Exposed beams have the potential to become an attractive design feature and work to draw the eye to a building’s heritage or construction method. But don’t assume they only work in traditional-looking houses or industrial conversions – bare timbers and steels can look striking in contemporary settings.
If you’re renovating a heritage property, you may be lucky enough to already have exposed beams that boast rustic character. In medieval times, timbers supporting the upper storeys were often left bare, aligned along low hanging ceilings.
As the centuries went on, this look fell out of fashion and original beams were often concealed behind ornamental plaster ceilings. Once you start ripping back the layers of a period house, you may unearth some lovely timber detailing, but make sure it fits with the style of the rest of the property.
Some older beams may have fallen victim to decay or distortion, so consult an expert to see what repair is needed and if they need to be replaced.
Conversion projects often lend themselves to this design detail. Highlighting the structural timber in barns can look great and work to retain the agricultural character of the building. Industrial spaces, such as workshops, could feature metal beams that boast an en vogue, raw appeal. Loft conversions are another type of project where exposed beams can make a real statement.
The technique also works in new timber frame homes, where unveiling the structural skeleton makes for a dramatic and attractive feature – especially in tall, vaulted ceilings.
On standard storeys, especially in oak buildings, beams add character – and could be painted a neutral hue for a modern twist. Single, metal examples can also work wonderfully as an eye-catching focus and look great in extensions to identify the junction between old and new.
Faux beams could offer you the look you want, without needing to work out how to turn structural elements into design features – ask your designer whether this is a suitable option for your scheme.
Architect David Tigg, one of Tigg + Coll Architects’ directors, shares his insight into how to achieve this look.
There are multiple ways to create a unique and striking centrepiece out of an exposed beam, and these can create a strong aesthetic in any property if designed well and integrated into the overall scheme.
You could over-size a structural element to create a very deep and dominant feature, or semi-conceal it to reveal a refined component, for instance. Steel beams work particularly well in contemporary or industrial-style spaces and alongside other raw materials, such as concrete.
The red painted steel example featured at Brackenbury Gardens creates a contrast to the period features of the property and distinguishes the extension as a modern addition to the house.
Always consult with a structural engineer, who will be able to advise if an exposed beam is appropriate or possible for a project. Building Regulations compliance is also key, as there are fire protection measures that need to be undertaken in certain circumstances.
Service runs should be properly considered and fully coordinated, and it’s also important to be aware of any statutory restrictions on the property – for example if the dwelling is listed or locally protected.
These could offer a solution for projects where revealing the actual building fabric is going to be too expensive or complex. However, an exposed structure generally works best where there is an honesty to it as you can get a real understanding of the work it’s doing – whether holding up the roof or the building above you.
While insulation in cold roof makeups would be packed in between the ceiling joists, a warm roof construction would typically be employed if the exposed beam is in a single storey space.
The latter is where the thermal insulation layer is located above the structural decking and support structure. The roof build up will always vary from project to project, so it’s important to work with specialists – including architects – to get the detail right.
You’ll need to include a vapour control layer and waterproofing membrane, as well as ensure the relevant Building Regulations (eg for U-values) are met.
Architectural lighting design can always work to boost atmosphere and is a useful tool to use in bringing out the key features of a room – including beamwork.
The design, construction and desired effects of the overall space are the most important elements to consider, along with the finish and texture of the structure and the colour of the fitting or light itself.