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