceiling fans are very popular here in FL, but we never use them. We’d much rather look at some attractive pendants. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I hope I answered everyone’s questions! I wish I could share my whole house with you…we could use input inside and out. We have a large outside courtyard in rough shape. I should really get busy documenting the whole thing and getting my “before” pictures together. Thanks again to all of you, especially Pam for allowing me to share my dilemma.


    1. pam kueber says:

      Jen, I was thinking: Globe lights would look good where the fans are. Like the big round white orbs… In a frosted finish, rather than gloss, for the orbs, if you can find them. A thought….

        1. pam kueber says:

          yes, that’s a great idea, too. i presume you’re already nosing around vintage stores… see what the retro decorating gods send you!

  6. LoquaciousLaura says:

    Off topic but — just saw your post on the NYT Living Rooms blog — way to plug mid-century modest, Pam!!!

  7. 52PostnBeam says:

    I would like to add – I have the Hunter fan linked above but in white and chrome, in my kitchen. It’s VERY retro looking (and huge) in person, and because of the metal edging it really looks like a 50s diner style. I also got mine for a lot less, new in box from eBay. I think I’d go w/something more sleek & sophisticated for this living room?

    Also – would love to see carpet in the sunken part of the living room (I know you didn’t ask about that, sorry!) It would warm the space up and make it less cavernous. Keep the tile on the elevated areas … this will also minimize the chances that people “miss a step” when passing through.

  8. 52PostnBeam says:

    I have a similar problem in my 1952 post and beam. The exposed wood beam ceiling (unpainted in all but the kitchen) was a big selling point for me, and I wouldn’t dream of altering it. That said, my home office is situated on a corner of the house that makes it roast in summer and freeze in winter. It’s a 8′ x 12′ room and the prior owners had actually added a dropped tile ceiling, which I removed with minimal damage to the wood underneath.

    I’m going to insulate this room the cheapest and easiest way I know: Home Depot has large styrofoam insulation sheets, about an inch thick, which I’ve used in my closets for a year now. They seem to be really effective, and so easy – just cut and wedge them between the beams.

    In the office I need a more polished look so, I’ll cover them with .25″ thick plywood luan (also known as paneling), which will be secured in place with a tiny strip of molding attached to the side of the beam (it’s risky to nail anything into the roof, for obvious reasons).

    The luan can be painted, or stained to match the wood in my case. I’ve collected a lot of gorgeous photos of ceilings where something like this has been done. You’re lucky because your beams look really deep, maybe even 6″ which gives you lots of room to add insulation and still keep the original beam.

    I’ve heard mixed reports about outer insulation on the roof top. Someone I know had it done years ago and said it didn’t help much, and it’s def not cheap.

    Keep the fans but get ones that have lights on them as well, so you can have that option. The only place I’d put a recessed / can light is directly over the front door entry, you can easily stick it right in the soffit and I bet you have electricity running through that already.

    Good luck!

    1. Atomic Bowler - Dave says:

      Great idea on the Luan ply!

      The Luan ply can be replaced by a .125″ ‘Doorskin” ply (intended for making hollow core doors and available at most lumberyards). The doorskin comes in everything from ‘mahogany 57’ (my name for Luan and other varieties of odd mahogany relatives) to some pretty awesome maple, and of course teak veneers.

      Doorskin is cuttable (multiple, careful passes required) with a utility knife and straightededge as well as the traditional methods, and can be contact-cemented directly to the insulation. A lot of components for boat interiors are made with doorskin backers anymore, in fact.

      Just for trivial giggles, if you cut a section out of most RV’s, you’d find a .020″ FRP outer skin contact-bonded to foam on one side and doorskin on the inside of the foam making up most of the house sides under the wallpaper.


  9. Atomic Bowler - Dave says:

    My aunt’s haouse has the exposed beams in the living room, and in fact the beams and the T&G above are still varnished…no one ever went at them with paint. Now…I love my Aunt dearly, OK? With that much said, she’s definitely the earthmuffin, go green, save the fire ant (or whatever) old hippie type. Certainly into energy savings.

    She wouldn’t touch her ceiling if you paid her, and lives with it as it is…she’s an artist, and I think the aesthetic is valuable to her. Me too, really.

    What about using a few inches of hi-density foam insulation (with a vapor barrier laid first, maybe?) and then re-creating the T&G OVER that, BETWEEN the beams?


    1. Jen says:

      We did consider that too, but it would be very labor intensive. We’re not going to be doing this work ourselves, and we don’t want labor costs getting out of control.

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