After visiting some of the biggest basilicas in Europe and marveling at the incredibly high ceilings and their intricate designs, I can understand and appreciate why most of today’s homeowners list high ceilings on their “must-have” features. The appeal and charm of high ceilings go back through the centuries.
Even the great Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio wrote a chapter about high ceilings in his classic dissertation The Four Books on Architecture and added a formula for ceiling heights and proportions. And in Pre-World War II America, the ceilings in many homes were definitely higher than 8 feet. In fact, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the norm was 10-to-12-foot ceilings in homes, offices, and other buildings.
An end to high ceilings came with postwar mass production. Considered inefficient by contractors and builders, high ceilings were discarded in typical Ranch style, Cape Cod style, and split-level houses of the ‘50s, ‘60s’, and ‘70s; so postwar homes came with ceilings only as high as 7 to 8 feet because building lower ceilings was more affordable. Lower ceilings were also preferred by some because the resulting smaller volume was easier and more affordable to heat and cool.
Raise high the roof beams: High ceilings give the covered deck of this 1-story, 4-bedroom Contemporary style home plan an airy and breezy ambiance (House Plan #161-1085).
The “Revival” of High Ceilings
Something happened during the building boom of the late ‘80s and ‘90s, not so much in mass housing as in custom building – the era of the so-called McMansion – where builders competed to build larger and larger houses with taller and taller ceilings. It was not unusual for a Great Room to have double-height cathedral ceilings.
This high-ceiling “revival” can be traced in part to historic preservations of prewar apartment buildings that featured high ceilings, hardwood floors, and solid wood doors. In addition, developers in many major cities converted factories and other industrial buildings with high ceilings into offices – and slowly replaced cramped quarters into flowing open spaces. People who worked in those renovated lofts appreciated the look and feeling of space, light, and ventilation in the taller rooms – and wanted the same atmosphere in their homes.
It wasn’t long, however, until homeowners realized that super-high ceilings carry a high price: it is much more expensive to heat and cool these voluminous spaces, and it is extremely difficult to keep them clean and free of cobwebs – and to paint! In 2015, a survey conducted by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) indicated that average home buyers wanted higher ceilings but preferred “more modest” 9-foot ceilings on the first floor. So after years of homes with 8-foot ceilings, the overall housing trend has moved toward slightly more voluminous interiors – not the grand double-height cathedral ceilings of McMansions but the 9-to-11-foot variety.
The charming living room of a prewar apartment in Brooklyn, New York, features a high ceiling. Tall windows and a fan compensated for the lack of air conditioning (courtesy Brownstoner).
Advantages of High Ceilings
Just imagine yourself walking into a home with high ceilings. There’s the immediate sense of space, air, and light. High ceilings are interesting, appealing, and have definite advantages.
They are elegant, fascinating, and luxurious – and open up the room.
In warmer climates, it’s easier to cool homes with high ceilings – making the residence more energy-efficient.
No one ever feels cramped or cooped up in a room with high ceilings.
They add to the resale value of a home.
They provide versatility for a variety of décor ideas. For example, you can add beams for a rustic look; go contemporary, modern, or traditional with pendant lights; or install antique chandeliers for an Old World feel.
Space and light are the high points of this living room in a 2-story, 5-bedroom Modern style home plan with contemporary touches. Tall glass windows and pendant lights enhance the effect of the high ceiling (House Plan #161-1084).
Aside from aesthetics and the overall attraction of high ceilings, there’s also scientific data that shows high ceilings stimulate the brain and encourage creative thinking.
In 2007, according to website Science Daily, research conducted by Joan Meyers-Levy, Professor of Marketing at the University of Minnesota, and Rui (Juliet) Zhu, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, showed that the way people think and act is affected by ceiling height. In the study, ceiling heights were modified to test how participants responded. The results revealed that volunteers placed in rooms with ceiling heights of 10 feet completed anagrams more freely, creatively, and faster than those confined to rooms with lower ceilings.
In a more recent international study conducted at the University of Toronto-Scarborough and reported by the website Co. Design, findings indicate that high ceilings are tied to a psychological sense of freedom: “a tall room triggers our tendencies toward spatial exploration.” The study builds on the earlier research by Meyers-Levy and Zhu that high ceilings encourage creative thinking and may explain why people choose homes that are airy and breezy.
This high-ceilinged crafts/hobby room in a 2-story, 5-bedroom Mediterranean style home plan with Colonial influences is a perfect space to indulge your creativity and originality (House Plan #161-1077).
While changes and trends in ceilings are bound to come, there is no reason to hold back on installing 9-foot ceilings in the next new home you build. They’re interesting, eye-catching, and versatile, and they give you that sense of space, air, and light.
Footnote: The lead image in this article is the living room of a 2-story, 5-bedroom Mediterranean home plan with Colonial influences. For more information, click here.