Beams, beams, beams


Browse through the internet pages of vacation accommodation sites in Australia and you’ll be hard pressed to find any with exposed beams. As a general rule, Aussies don’t do beams.

Then try a similar search in England. The English went through a whole phase in the 16th Century known as the Tudor period when beams were all the fashion, and there are many Tudor and mock-Tudor properties still standing today.

But Italy takes the cake. Looking for a vacation rental there this week I expected to find a plethora of properties with fabulous high vaulted ceilings and other such architectural delights. But no. In my search for a vacation house or apartment I found beams, beams and more beams. Mostly sharp, dark-stained, low-ceiling wooden beams, which are the worst. Maybe it’s different outside the area of the Italian Riviera but it took me almost a whole day of searching to find a decent place to stay for two weeks that only has beams in one room.

Why beams are a problem

The reason why beams are a problem is because they dissect the energy of a space. In feng shui this is known as ‘cutting chi’. Show me a marital bed with a beam running down the centre overhead and I’ll show you a couple who have arguments and a marriage that is likely to end in divorce. First the cuddling stops, then the sex, then the stonewalling begins, and finally you have two people living separate lives divided by a beam. I’ve seen it all too often.

Sleeping under beams can also cause health problems. I’ve seen countless cases of people developing medical ailments in the area of their body where there is a beam crossing over their bed. A few nights, weeks or even months of sleeping like this is fine for most people, but extend this to longer periods and the problems start to show. When I see this in a client’s home, I only have to ask how long they have had the bed in that position to diagnose the severity and location of where they are experiencing problems in their body, and I am nearly always 100% correct. The soft tissues of our bodies do not flourish when constantly exposed to cutting chi, and they are particularly vulnerable during the hours of sleep when we are more etherically open.

Beams also create a feeling of being burdened by problems. The darker the colour and the lower the ceiling height, the more ominous the feeling of oppression. However these effects are mitigated if the ceiling is a high one or the beams are broad and flat rather than thin and sharp. Rounded corners on the lower edges of the beams also helps a lot.

In living areas, people intuitively do not want to sit under beams. Given the choice of a sofa directly under a beam and one that is not, most people will unconsciously choose the beam-free one without ever knowing why.

Beams can be particularly problematic in boardrooms. A beam running the length or breadth of the table will inevitably divide the two sides, making it difficult to arrive at an agreement. I’ve seen the same effect with dining room tables, where family arguments become the norm at mealtimes.

When booking a workshop meeting room, I always ask my organizer to send me photos of the ceiling as well as the room itself. It’s sometimes possible to successfully teach in a room that has flat beams running lengthways if the ceiling is high enough, but a room with beams running crossways is like driving a car over a hundred miles of speed humps. It’s a presenter’s nightmare. By the time my mesage gets to the back of the room it is either lost, distorted, or simply falls flat.

Remedies for beams

So is there any hope I can offer to anyone reading this who lives or works in a place with beams? In most cases, yes.

The best (although admittedly most expensive) solution, if ceiling height permits, is to install a false ceiling to cover all the beams. Problem solved.

A much cheaper solution, which for many people is the most practical, is simply to paint the beams the same colour as the ceiling so that they recede into it rather than stand out from it. White or cream is generally the best choice, to lighten and uplift the space. The beams are still there but their effect is substantially lessened.

Another solution is to drape fabrics between the beams to hide them, creating an oriental feel. It can work quite well in some rooms but do remember to take the fabrics down and clean them regularly. Otherwise they will create a staleness in the space, hanging over your head like a fog.

Bamboo flutes, did I hear someone say? Tacking a bamboo flute or two to a beam at a 45 degree angle to the ceiling is a traditional Chinese feng shui cure for beams. The reasoning is that the airiness of the instrument will uplift the space. Does it work? Not in my experience. It just causes visitors to raise an eyebrow and ask why there are bamboo flutes tacked to the beams. Maybe it’s different in China where this is a long-established practice and people are conditioned to make the association, but I have never seen it work in a western home. It’s true that any upward-slanting or air-oriented object will cause an uplifting effect in a space but I have never found this to be substantial enough to offset the effects of heavy overhead beams. It’s no contest.

Why would anyone want beams?

Having read this far, you may well be wondering why so many places have beams? Why would anyone design a home with such oppressive structures, reminiscent of axe-blades overhead?

Something I’ve observed is that beams occur most frequently in countries that have turbulent histories. Tudor houses in England, for example, were built at a time when you could lose your head at the drop of a hat, so to speak. Architects would have unconsciously designed buildings this way because it reflected the mood of the times. It would have felt “right”.

Why some architects continue to build this way today is a source of mystery to me. Perhaps they, and the people who buy these homes, think the historical association brings more character or style to the place. The odd beam or two in a storeroom where people rarely go is no problem, but to regularly eat, work, relax, and especially sleep or meditate under a beam is to invite a multitude of problems.

The final word on beams

So, to recap, the larger, lower, sharper, darker and heavier the beam, the greater the effect. Anything you can do to soften or alleviate any of these characteristics will bring about an improvement.

And would I live in a home with beams? Not a chance. Life just doesn’t have to be that hard.

More articles about beams
The problem with split beds
Why beams are such a feng shui no-no

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd, 2010

About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui, and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must-read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fifth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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9 Responses to Beams, beams, beams

  1. PS. I should have said, that for structural reasons beams are most often needed to support ceiling construction (e.g. timber joists & wooden boards, or reinforced concrete slab) in areas too large to be spanned directly. This is often the case for e.g. “open plan” living areas, where otherwise smaller areas of ceiling would be supported off walls dividing separate sitting and dining areas and kitchen.

    Conversions from previously separate rooms to open planning invariably require beams, also needed to support structural walls or partitions on the floor above. Beams are invariably structural and not decorative.

  2. As a former architect I find this article fascinating, and a bit of architectural / building history might help to explain some of the reason for exposed beams in a variety of buildings, old and new.

    Most buildings are not designed by architects, 25% at most, and it is usually commercial or public buildings. Most housing is designed and built by speculative builders, operating for centuries on a “pattern book” principle, as innovation tends to be risky and expensive. Post-and-beam construction is the most traditional, simple and common way to construct ceilings: and in low cost buildings money is saved on land values and materials by reducing space standards to the minimum. Covering up beams by a suspended or “false” ceiling will often reduce domestic ceiling height to being unacceptably low. And people in Tudor times were generally much shorter than us, with far fewer possessions and hardly any furniture, so their domestic rooms seem tiny to us.

    Following the ornate excesses of 19th century Victorian architecture, and growing out of the “Arts and Crafts” movement (think William Morris), the idea of “Truth to materials” led to a distaste for ornament and cover-ups of building structures: finding e.g. bare brick walls preferable to “hiding” them by plaster; and exposed beams form part of this design aesthetic — which even became (among purists) a design ethic. I heard one co-student in the 1960s refer to wallpaper as being “immoral”.

    This fed into an early twentieth century “Modern” style in European architecture, whose slogan was “Form Follows Function”. Originally this meant analysing users’ functional behaviours to fit buildings more closely to them, but somehow got transferred to the building “expressing” itself by baring its structure. This movement produced austere and angular but sculptural forms associated with architects like le Corbusier in Europe and Frank Lloyd Wright in the USA, as an inspiration to many architects (like me) trained during the following decades (and even now, despite the distinctly authoritarian approach of both to design and to their clients). This aesthetic was adopted and popularised by interior designers and magazines for home-makers and DIYers, who in a Modernising drive stripped off acres of plaster to expose brick walls (or took the easier route of brick wallpaper) and took down many ceilings to expose beams, while speculative builders carried on much as before.

    Some builders introduced open-plan living areas as a way of cutting down on space (compared with separate sitting and dining rooms and kitchen) to make dwellings more fashionable and cheaper to build, and profits higher. But general taste always remains more conservative than passing fashion trends, though there is still a huge amount of money to be made from them. The British change their kitchens every five minutes driven by TV makeover programmes (sponsored by DIY chain stores), interior design magazines and now social media like Pinterest. Unless a very smooth “Look” is IN (cover everything up / install false ceilings) then beams tend to be IN too. Brits tend to be very conscious of aesthetics, but sadly ignorant of the design principles from which they arose, and the popularisation process by which they got corrupted to mere surface appearances.

    Feng Shui should be taught in schools of architecture — and maybe by now students at least are aware of it. But ultimately it tends to be consumers who will have the final say over their domestic environments. Even tenants can hang soft furnishings, if allowed to use screws and nails in often restrictive tenancy agreements, to eliminate “cutting chi” off the sharp edges of beams.

  3. Wow, I grew up in a house with one room (we called it the “Den”, like a second living room at the back of the house) that had big exposed beams and a high ceiling. I always thought they were quite beautiful-looking and gave a nice look and feel to the room. This was the room we would sit and watch TV in, and had our dinner table in for a time. Also our computer was there and I did a lot of my school homework and reading there.

    I never noticed any particular badness; the beams were dark but I guess they did match the color of the ceiling above them. Also the ceiling in that room is quite high.

    I’m going to have to digest this new information for a while. Where I live in the American West (and especially the Southwest — I live in Albuquerque!) exposed beams are a popular style. Though I read your books years ago, I never gave much thought to beams, never really noticed them beyond the fact I liked them.

    Also ceiling fans — my partner wants me to put a ceiling fan in our bedroom. Though I grew up with ceiling fans in my bedroom, after reading your books I have trouble sleeping under them — mostly because now my mind keeps thinking of all the trouble they’re likely causing! It’s like I can feel the disturbance — though I don’t know if I’m actually feeling it, or it’s just that being aware of it intellectually now, my mind won’t let it be. 🙂

    Thanks Karen for sharing your knowledge with us, though it’s sometimes a mixed blessing 🙂

  4. OH NO!! We just renovated an older home. In finishing the basement rooms we decided to put finished plywood on the ceilings. To cover the unsightly seems we put up pretty moldings which ended up forming rectangles. The finished look is very appealing, I love the effect. These are not beams, however they do create lines on the ceiling as a beam would, is this the same issue? And yes, one of the rooms is a bedroom! The ceiling is all the same honey wood color as well. Have I created a health hazard?
    Amber in Maine, USA

  5. Interesting article!

    I have lived in a log home for 17 years, and all beams are exposed. The ceilings are fairly low, and the beams are the same unfinished pine color as the ceilings. Our bed is arranged so that the beams run across the bed, rather than down the length of it. One beam crosses the bed at about chest level, and I have been suffering with asthma for the last 5 years. My husband also suffers from a chronic cough. Your ideas are very astute, and have really shocked me!

    Since our ceilings are quite low to begin with, it might feel claustrophobic to cover up the beams. Would relocating the bed be a viable solution? It could be managed so that the beams would run length wise over each of us, and not through the center of the bed dividing us. I don’t want to make our situation worse. Any thoughts?

    1. I’m sorry to say I’m not at all surprised to hear that both you and your husband have chest problems after sleeping under the beam you describe for so many years, especially since your bedroom ceiling is so low.

      Relocating the bed sounds like a great solution to me until I read on and discovered you are not able to place your bed in a beam-free area but are thinking of moving it to a position where the overhead beams run lengthways through both of your bodies. At best this would cause you to hug together in the middle of the bed all night long to escape the effect of the beams; at worst it could cause a multitude of health problems down the centre of your bodies.

      My recommendation, therefore, is to cover the beams in some way and if that makes your bedroom too claustrophobic, perhaps it’s time to rethink where you live.

  6. I think the reason people build homes with beams today is that it looks designer done and masculine I think it’s generally a manly design and it also shows wealth. Putting wood beams up is expensive for the purchase of the material as well as the workmanship. This appeals to the wealthy who want to impress others and feel like they have something of value.

  7. I have a beam that runs through a room demarcating the left side, dining, and the right side sitting/watching tv. The beam is ornamental barn wood matching the beam/mantel over the fireplace and the rustic barn wood cabinets in the kitchen. The kitchen is to the left of the beam looking out over the dining area, fireplace and sitting area to the right. It does “split” the fireplace which is between the dining area and the sitting area but no one sits under the beam. Any bad effects from this beam?

  8. GREAT…

    The good news on our new rental is that the beams are on an elevated ceiling, are thinner, and are lightly painted to match the ceiling. Still, I think I’m going to do some covering up via light drapery or something. I think the kids might actually think that’s cool at their ages (9 and 4 years) anyway.

    So glad I read this prior to our move in, but I definitely wish I had known about it prior to our lease signing!!! I would never have signed! I thought the beams were simply old fashioned. Any other bad house design I should be looking for???

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