Use Height to Accentuate Space

With real estate ads boasting a “magnificent 14 foot living room” or “soaring 10 foot ceilings throughout”, it’s easy for the homeowner to assume that the best house on the market is the one with the tallest ceilings. Don’t be fooled. A boring plan is a boring plan regardless of its height. A successful layout is one that uses height as a device to define and accentuate spaces rather than simply making them bigger.

Most of us would agree that a grand dining hall with cathedral ceiling is not the place we’d curl up to read a book. Its proportions are ideal for a dinner party or social gathering but on a regular day, when the room sits largely empty, it tends to feel cavernous and uninviting. We all possess an innate sense for what feels right in volume and space.
We’re being told that big is what we want but in reality variation is what we need. Architects recognize this and try to create a hierarchy of space when approaching their designs. Raise the ceiling of a small powder room and you increase its sense of grandeur. Lower the perimeter of a big room and you create more intimate spaces at the edge. It’s all in the relationships.

In general larger spaces warrant higher ceilings just by the nature of their proportion. As a ceiling height increases beyond this balance point, so too does the feeling of formality and ceremony in the room. Move in the opposite direction and the feeling of shelter and enclosure comes to the fore. Living rooms and dining areas typically demand a more formal expression and are often made taller than the more functional areas of the house like a kitchen or bedroom. Window seats and eating alcoves benefit from lowered heights to accentuate their sense of shelter.
Here are a few ceiling height ideas that might spice up your home:

  • Instead of using a wall, vary a ceiling height to define a space. Frank Lloyd Wright used this device brilliantly to delineate zones of a house while still maintaining an open plan.
  • Utilize valences to create different areas within a single space. Placing a valence at window head-height in a tall room can bring down the scale of the space at its perimeter and define more sheltered activity areas. Valences that move through the middle of a large room demarcate different functions and provide opportunities for lighting. (see example)
  • Play with ceiling heights to enhance relationships between rooms. Think of the ceiling plane as something that can be pushed and pulled to create a hierarchy between spaces. Passing through a lowered area into a higher room will add to the drama of entering that space.

Designing a home is much more than a two-dimensional exercise. Understanding the effects that ceiling heights have on the spaces they enclose is an essential step in the creation of a richer, more comfortable place to live.