12

The majority of multi-storey houses built before World War II have ceilings higher than nowadays. Today, the standard is about 2.4m, but in the 19th century or the first half of the 20th century it was commonly about 3m high. Why? It's counter-intuitive: in earlier times, the technology was less capable of building high rises, so rather lower ceilings would have been expected.

  • 1
    Actually, I speculate your intuition may be backwards on this. High-rises are expensive. If you're going to build a lot of them, you want more bang for your buck. For a 22.5 m high-rise, 3m ceiling gives you about 7 floors. 2.4m ceiling gives you about 9 floors. Two extra floors is a lot more area from which to recuperate the costs of building. 3m was probably somewhat standard before high-rises were common, so when they were first built they matched this standard before they became more common and efficiency was required. – called2voyage Dec 14 '16 at 17:45
  • 8
    As a pure guess, perhaps it has something to do with the methods of lighting. Prior to electric lighting, they'd be using gas and oil lanterns and candles, all of which give off smoke, hot air and other vapors. High ceilings would help keep this away from the people in the rooms. – Steve Bird Dec 14 '16 at 18:37
  • 12
    Do you have a source for the claim that the majority of pre-WWII houses had high ceilings? I think it's possible that you're seeing selection bias: just as today, higher ceilings were a sign of wealth, and fancier houses would be more likely to survive, perhaps being remodeled instead of torn down. – jamesqf Dec 14 '16 at 19:07
  • I know the old people in New York City call high-ceiling apartments "Pre-war apartments." I think this might be limited to a 1900-1940 USA urban trend. – axsvl77 Dec 14 '16 at 21:47
  • 1
    @jamesqf I have been to plenty of old, "popular" (i.e. cheap) houses and flat buildings in Spain and they mostly had high ceilings, with most exceptions being isolated country cottages in the colder mountain areas (which needed to keep exposed surface down to minimize heat losses). – SJuan76 Dec 15 '16 at 8:47
22

Smoke. The high ceilings provided somewhere for it to dissipate above mouth and eye level.

It's rather hard to imagine how prevalent smoke was before mid-20th century. Not only was tobacco smoking widespread, but also the use of candles and oil lamps. Open fires for heating and cooking contributed much less, as almost all smoke went up the chimney.

  • Spot on. Also, note the prevalence of wall vents in those earlier houses. – Miner_Glitch Apr 28 '18 at 5:29
4

I have heard a couple of theories, here there are:

  • Because older construction technologies were worse1 than modern ones.

    And this meant that the section of walls that you could remove (for example, to leave space for a window) was more limited. So, the only solution for providing better illumination and ventilation was to make the windows taller, which did require taller walls.

  • Because it was (sometimes) more efficient.

    In warmer climates, with no A/C systems, a high ceiling allowed hot air to rise, leaving a (slightly) colder one at the people level. It was specially useful for the last story of the buildings to provide insulation from the heat radiating from the ceilings. Of course, I would like for examples of these only in warmer countries.

Of course, I am letting out monumental buildings (churchs, cathedrals, palaces) because these were often designed with the idea that the high ceilings would enhance the importance of the building.


1IMHO, not because the knowledge did not exist but because only a handful of buildings were designed by well formed architects; e.g. Gaudi designed exceptional facades because he designed his buildings so the facades would not bear the weight of the building, giving him greater freedom Casa Batllo

More mundane buildings with a modest budget would be designed by architects with less formation who would rely in making almost every single wall a load wall.

  • 2
    An example of high-ceiling traditional houses designed for warmer climates are the Queenslander style houses in Australia. (tse2.mm.bing.net/…). Often built up off the ground, with open verandahs and the average ceiling height is 14' +, with an extended gap between the actual roof and interior ceiling - they can be opened right up and allow a lot of airflow and are surprisingly cool in summer (with 40 + degree days). I grew up in one. They are light and airy. – Thomo Dec 15 '16 at 3:09
2

A high ceiling allowed for better air flow, made rooms feel less crowded, made rooms feel more grand and in the hot summer months the difference in temperature between the ground and the ceiling is about 4 degrees Celsius. Furthermore it reduces noise between floors so its actually ideal for both homes and "high rises".

Also 3 metres isn't very high and 2.4 metres is actually quite a low ceiling, many Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian homes have ceilings around 3-5 metres high.

  • 2
    Sources would improve this answer. – Lars Bosteen Aug 20 '18 at 4:31
0

Aside from smoke ventilation and cooling, the miasma theory of disease was prominent in the 19th century. Higher ceilings allowed for cleaner air, which was seen as desirable for health.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.