Ceiling Heights and “Scoreboard”

Bob Borson —  March 9, 2010 — 20 Comments

 

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Sometime between 1995 and 2004, nine-foot ceilings replaced eight-foot ceilings as the most common ceiling height in single family homes. That might be the norm for speculative development but in the custom world, we have moved well beyond the nine-foot ceiling.

Victorian houses routinely featured 9-foot ceilings, but the 20th century brought about experiments in low-height living. Frank Lloyd Wright and his horizontal Prairie style (some ceilings were under 7-foot), along with Le Corbusier and his famous “house is a machine for living in” which essentially stripped down the house to its barest essentials, ceilings were getting closer to the ground. After WWII, with the troops returning to “a chicken in every pot and a car in the backyard”, a new generation of Americans believed they had the right to own a home and as a result, the mass produced house was rolled out for the lowest possible cost and the next 50 years saw 8-foot ceilings as the standard.

The standard in my office is the 10-foot ceiling with certain specialty rooms going to to 12-feet and even 14-feet at times depending on the functionality of the room. There are several factors to consider when determining the proper ceiling height: room size, activity, adjacency to other open area spaces, and overall visibility to other non-defined spaces (like the outdoors). Unless you are 25 years old and in a loft “livin’ the dream” with your band, being in a giant space with 12′ ceilings throughout isn’t all that great. Lower ceilings in secondary living areas like the kitchen, dining room, bedrooms, bathrooms etc. is fine because these spaces tend to not be as grand and the lower height helps the proportion of those rooms. You would also like to think about places where intimate conversations might occur; trying to have a dinner party when nobody can hear what your saying makes for a pretty bad party – that and if you are playing music by Barry Manilow.

We have had a few clients that have absolutely demanded that the ceilings be a certain height. One client in particular – we’ll call her “Mrs. Pickle” – was a particularly frustrating piece of work (and I’m not even going to focus on her clunky shoes or the homemade tattoo on her ankle that was of poor quality even by Turkish prison standards). She thought she had loads of great taste and style (which for the record, not having my taste does not mean I think you have bad taste) but what really drove the motivation that defined Mrs. Pickle’s taste was what other people had that she could throw money at and top. In my office, we call this “score-boarding” because you don’t have to defend your decision; it’s like when one team beats another, it doesn’t matter why you won, even if you shouldn’t have, you can simply point to the final score and say “scoreboard”. You can list all the could of’s and should of’s you want but in the end all that matters is the scoreboard.

Mrs. Pickle had a friend who had just finished a house that had 12-foot ceilings throughout so as a result, Mrs. Pickle wanted 14-foot ceilings throughout. See what I mean? “Scoreboard.”

The logic is ridiculous and incredibly frustrating – she even wanted 14-foot ceilings in the coat closet! No sense of proportion and scale and if she wasn’t going to at least pretend to listen to the professionals she had hired, why bother? To try and find a manageable mental place for myself, I thought “at least she would have the ceiling height to hang herself in any room of the house” (that was pretty dark, sorry). Eventually we gave her the design documents and we parted ways because we didn’t want our name on the product she was creating.

Adding a little ceiling height to your program is an easy thing to do since it doesn’t really add more cost – there isn’t anymore roof or perimeter wall and the only real expense come when you have to start increasing the size of your doors and windows so they are scaled right in the space. I was at a project site on Saturday where I helped a contractor buddy of mine (Barry Buford) renovate an old classically detailed existing house where all the ceiling heights were 8’6″ tall. Proportionately, all these spaces felt really nice because the rooms weren’t super-sized to accommodate multiple programming requirements. All the of the rooms were originally sized for a specific use, not the multi-use spaces that we put on modern day spaces. The living room is sized to sit around the fireplace and have a conversation – I can’t imagine a TV in this room ever. The biggest room in the original house was probably no larger than 14′ by 18′ and had floor to ceiling punched windows on 2 sides. We tried to continue this feeling throughout, and after walking through it this weekend I feel pretty confident that we suceeded.

Ceiling heights should be varied to accommodate the programming and room size, it always begins with the proportions of the space and please, try not to scoreboard.

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  • John H

    The house I am contemplate building has a large 36′ x 36′ open concept (duh) entryway, living room, dining room and kitchen. Since it would be in a cooling dominated region (cooling degree days outnumber heating degree days by about an order of magnitude) and the size of the front room, 12′ ceilings make a lot of sense. On the second floor, I have a media room with three tiers of seating. First tier is floor level. Ideally, I would make the next two tiers with 2′ delta to give a clear and unobstructed view. So that pushes me towards 12′ ceilings in that room. The third floor is a huge game room with nearly 360 degree views. The room would be 36′ x 68′ with a bar with bathroom/storage behind it. Plenty of room for pool table, ping pong table, conversation areas, etc. Nothing really driving the height here, but 12′ makes sense given the size of the room and the desire to emphasize the beautiful views. The floor of the third floor being 28′ above the ground (12′ ceilings on first and second floor plus 2′ for joists to cover the large spans), helps extend the view seen.
    So all of that is why the 12′ ceilings make sense for each floor of this house. The incremental costs of the material is negligible for the cost of the house. But what to do with the other rooms. I can drop false ceilings down, though it feels a bit silly to spend money to undo what you just spent money to achieve. Of course some false ceiling will be used route mechanicals, but the 2′ joists allow a lot of between joist routing, so just need the routing in one direction.
    Moving the media room to a lower level would grow the house foot print significantly. I want to keep the game room wide open.
    One thing I am considering is to use some of the excess ceiling hight to put mechanicals mounted up on the wall in the pantry or laundry room. The geothermal HVAC and water heater can be mounted on the wall above cabinet height. A ladder can give access when needed. Keeping the HVAC in internal space will help with energy efficiency.
    Bottom line, there may be good reasons for tall ceilings.

  • dave chenery

    Two comments:
    1. Longer timber wall stud framing cost more than shorter ones, as does additional palettes of block/bricks for the additionally higher walls, and additional required wall insulation. You can’t be serious about higher walls not costing anymore!? With tighter econonic restraints in society, architects should be looking to be efficient as well as saving energy costs in the actual production of additional materials which are simply based on an egotistical whim.

    2. Heating / Cooling requirements for a larger room volumes are higher, thereby making higher ceilings inefficient when it comes to saving energy / carbon footprints. Heat chimney might be the only justifiable higher ceiling component in modern, environmentally relevant house design these days.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Dave,

       

      I almost didn’t respond because half of what you said is absolutely correct
      and the rest I think is based on you think is best for everyone else. Material
      costs represent a small percentage of the whole cost of building a house. Adding
      a foot of height might represent a 1% gain to the overall project total – a
      statistically minor consideration considering the differences between contractor
      A and contractor B will typically exceed that amount. 

       

      I don’t know if you have ever worked with an architect before but I would
      hope that they would approach your project with your priorities in mind, not the
      priorities of someone else.

      • txbuilder

        It seems to have been a year since someone posted here, but what the heck…….let the games begin.

        A penny a day is “a statistically minor consideration”, but if you double it every day for 30 days, you will have over $10M.

        I own a design build custom homebuilding and light commercial company. I searched 9′ ceilings vs 10′ ceilings, and found your blog, as I am trying to educate a client couple for “her” decision regarding 9 or 10′ ceiling throughout (higher or volume or step ceilings in select and appropriate areas).

        Cost factors include increase in:
        -wall studs length
        -exterior sheathing material and Tyvek house wrap
        -exterior facade materials and finish (real stone)
        -insulation
        -drywall and paint – finish square footage
        Homeowner Selection Considerations:
        -possible increase in INT trim size to fit taller wall proportions
        -int ext doors may change from a standard 6’8” height to 8’0”
        -possible increase in window HGT – again for proportion
        (we increased the window hgt but now it looks too narrow)
        -possible increase in window HGT – again for proportion
        -win & door hgt – sometimes increased in HGT by adding transoms

        Real stone is scheduled for the exterior, with 552 linear feet of exterior walls x 1′ (9′ increased to 10′) = 552 SF of real stone at an allowance of $12.00 per SF = $7,452.00, for this item alone.

        Add the other items, and “he” could put a new Harley (Sportster Model) in the Garage of his new home if 9′ CLG HGTs were used.

        Random Bonus Fun – No Extra Charge : Ask a person, “What is a goatee?” Most will grab their chin and move their hand as if stroking a goatee during their description attempt.

        DONATE(?) Do you need a new shirt to replace the old white T for your blog pics?

        • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

          thanks for the break down of cost information – that sort of data is great

          (ps) I alway need a new shirt

          • txbuilder

            Regarding a new shirt and donations, you could make a non-procrastinatory appeal for a penny a day from each of your bloggers, and a “diligent” effort to double the number of participants everyday.

            You could there-by afford to turn an old T (go green) over to Peter Maxx for a make-over. (make sure he signs the shirt and provides a certified letter of authenticity)

            Since you are a family man, you could work with your daughter in laying out some of the pennies in tight formation imbedded in your Foyer as a floor covering, and continual daily reminder (unless you are in a renovation moved out mode) that pennies with creativity are not a “a statistically minor consideration”.

            “The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.” Uncle Albert.

  • jbushkey

    Since she was making a mess anyway and your firm name wasn’t going on the documents why didn’t you have some fun and try to get her to go with 20′ ceilings?  Then her frenemy couldn’t come along and easily one up her with 15′ ceilings in their house.

    I would like to see a second post going a bit deeper into ceiling heights discussing things like higher ceilings for comfort in the Dallas heat (if this makes a noticeable difference) rules of thumb for which rooms should be higher and lower and what heights, and any constructions issues from going higher.  Maybe you are not working with wood frame but at a certain height isn’t there a premium for longer studs?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      It’s all about the finished product and once we knew that our advice and experience didn’t amount to much in thier eyes, parting ways was the sound decision to make for everyone’s benefit.

      The short version to some of your other comments is that while we are cognizant of spacial volumes and how their sizes affects temperature, we are never deciding between 8′ or 20′, normally the difference has more to do with proportions. Since it’s always hot here, all these homes have no shortage of air conditioning.

      Yes, longer studs equal more money but again – in the grand scheme of things, the studs are the least expensive portion of that wall assembly.

    • Mark Mc Swain

      Ah, the “Charleston (SC)” Model.
      Many of the original houses in Charleston have 12 to 13 foot ceilings. Which “collect” warm, humid, summer-time air and sequester it above the occupants’ heads. The ground floor walls are also 16″ to 24″ thick, too (doubled walls being also common). This height was primarlily used for public spaces in those homes. The additional height also borught the upper floors into the increased breezes for cooling.

      These things could have some value in the DFW/NE reagion of Texas, excepting that so many just use a/c as a matter of course.

  • http://www.eco-modernism.com Becky Shankle

    What was that we were saying about the Jonses earlier?! Our living room has 14′ ceilings and I will never, ever live in another house that has any ceilings higher than 10′. I must be deeply in touch with my inner cave woman b/c I love 8′ ceilings.

  • http://www.abadiaccess.com Marcy

    I hate my living room! I live in a north dallas special (not by choice but by necessity-close to my synagogue). The ceiling in the living room is a two story volume and totally not proportional to the space. My husband loves “surround sound” and it is pretty impossible to get good sound. And talk about painting the walls, lighting the room in any balanced way, creating a sense of scale…. don’t even get me started.
    The Not So Big House concept by Sarah Susanka it is lost in builder homes

  • http://www.abadiaccess.com/ Marcy

    I hate my living room! I live in a north dallas special (not by choice but by necessity-close to my synagogue). The ceiling in the living room is a two story volume and totally not proportional to the space. My husband loves “surround sound” and it is pretty impossible to get good sound. And talk about painting the walls, lighting the room in any balanced way, creating a sense of scale…. don’t even get me started.
    The Not So Big House concept by Sarah Susanka it is lost in builder homes

  • http://kitchensync.typepad.com Kelly

    I totally agree on varying ceiling heights; it’s difficult to create intimacy with soaring ceilings, let alone dealing with the acoustics and HVAC.

    However, now my burning question is: when and how did you learn to judge Turkish prison tattoos? ;)

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob

      Absolutely right – once I get beyond the intimacy of the space, lower ceilings do help with convienent places to locate HVAC equipment, exchanges, dampers, etc.

      You don’t want to know how I know abou Turkish prison tattoos….

  • http://kitchensync.typepad.com/ Kelly

    I totally agree on varying ceiling heights; it’s difficult to create intimacy with soaring ceilings, let alone dealing with the acoustics and HVAC.

    However, now my burning question is: when and how did you learn to judge Turkish prison tattoos? ;)

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/ Bob

      Absolutely right – once I get beyond the intimacy of the space, lower ceilings do help with convienent places to locate HVAC equipment, exchanges, dampers, etc.

      You don’t want to know how I know abou Turkish prison tattoos….

  • http://Www.kitchendetailsanddesign.com Details and design

    Bob! Excellent post. I agree!! I just finished a gorgeous house with 14 ft ceilings everywhere. Was a serious design challenge. I am very proud of how it all came out and how I addressed the issues of enormous height on the kitchen and powder bath especially. Was not easy to make the scale right and it could have been a disaster. I did pitch a fit with the residential designer about the tray in the kitchen; forget it! I mean really??? Personally I prefer lower ceilings in the entry. I always feel the soaring entries of many new homes are just too much and easily can look over done.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob

      I am sure that was a challenge – I’ve done 14′ before but never all over. I don’t think I have the skill to pull it off!

  • http://Www.kitchendetailsanddesign.com/ Details and design

    Bob! Excellent post. I agree!! I just finished a gorgeous house with 14 ft ceilings everywhere. Was a serious design challenge. I am very proud of how it all came out and how I addressed the issues of enormous height on the kitchen and powder bath especially. Was not easy to make the scale right and it could have been a disaster. I did pitch a fit with the residential designer about the tray in the kitchen; forget it! I mean really??? Personally I prefer lower ceilings in the entry. I always feel the soaring entries of many new homes are just too much and easily can look over done.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/ Bob

      I am sure that was a challenge – I’ve done 14′ before but never all over. I don’t think I have the skill to pull it off!