The height of the ceiling of a space heavily influences our perception of it. Generally, local building codes regulate the minimum dimensions for ceiling height, which are calculated to ensure adequate quality of life in the environment. But the exact height of the ceilings is often defined by the dimensions of other materials that make up the building, the height of the constitutive slabs, or even by rounding the dimensions of the stair steps. It is common, with the densification of cities aimed at increasing profitability, for entrepreneurs to design with minimum ceiling heights in houses and offices, reducing construction costs. On the other hand, in older structures, more generous ceilings can be observed, which generally enable a greater degree of design freedom. But how can architects make the most of these spaces?
When addressing ceiling height, defining an exact and universal minimum value is difficult. A minimum of 2.40 m (or 8 feet) is generally common, and most doors have a height of 2.10 m (or 7 feet). If ceilings are 2.70 meters or higher, we can consider them tall. When they exceed 4.50 meters, the ceiling height is double. In older architectural structures, it is much more common to find high ceilings. The reason for this shift is not quite clear; some point to the gradual elimination of smoke and gases emitted from rudimentary lamps, others to the improvement of ventilation, while others still suggest that historically taller ceilings represented the prosperity of the owners.
In modern architecture, these dimensions were revisited. Le Corbusier, in the United 'Habitation projects, used the proportions of the Modulor to determine a ceiling height of 2.26 m for the apartments. This dimension would likely be vetoed today in the vast majority of places. When Le Corbusier was invited to develop the same project in Germany in the late 1950s, the dimension was not accepted and changed to 2.50 m.
High ceilings create the perception of spaciousness in ordinary rooms. They also provide more space for decorations and, generally, more natural light and ventilation. However, the extra volume of air in the space can make it more difficult to heat or cool. That is, at the same time that they facilitate important benefits, spaces with very high ceilings that are designed poorly can appear cold and empty. A project that comes to mind, when addressing high ceilings, is the residence and office of Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill. Occupying an old cement factory on the outskirts of Barcelona, Bofill masterfully exemplifies how to transform a vast and rough space into an apparently cozy residence. In general, there are some common design devices that can help architects make the most of high ceilings.
Creating a new space level
Perhaps the most common solution is, when possible, to create a new floor for use in the space. Parisian lofts commonly use this device, compensating for the lack of floor area with extra space for beds or other uses. Light wooden and steel structures are generally used for this purpose, which may or may not be connected to the original structure of the building. At the Daria Restaurant by Zooco Estudio, for example, the food preparation space is located below a mezzanine, which holds several tables.
AL BORDE's project explores vertical space in an even more radical way, creating a mezzanine that supports a level of living and a lower level of circulation.
New storage spaces
More vertical space also equates to more storage space. In this project in an old mansion in São Paulo, the architect took advantage of the large space between floor and ceiling to design large closed cabinets for storage.
Horizontal shelves can also fulfill the function of "balancing" the space, bringing horizontality to spaces with ceilings that are almost too high. This function is used in the Formafatal project for the Gran Fierro Argentinian Restaurant, where the beverage shelf at the back of the bar plays this role.
Volumes detached from the ceiling
It is not always necessary to use the space at the top of a room with high ceilings. Constructing loose volumes that are grounded rather than connected to the ceiling can be an elegant solution when space allows, allowing architects to highlight both the volume and the surrounding space in their different materialities. In this project in Barcelona, according to the architects, they had decided to keep the entire space open, leaving exposed the wooden beams and original stone wall. A pure white geometric cube in the central part of the space contains the kitchen and the bathroom, which does not reach the vaulted ceiling.
Suspend elements to shape the space
In this project to convert an old factory in China into an office space, the 6-meter high ceiling needed to house an extensive needs program. To make the work spaces more comfortable, a huge hanging canvas follows the cut of the ceiling, demarcating the space of the meeting room and acting as a screen for projections when bending along the stairs.
In a project for a restaurant in São Paulo by Felipe Hess Arquitetos, the high ceilings of the shed were balanced through suspended lighting, creating a welcoming atmosphere at the tables and providing a better quality work environment for cooks at the central island.
In general, we observed that the solution most commonly used by architects working in spaces with high ceilings is to try to balance them through built elements or complementary colors and textures. Painting or leaving the ceiling in its natural form generally works well to give the impression that the ceiling is not as high, as is the case with this project by Balet Roselló Arquitectos. With these design solutions in mind, higher ceilings can provide more “areas of maneuver” and possibilities for striking designs on the part of the architects. Understanding proportions while playing with surfaces, materials, and lighting may be a challenge for architects, but it is also a great responsibility to develop suitable and pleasant spaces for the occupants. See more examples in this My ArchDaily folder.