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Community and Q&A

Martin’s short list of “Hard-to-fix mistakes”

aaronbeckworth | Posted in General Questions on

In response to a recent Q&A post, Martin Holladay offered a short list of “hard-to-fix mistakes”. The one that really caught my attention was numbered,
     3. Building a house with low ceilings.

I’ve been closely following GBA now for about two years while planning a small house in SW New Mexico. But of all the articles, links, Q&A posts, etc. that I’ve since read, this was the first time I noticed ceiling heights mentioned in such a way. I realize that cathedral ceilings are all the rage, and that 10 and 12 foot ceilings are highly desirable in the housing market. But I have a hard time with such general advice as, low ceiling are a mistake.

I wonder if anyone would be willing to argue in favor of low ceilings, not throughout a entire home, but rather in particular rooms. And what really is commonly considered “low” ceiling height. I understand that ceiling heights have steadily increased over the last 50+ years, but so have houses in general. Shouldn’t ceiling height be proportioned to the size of the room, and it’s level of commonality or intimacy?

I have the highest level of respect for Mr. Holladay, and I really appreciate his advocacy for small well designed homes. But small and simple-in-shape seem to me to go well with lower ceiling heights than one might expect when entering the type of energy pigs we call McMansions.

Would anyone dare to encourage an 8 or 9 foot ceiling in a 900 square foot modern cottage? What about a 7 foot ceiling for a small bathroom or sunroom within this same house. Would anyone go as far as to suggest a variety of ceiling heights for different wings of a home?


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  1. rockies63 | | #1

    You are absolutely right to use different ceiling heights depending on the size and function of the room.

    I would suggest you go to the library and get a couple of books written by Sarah Susanka from her series "The Not So Big House" (she has 6-7 books out now). In them she discusses the importance of using different ceiling heights to create a beautiful home, and also shows you where to utilize them.

    She also discusses the effective use of alcoves and creating a sense of "enclosure around activity" which is really just providing people with a smaller space within or next to a larger space (such as a dining nook or a window seat).

  2. Expert Member
    BILL WICHERS | | #2

    I don’t think Martin was advocating for really high ceilings. I suspect his intention was to build ceilings at a comfortable height and not go cheap and code minimum. Raising a ceiling after construction is a major project, so it definitely falls into the “hard to fix mistake” category.

    I’d go with normal 8 foot ceilings in most areas. 9 foot ceilings will feel very high to most people without really getting into the “really high” ceiling category. You have to make sure you’re happy with your design before you build.


  3. user-2310254 | | #3

    My last few houses have had 9 or 10 foot flat ceilings along with taller vaulted areas. I now find standard 8 foot ceilings pretty claustrophobic.

    I think Martin was arguing for keeping your options open on a new-built house or addition. That is, it is easier to drop a ceiling (if a new owner wants less height) than to raise a roof line.

  4. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    You've gotten good advice here so far. In case there was any uncertainty, I will clarify that I am not in favor of cathedral ceilings -- certainly not in every room.

    It's a rare room that feels good with a 7 foot ceiling, but a good architect can create a desirable result with a nook that is designed to feel cozy -- and that effect sometimes requires a low ceiling.

    If you are planning finished space in a basement or attic, plan ahead. These areas often end up with low, claustrophobic ceilings due to lack of planning. It's important to consider whether your space requires any boxed-in ductwork.

    I'm fairly happy with 8-foot ceilings in most rooms, but I like 8'6" or even 9'0" in some rooms. I don't like finished basements with 7'0" (or even 7'6") ceilings. Remember, though, that a room can feel cold and unwelcoming if your ceiling is too high. You should visit a lot of buildings, paying attention to ceiling height and paying attention to the emotional effect of different room proportions.

    One more point: In 1850, the average European adult male was 165 cm tall (64.9 inches). In 1980, the average German or Dutch adult male was more than 180 cm tall (70.9 inches). That's an increase of 6 inches -- so ceilings in an older house feel 6 inches lower to a modern adult male than the ceilings felt when the house was built.

    My final point is a simple one: whatever ceiling height you think you will enjoy, make sure that you have made a good decision -- because you won't be increasing your ceiling height after your house is complete. You can always lower a ceiling -- but once a house is framed, a ceiling cannot easily be raised.

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