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What is a Groin Vault Ceiling?

You don't need to stand at a cathedral to learn all about the groin vault ceiling, its long history that dates back to the Roman period, and architectural considerations for choosing this ceiling type.

Cathedral interior with groin vault ceiling.

What is a Groin Vault Ceiling?

A groin vault ceiling is a series of groin vaults all in a row. A groin vault is arched support for a ceiling or covering in a room. These supports are typically made from stone or brick. A builder can create a ceiling over a long rectangular hallway by repeating groin vaults. The longer the hallway or area that requires a ceiling, the more groin vaults that are needed to cover the space.

Builders construct a groin vault by making two vaults, often called barrel vaults, that are in the shape of a half-circle. They cross the barrel vaults so they intersect at right angles. They are called groin vaults because of the edge they create when they intersect the curved ceilings. Occasionally, the arches of the groin vaults are pointed and not rounded.

When thinking about a groin vault, picture two barrel vaults meeting at right angles to create a square. It will appear to you as four surfaces curving to meet in the middle. When the surfaces meet, it creates four ribs that put the load-bearing in the four corners. The more complex groin vault is stronger than most other structures because a groin vault can handle direct stress.

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Maulbronn Monastery featuring its groin vault ceiling.

Romans first created a groin vault to use on many various structures that had large widths. The Romans are thought to have exploited the use of groin vault ceilings. The first groin vault was constructed in Europe, most likely Greece around 223 BC. After that, no one saw much of the groin vaulted ceilings until the stone came back in style. Then the groin vault ceilings became most widely used in the architecture of churches during the Middle Ages. This type of construction was widely used due to its strength without having to create massive constructions of walls to support the ceiling. It also allows light to come in from all sides providing illumination. This type of construction saves material and labor over other barrel types of vault ceilings. Around 1050 AD, ceilings began moving more regularly from a regular vaulted ceiling to a vault groin.


St. Andre Cathedral featuring its groin vault ceiling.

One item to note, while groin vault ceilings are stronger and potentially more affordable, they are challenging and difficult to construct. It can be hard to get the geometric form put correctly into place. As a result, it began to be found more readily in more Gothic type architecture.

Despite the challenges that come with creating a groin vault ceiling, this type of ceiling is still used in the 20th century to provide strong and economical ceilings. In addition to a groin vault ceiling being strong, it is also decorative and as a result, is used in residential homes. The larger the ceiling, the more it is going to cost to build a groin vault ceiling. In some cases, general contractors have taken it upon themselves to create these types of ceilings for themselves instead of hiring a more experienced builder.