By Bill Primavera
A visitor to our home last week commented on its luxuriously high ceilings and how “open” it made our living space.
Yes, we opted to pay more money for the top floor of our condo building, which featured ceiling heights that are two feet higher than on lower floors. Once experiencing 10-foot ceilings, it’s hard to go back.
Many years ago, when my wife and I discovered our dream home, we were delighted that we could figure out a way to turn a one-and one-half story saltbox wing with all original 18th century details into a separate apartment.
However, it came with one caveat. Whenever it was available for rent and we received inquiries from prospective tenants, the first thing my wife would ask was, “Do you mind telling me how tall you are?”
There was always a questioning pause on the other end of the line, but if the answer was 6-foot-2 or over, her response was, “Sorry, I don’t think this apartment would be for you.”
The reason was simple to explain. The structure was built in 1734 when people were shorter, and the ceilings on both floors are barely two inches more than that in height. We didn’t want to waste any very tall person’s time in considering a home where they might feel like Gulliver visiting Lilliput or Alice in Wonderland inside the rabbit’s house.
In those days, most houses were utilitarian structures and homebuilders knew that lower ceilings meant less space to heat in winter and, therefore, less wood chopping to fit into a day already bursting with physical activity.
Greater affluence afforded ceilings with greater height. The same holds true today. While ceiling heights in Victorian times had reached an average of 13 feet, based on English city houses, heights moderated to eight feet with the advent of mass housing developments after World War II. That height, based on the standardized length of an eight-foot stud, stayed in place until the term McMansion was coined in the early 1980s, where center halls and family rooms could soar two stories high.
By the end of the 20th century, increased fuel costs put a damper on ceiling heights so that today the average new construction had nine-foot ceilings on the first floor and eight feet on the second. That extra foot in height on the first floor, it is estimated, can increase the building cost from $20,000 to $30,000 for a 4,000-square-foot house, depending on the region.
To keep everything in proper scale, a higher ceiling means larger furniture, taller windows, thicker crown molding, a taller fireplace mantel and bigger light fixtures. Even artwork has to be larger to cover more wall space.
What mitigates the extra expense of taller ceilings is the cost savings that come from better insulation and other energy-saving improvements to windows and doors.
In the distant past, homes were built with what we call a “balloon frame,” where studs go from grade level to roof, as opposed to the “platform frame” we use today, where each floor’s studs make its own separate box and one box is placed upon the other. With a balloon frame, ceilings could be any height, but as the milling of studs was standardized to eight feet in the early 20th century, ceiling heights were almost universally that same measurement.
A comfortable ceiling height today depends on who you talk to. An architect friend told me that affluent clients are asking for a nine-foot minimum ceiling but prefer 10- or even 12-foot ceilings. Anything less than that is unacceptable to the people who do not have to be concerned with utility costs. New zoning regulations keep even the wealthiest clients from going overboard. Building height is limited in our communities, which in turn limits the height to which we can build ceilings.
Beyond cost, another factor to consider is the psychology of it all. Pulte Homes, one of the nation’s largest homebuilders, recently conducted research demonstrating that while consumers like higher ceilings to give a room a more expansive feel, it can render the space cold and austere.
Today, besides an open floor plan, we want homes that are more inviting, casual and warm. Part of achieving that is with ceilings that are appropriately scaled. So, if you’re a house hunter, carefully consider the space between your head and ceiling, because it can’t be changed easily, unless you partake of the magic mushrooms enjoyed by Alice in Wonderland!
While Bill Primavera, The Home Guru, enjoys a career as a writer and publicist, he is a Realtor® with William Raveis Real Estate, specializing in upper Westchester and Putnam Counties. To engage the services of The Home Guru to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.
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