Ceiling Height Matters

Looking Up

Click Here for the Audio Version of this Newsletter

As I write these words I’m staring at the Eiffel tower outside large windows from the AirBnB I rented in Paris. It lights up every hour, it does a little show. It’s very aesthetic. It’s 9:30pm and I’m inside the apartment. Why? Because there is a virus ravaging Europe and the number of cases are skyrocketing. No one knows what to do so they set up a curfew. They shut down the city. Unfortunately, it’s winter and in the winter people get sick, with the flu and with other viruses. Fortunately for me the price of the AirBnB I’m staying at dropped 50%. I can’t afford to live here or even rent here. I’m not a rich guy. However, I’m here because of a worldwide pandemic. I feel good being here. I don’t mind the curfew. I walk around these beautiful city during the day and I go home to an apartment with 12 foot ceilings. Things are OK for now.

I remember being in Washington D.C. after I graduated from school. I moved there for a job, and the country was in a big recession. I rented a small apartment with low ceilings and little natural light. I was miserable. I didn’t feel good. I didn’t feel healthy. Something was off. I had dark thoughts. I always felt a huge sigh of relief when I stepped outside. Why was that? For a variety of reasons, but the ceilings being low was one of them.

High ceilings may not cure a crippling drug addiction or a gunshot wound. But it certainly seems to have mattered to my mental health and how my thoughts are generated.

Sometimes it’s mysterious why we feel the way we do during a certain moment. But sometimes if we hone in on the environment we are in, it could explain certain feelings.

Churches and Houses of Worship

Every religious temple has had high ceilings since forever. Look at modern churches from the Catholic, Orthodox or (some) protestant denominations. What do they all have in common? The ceiling is high.

Aesthetics, in the Christian religion, at least for Catholics and Orthodox, is part of the religion. These aesthetics have a continuity that predates them. The use of incense has been used for religious ceremonies for over 4000 years. Incense is still here, it’s very powerful. Montaigne wrote about the power of smell:

The value of aesthetics even applies to languages. What is the function of holy languages used in houses of worship? Is it to be understood or is there something else going on?

What the Human Feels

For some reason the human feels the space above his head acutely. In fact I would even go so far as to say the human feels the space above his head more than the space around him.

Part of the appeal of high ceilings is a general preference for space, but the behavioral and brain evidence suggests there’s more to it than that. Some research from a few years back ties high ceilings to a psychological sense of freedom. And new neuroimaging work shows that a tall room triggers our tendencies toward spatial exploration.

A few years ago, marketing scholars Joan Meyers-Levy and Rui Zhu wanted to see whether the height of a ceiling had any impact on the way a person thinks. So they recruited test participants for a number of different experiments and modified the study rooms so that some had 10-foot ceilings and others had (false) eight-foot ceilings. Meyers-Levy and Zhu also hung up Chinese lanterns so participants would look up and, consciously or not, process the ceiling height

Across several experiments, the researchers found evidence that high ceilings seemed to put test participants in a mindset of freedom, creativity, and abstraction, whereas the lower ceilings prompting more confined thinking.

In one test, for instance, participants in the 10-foot room completed anagrams about freedom (with words such as “liberated” or “unlimited”) significantly faster than participants in the eight-foot room did. But when the anagrams were related to concepts of constraint, with words like “bound or “restricted,” the situation played out in reverse. Now the test participants with 10-foot ceilings finished the puzzles slower than those in the eight-foot rooms did.

A new neuroscience study, had test participants look at 200 images of rooms while in a brain scanner. Half of the pictures showed rooms with high ceilings, half with low (below).

Participants had an easy job: indicate whether they considered the room “beautiful” or “not beautiful.” Little surprise, participants were more likely to judge a room beautiful if it had a high ceiling compared with a low ceiling. But the greater insight emerged when Vartanian and collaborators studied brain activity. They found heightened activity related to high ceilings in the left precuneus and left middle frontal gyrus—two areas associated with visuospatial exploration. The left precuneus, in particular, has been found to increase in cortical thickness after spatial navigation training.

So another part of the appeal of high ceilings seems to be that they capture our visual attention and engage our desire to observe our surroundings. Vartanian and company ruled out other explanations based on the imaging data, including the possibility that high ceilings simply put us in a good mood. That idea didn’t pan out because participants looking at high and low ceilings showed no fMRI difference in brain regions related to pleasure, emotion, or reward.

Climate and Ceiling Height

Before the International Style or the so-called modernist movement in architecture, our ancestors knew how to adapt the room heights according to the climate, achieving maximum effect (comfort) for the least effort (energy). Today we build 8-9 ft rooms from Bermuda to Reykjavik.

In warm climates you need ample ceiling height, as hot air rises the difference in temperature at floor level and ceiling level in a tall room can be as much as 4 degrees c all other things being equal.

As humans are comfortable only in very narrow temperature ranges, small changes make a huge difference. Even the poorer had tall ceilings and could live with comparative comfort, not so much today, and at a huge expenditure in money, time, (fossil fuel) energy, materials.

Conversely, in colder climates, lower ceilings meant higher temperatures. Here are log houses from Russia and Sweden. The efficiently constructed fireplace created an interior draught that sucked fresh air in and expelled smoke, dust. Fans or mechanical ventilation not needed.

19th century and earlier New England houses are sometimes barely 7', although over the decades they tend to compress as more layers of flooring are laid one over the other.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can build a house with higher ceilings. It may even have changed this election.

But not every house in the “north” had low ceilings. 1530 chateau kitchen interior. Dieppe, France:

The Curious Case of America

The United States of History is the richest country in the history of the world. Way more people here live like kings, millions of them, than anytime before. A middle class family can afford a decent sized house in most places in the country. Even though inequality is high, this still holds. America is rich.

One of the problems of living in America is that it doesn’t “feel” as rich as it should feel given the wealth. There is a variety of issues why this is, but one of them is ceiling height. Most houses in America, even middle to upper middle class ones have low ceilings. Around 8 foot. This is low. Let’s look at a historical example from Rome, A 18th century home and a modern office building:

What's especially fascinating about ceiling height is that for most non-apartment housing it would be negligibly more expensive and technically demanding to have high ceilings (it's free to build up), so low ceilings are absolutely a choice and a mentality, not a practicality.

America had this massive home building boom in the 20th century. But like the nouveau riche that they are they focused on square feet instead of Lindy rich ceiling height.

Ceiling heights in Victorian times had reached an average of 13 feet, based on English city houses. American heights moderated to eight feet with the advent of mass housing developments after World War II. Ceiling 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.

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.

Japanese Hack

If you need a high ceiling twitter account to follow. This guy does a decent job: @hiighceilings