ceiling height, think big thoughts

Looking Up: How Ceiling Height Elevates Your Mind


One of the most exciting parts of being a designer is knowing that the spaces we create can have a positive impact on the lives of the people who occupy them. We aren’t always aware of the factors built in to the world around us that affect our mood or even our creativity but that doesn’t mean we aren’t strongly influenced by them.  Here’s why we love high ceilings.

A recent study by marketing scholars Joan Meyers-Levy and Rui Zhu tested the effects of ceiling height on thinking (described in Fast Company’s recent feature, Why Our Brains Love High Ceilings). They found that test subjects “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.”  Fascinating.

Heads Up – How Moss Thinks About Ceilings 

Our residential work nearly always starts with an existing building – updating existing buildings is the greenest form of construction – so ceilings are one place we always have to work with existing conditions.

Within those parameters, though, there are a lot of possibility for striking and very livable buildings.  If we consider an addition, it is always an opportunity to find a little extra ceiling height.  Likewise, lower ceilings can be raised by exposing structure (getting the most out of the existing floor-to-floor height).

Make the Most of What You’ve Got

When a project we begin has high ceilings to begin with, we strive to make use of it.  At our West Loop Loft space we struck it lucky with thirteen foot ceilings.

We lowered that height only in the shower space, but we were careful to create lower visual datum lines both in the kitchen, where the cabinetry ends at a practical reach range and in the dividing wall between bedrooms and living space – separating person height windows from upper transoms above.  The effect both emphasizes the ceiling height and keeps it from feeling out of scale with people in below.

west loop loft

Let it all Hang out – Exposed Structure

Where we can, we bust up un-necessary sheetrock cladding to expose the structure of beautiful old buildings.  At the Erie Loft, we stripped paint and drywall from walls and ceilings to expose the beautiful masonry walls and timber beams.  This also exposed the metal ductwork for the HVAC system but why would we hide it a fake ceiling if it meant covering all that wood?

Erie loft beams

When the Ceiling is also the Floor

When we stripped away the dropped ceiling, we created a fun situation – where the ceiling of the living level is the floor of the bedroom level above.  That meant we had leeway to play around with materials and the result is a hallway with a translucent glass floor, showing movement upstairs and sharing more light from the bright upper hall with a the stairwell below.

Erie loft glass floor

High Ceilings (backwards R) Us

We certainly put our money where our mouth is on the ceiling height issue. At moss HQ, a former Chicago utility station is a two story space with light pouring in from two levels of windows on the street corner sides.

moss hq

The high ceiling lends plenty of drama (and opens up our mind set.  But we don’t want an undifferentiated tall space – instead its broke up into smaller areas.  The crows-nest sleeping nook is situated up close to the ceiling and creates a more enclosed siting area below.  A front office area is broken up with nine-foot moveable dividers which give a false ceiling effect that keeps the space from overwhelming.

Important note: we wouldn’t love the space nearly so much without the radiant flooring.  Trying to heat this space entirely with forced air would a wasteful exercise in futility.

Heating and Cooling tradeoffs with Ceiling Height

The energy efficient of your ceiling depends on its height … and also how you plan to heat and cool your space. To explain this easily – we turn to history:

Older buildings, especially those constructed before the advent of modern air conditioning, used high ceilings and large windows to let in lots of natural light, and to let the heat rise in summer, keeping life at floor level comfortably cool.  It would be more difficult to stay warm in winter, but people focused on more on staying warm in certain places (around a wood stove or radiator or with a hot water bottle under the covers) than they did on uniformly heating a whole house.

Once forced-air heating and cooling was possible, then normal and then taken for granted, the priority switched to interior spaces with lower volumes (lower ceilings) that had less cubic area to fill with a certain temperature of air. Its no surprise that the post WWII development boom filled the country with houses sporting 8′ ceilings built of standard materials.

Housing trends since then have seen ceiling heights rise again – remember those 2-story Great Rooms that were all the rage in upscale 90’s housing developments.  Those usually managed to be both supremely un-comfortable and very expensive to heat: lose-lose.  On the other hand, as typical ceiling heights trends have raised again,

Ceiling Heights and Our City

Looking at Chicago building types – the difference in the ceiling heights of buildings constructed in different eras is clear.

The ubiquitous north side Courtyard Apartment Building uses high ceilings, in combination with large windows and cross ventilation in every unit, to ensure that living spaces have plentiful access to both fresh air and light (cutting power and cooling requirements).

By contrast, Four-Plus-One Apartments, which were designed to fit a maximum number of residential floors AND a parking level under the 40′ height limit of their zoning requirement, have limited ceiling heights.  Their interior spaces have a compressed feeling and are very dependent on artificial light and AC units.

This isn’t only true in the Windy City.  San Francisco architect David Baker, FAIA, points out the same contrast between older and newer building types in his home territory.  He proposes that planning code regulations should be expanded to specify the number of floors allowed in certain zoning areas, not just the height, setting up minimum heights for the ground floors of buildings.  Doing this would, at the least, create a more street friendly ground floor, and at best, ensure spacious light filled residential units become the norm, even among low income housing.  We couldn’t agree more.

In short, we will always strive to make our rooms feel tall.  What do you think about ceiling height?  Describe your feelings of freedom in the comments!