Fred A. Bernstein

Tall Order

Nationally, ceiling heights rise

Published in The New York Times, January 22, 2006

Published: January 22, 2006

IN the 1990's, J. S. Hovnanian & Sons, a home builder in the Philadelphia area, made nine-foot ceilings standard in its houses. The goal was to distinguish itself from the competition, said Garo Hovnanian, the company's marketing manager. "And for a time it worked."

But now, Mr. Hovnanian said, "everyone is doing nine-foot ceilings." So last year the company began offering "sunken" kitchens and family rooms. Lowering the floors gives those rooms a height of 10 feet.

When it comes to higher ceilings, Mr. Hovnanian is right: everyone is doing it. After decades in which eight-foot ceilings were ubiquitous, nine feet has become the new standard, according to Gopal Ahluwalia, the director of research for the National Association of Home Builders.

Sometime between 1995 and 2004, nine feet replaced eight feet as the most common ceiling height for single-story houses and the first floors of multistory houses, according to data gathered by the association. And even on upper floors, ceilings nine feet or higher are nearly twice as common as they were 10 years ago, Mr. Ahluwalia said.

The move to higher ceilings is consumer driven. In the association's latest survey, when buyers were asked to choose which extras they most wanted in a house, "one of the things that came out loud and clear was higher ceilings," Mr. Ahluwalia said.

The survey showed that younger buyers, in their 20's and 30's, are even more likely than older buyers to want high ceilings.

But it is not because younger buyers are taller. Statistics gathered by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys in 1999 to 2002 showed that both men and women 40 to 49 were slightly taller than those 20 to 39. And it is not because people are becoming much taller on average (although they are heavier). Over all, a typical American has "grown" less than two-tenths of an inch in the last decade, according to Sandra Smith, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That suggests that the move toward higher ceilings is not so much about physical comfort as about a desire for everyday grandeur. "You get a very warm feeling when you walk into a home with a higher ceiling," Mr. Hovnanian said. "Buyers always see the value."

In Boston, Doug Dolezal, an architect who has designed several condominium buildings, insists on ceilings of at least 10 feet. "Personally, I'd take a smaller unit with 12-foot ceilings over a larger unit with eight-foot ceilings any day of the week," he said.

Mr. Dolezal said that eight-foot ceilings are acceptable for secondary living spaces like bathrooms and vestibules but not for living spaces. "A high ceiling improves the proportion of a room," he said, "and architecture is all about proportions."

But architecture is also about details. Mr. Dolezal said he spends much time working out the placement of the mechanical systems (sprinkler pipes, ductwork and so forth) so he can avoid lowering ceilings.

As luxuries go, ceiling height is relatively affordable. Adding height costs less than adding breadth, a number of experts explained, because it does not require more foundation or more roofing.

It does add to costs, however, because it requires more materials and custom features like extra-tall doors and oversized windows meant to take advantage of the extra height, Mr. Hovnanian said.

Nevertheless, the move to nine-foot ceilings may mean fewer really tall spaces are built in houses and apartments. With higher ceilings over all, people do not feel the same need for double-height spaces that marked so many McMansions, Mr. Ahluwalia said.

As a result, "the two-story family room is going out of style," he said. Mr. Ahluwalia based his prediction on interviews with 60 architects about "the house of the future" - what they think houses will look like in 2015.

Higher ceilings generally mean higher heating bills. But, in an era of rising fuel prices, the elimination of double-height spaces may offset some of the extra expense.

In their desire for more headroom, buyers have been influenced by pictures in home design magazines of downtown lofts, some built as factories with ceilings of 12 feet or more. And they may be reacting to the low ceilings of the houses they grew up in.

While Victorian houses routinely featured ceilings of at least nine feet, the 20th century brought experiments in low-height living. The Prairie style of Frank Lloyd Wright was an exploration of horizontality. The houses had extravagant overhangs, but ceilings, in some cases, were less than seven feet high.

Mass production also led to a standard for low ceilings. The architect Le Corbusier saw houses as machines for living, with all the stripped-down functionality that this implied.

After World War II, developers looked to create the most housing for the least cost, with Levittown, N.Y., on Long Island, leading the way. If ceilings felt too low, decorators advised the use of dark floors, to make that plane recede, and vertical accessories, like floor-to-ceiling drapes, to maximize the appearance of height.

But now consumers seem to be saying they want real height. Mr. Ahluwalia said that higher ceilings are appearing not just in single family homes, but also in apartments.

Chad Oppenheim, a Miami architect who is working on about 20 condominium projects, said he rarely designs a building with ceilings lower than 10 feet.

Part of the reason, he said, is that with rooms getting bigger and more open, low ceilings seem too confining. "You need the higher ceilings to maintain the right proportions," Mr. Oppenheim said.

In addition, while people may not be getting bigger, contemporary art certainly is.

"More and more, people are telling me they need 12-foot ceilings, not for themselves, but for their collections," Mr. Oppenheim said.