Are high ceilings a sign of wretched architectural excess or just good taste?

What we build.
May 20 2009 6:44 AM

How High

Are high ceilings a sign of wretched architectural excess or just good taste?

Adagio ad for 11-foot ceilings.
Adagio ad for 11-foot ceilings 

Certain features are taken for granted in today's residential market: granite countertops, glass-walled showers, and, judging from this recent ad for a new Upper West Side condo, very tall ceilings. Not so long ago, 8-foot ceilings were the norm. What changed?

Ceilings in new suburban tract housing got taller more than a decade ago. Instead of 8 feet—a dimension that resulted from two 4-foot-wide drywall sheets laid horizontally—home builders built 9-foot ceilings. At first, taller ceilings were offered as extras, but soon 9 feet became standard, so much so that drywall manufacturers started producing 4½–foot-wide sheets. Not be outdone, the builders of custom homes went to 10 feet.

Advertisement

Something similar happened to office buildings. In 1965, the newest skyscraper in Manhattan was Eero Saarinen's CBS Building. The stylish interiors, by Florence Knoll Basset, were the best that corporate money could buy, modern art hung next to modern furniture (much of it designed by Saarinen and Bassett), and the ceilings were 8¾-feet high, slightly taller than the norm at that time. By the late 1970s, office ceilings were routinely 9 feet, and 25 years later, the ceilings of the Renzo Piano-designed New York Times Building were 11 feet, which is quickly becoming the standard for Class A office buildings. The new Comcast Center in Philadelphia, for example, has 11-foot ceilings—and 13-foot ceilings on the executive floors.

"Making ceilings taller doesn't add that much to the overall cost of a building," says Robert A.M. Stern, the architect of the Comcast Center, "but taller ceilings allow light to penetrate deeper into the building, which is important if you are optimizing daylighting." Another benefit of taller ceilings in office towers is that they make for higher buildings. At 975 feet, the 58-story Comcast tower is the tallest building in downtown Philadelphia; with 8¾-foot ceilings, it would have been more than 150 feet shorter.

Are taller ceilings yet another example of wretched architectural excess? Not necessarily. In fact, it is low ceilings that are the aberration. Throughout the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, ceilings in middle-class homes, offices, and institutional buildings were 10-12 feet or more. They followed the architectural rule of thumb: "The larger the room, the taller the ceiling." During the postwar era, when buildings started to be mass-produced, builders and architects, considering tall ceilings wasteful and inefficient, saw no reason to make them taller than the legal minimum, which could be as little as 7 feet. Thus, the mailroom and the boardroom got the same low ceiling.

What caused the return of the tall ceiling? The historic preservation movement can take a lion's share of the credit, as well as the developers of all those converted industrial lofts (which usually had tall ceilings). Living and working in older buildings, people discovered that taller rooms simply felt—and looked—better. Builders were happy to oblige since tall ceilings didn't cost much more, as Stern points out—but you could charge more for them.

It's not just a matter of prestige—a tall room looks better proportioned. Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio devoted a chapter of his famous treatise, The Four Books on Architecture, to the subject and included rules to calculate ceiling heights: Add the length and breadth of a room and divide by two; or, more simply, make the room as high as it is broad. I once spent a week in his Villa Saraceno, not a particularly large house but with 19-foot ceilings. At first the tall rooms seemed a little overwhelming, but after a few days I got used to the feeling of generous spaciousness. At night, with candles on the table, the ceilings disappeared altogether, and it was like being outside.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.