Nostalgia paints the past with a rosy glow.
Older houses with high ceilings and architectural details appeal on many levels – more room to breathe and rooms with character not found in modern functional boxes.
Why did people in the past invest in higher ceilings?
Reasons Why Old Houses Have High Ceilings
A defining feature of older houses is the large and airy ceilings compared with modern buildings.
The reasons behind these generous proportions include:
#1 Expensive Homes Survive
Realistically not every house built in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century survives today.
So, it is probably not accurate to say that all old houses had higher ceilings.
Wealthy people had homes with high ceilings, and these houses remain today as historic buildings.
Many of these larger houses get converted into apartments, and today there is the impression that all older homes have high ceilings.
#2 Better Ventilation
Before today’s cleaner HVAC systems, fires provided heat and hot water, lighting was by oil lamps, and a large proportion of the adult population smoked tobacco.
A higher ceiling gives somewhere for that indoor air pollution to collect and allows top opening windows to let in cleaner air without ground-level drafts.
#3 Poorer Construction Techniques
If you want a complete wall of windows for excellent light in your rooms, your architect and builder have no issues meeting your design.
In the past, windows were smaller and narrower for cost and structural reasons.
If you want more natural light, you need taller, not broader, windows and high ceilings give better lighting options with older construction techniques.
#4 Summer Cooling
The temperature difference between the floor and ceiling in an older property can be as much as four degrees as hot air rises.
On a hot summer day, if you combine a high ceiling with a stone floor, you get a cooling element at ground level.
Today with air conditioning, the impact of natural cooling through passive design is less significant.
Still, a high ceiling makes the summer heat more bearable in a hot climate, even with air conditioning.
#5 Sound Proofing
A higher ceiling means less sound travels from upstairs to downstairs, giving a greater degree of privacy.
High ceilings and thick walls allow people to have private conversations in different rooms.
Many modern dwellings suffer from a complete lack of privacy between rooms and floors.
#6 Avoiding Disease
A long time ago, people thought that disease resulted from bad air or miasma.
For health reasons, high ceilings meant reducing miasma at the people level.
Even today, health professionals stress that ventilation is the key to a healthy living space.
A psychological study confirms anecdotal evidence that people prefer rooms with more headroom because living in a space with high ceilings promotes a feeling of freedom and general wellbeing.
Ceiling height influences how you think about life, problem-solve, and general attitude.
People are happier in rooms with high ceilings – the higher, the better!
When people lived in houses with high ceilings, that building style was fashionable amongst the wealthy for status and comfort.
Architecture is an art form that goes through movements, and an experienced reader of buildings can tell you in detail what era influenced which rooms in any house.
One of the reasons older homes benefit from high ceilings is that fashion promoted them.
#9 Material and Labor Costs
Today decreasing room heights gives significant cost savings.
Previously labor and material cost was less of a factor in determining ceiling height, and the differential between buildings with high ceilings and low was less of a barrier.
People prefer rooms with more breathing space, and the lower cost in the past resulted in rooms with higher ceilings as a standard amongst the better-built homes.
What Are the Pros and Cons of High vs. Low Ceilings?
An 8 ft. ceiling in a modern house is spacious but not compared to the 10-13 ft. headspaces provided in older homes.
The pros of a high ceiling are:
- Taller windows and more natural light.
- Better airflow and circulation.
- People feel lighter and freer.
- Plenty of available space above head height for storage or art.
- The room accommodates bold color schemes without claustrophobia.
- Excellent acoustic properties.
- Less hazardous for taller people.
The cons of a high ceiling include:
- More expensive to decorate.
- Need ladders to change light bulbs and paint ceilings.
- More expensive to heat or cool.
- Need careful furniture choices.
- It can feel cold in winter as hot air rises.
- Storage space is above head height.
The practicalities of living with a high ceiling involve extensive use of ladders for simple tasks.
In winter, you pay to heat a large volume of air compared with a room with a lower ceiling, and this requirement may mean needing to buy a larger heating stem with increased material and labor cost.
Does the Climate Matter?
Colder regions tend to favor houses with lower ceilings – the interior is easy to heat and feels cozier with woolen throws and thick drapes.
In hotter climates, homes with higher ceilings let the air circulate more freely inside, giving the rooms a cooler and fresher feel.
Building styles relate to climate and available materials.
Most people prefer rooms with more headroom, but practical considerations of cost, materials, and labor may result in rooms with lower ceilings in modern developments.
When building many homes fitting the ceiling height, using entire lengths of materials like drywall can substantially reduce labor and materials costs.
A higher ceiling may involve cutting and fitting additional materials.
Why Did Victorian Houses Have High Ceilings?
Victorian working-class homes and cottages had low ceilings, and only the wealthy could afford rooms with high ceilings.
Most public buildings had high ceilings for practical ventilation and to impress visitors.
The average height of a high-status Victorian room was 13 feet.
This extra room provided space for smoke and other indoor pollutants to rise above people’s heads. Combine this design with tall top-opening windows, and you have enhanced ventilation for health.
In public buildings, you can get ceilings at double height or more.
Houses built between 1820 and 1914 class as Victorian.
Do Georgian Houses Have High Ceilings?
A house built between 1714 to 1830 classes as Georgian.
There is an overlap with the beginning of the Victorian era, and the Georgian style follows classical Greek and Roman architecture even for more modest homes.
Careful calculation of the room’s proportions, windows, and other features combined with lovely high ceilings lend a light, airy feel.
Most surviving Georgian homes are high-status houses belonging to wealthy families.
In the US, Georgian ceilings are typically 10-11 feet for ground floor rooms and 9-10 feet for upper rooms – higher than more modern designs but not excessive.
Why Did Ceilings Get Lower?
One driver for lowering the ceilings to 8-9 feet is the high energy price.
Lower ceilings mean cheaper energy bills and lower materials costs for large-scale developments in post-war rebuilding.
Lower ceilings made economic sense – but the lower ceiling plus poor ventilation cause older homes to heat up indoors when the weather turns hot.
However, people still prefer higher ceilings, and architectural styles are swinging to provide a minimum of ten feet in more luxurious accommodation.
Why Do Public Buildings (New & Old) Have High Ceilings?
Historic train stations and modern transport hubs all feature impressive ceiling heights.
Varied reasons may include:
- Impressing the traveling public with a statement building.
- Better ventilation and light.
- Avoiding a trapped, claustrophobic feeling.
- Allowing people to see clocks and hear announcements.
- Putting light fittings and other equipment out of the reach of damage.
For retail spaces, high ceilings improve shoppers’ mood and desire to be in that space.
Churches and opera houses use high ceilings to provoke awe and provide better acoustics.
Any building that meets the needs of a crowd benefits from having a higher roof with better ventilation and light.
Plus, a tall ceiling allows stunning displays and exhibitions, from performance art to sculptures.
Are High Ceilings an Advantage in Selling?
Prospective buyers are willing to pay up to $4,000 more for a house with high ceilings than a comparable property with lower ceilings.
Although it costs more to heat, cool, decorate, and furnish a home with high ceilings, the psychological comfort of extra headroom appeals.
Most people who commission a house opt for higher ceilings, even in countries where the climate is freezing.
Minstrel Galleries and Mezzanine
A house can benefit from a double-height ceiling and still have useable space on the upper floor with the intelligent use of a Minstrel gallery or Mezzanine.
Although modern architects use these features to provide loft-style living with an open-plan interior, the concept is centuries old.
Although the bedroom ceilings on the gallery are lower, this tends to be an advantage in promoting a warm, cozy feeling for sleep.
The bedrooms benefit from the rising hot air, and the downstairs feels light and spacious with double-height ceilings.
How Do Architects Use Ceiling Height?
Designing buildings for residential, industrial, or public use includes understanding the psychology of space on people’s behavior.
The ceiling height is one of the tools an architect can use to persuade people to congregate in some areas while avoiding others.
In a busy transport hub, you can convince people to move swiftly along the corridors with lower ceilings and linger in the retail spaces with more headroom.
Crowded offices benefit from an atrium to improve ventilation and provide a relaxing meeting space.
When you understand how ceiling height influences the mind, you add an extra dimension to how your building works to please and control the crowd.
Houses with high ceilings are not exclusively historic.
Modern designers and architects appreciate the need for high ceilings, and today’s high-status buildings use high ceilings.
These more expensive and desirable properties will endure for longer, and in the future, someone may wonder why today’s buildings have high ceilings.
Then, and now, high ceilings give you room to breathe, even if they cost more to heat and maintain.