Lately, I’ve had a bit of trouble sleeping, because one thing has been on my mind: Why isn’t the average ceiling closer to the average human height?
Like most other people, I’ve been spending a lot more of my time at home these past few weeks, doing my reporting remotely. There’s no shortage of work — our news cycle, in a way, has flipped from writing about happenings to writing about things that won’t be happening, at least for the foreseeable future.
But to be frank, some of that work just gets tiresome, and I know other people have gotten exhausted of coronavirus coverage dominating their social media feeds, so for a change of pace, I decided to go back to my reporter roots: asking my mom outlandish questions as a five-year-old.
My mom didn’t always have answers when I’d ask her those random questions, but she at least tried, and when I recently asked her why ceilings are so tall, she said, “Is this really what you do at work?”
She did say, though, that I didn’t really need to worry about short ceilings, since I’m a short guy. I prefer the phrase shorter-than-average, since I’m 5 feet 6 inches, and I’m taller than both my parents. At my height, I’m even considered somewhat tall in my parents’ home state of Michoacán, Mexico, where the people (and rooms and doorways) are generally short.
Anyway, height disadvantage or not, I still wanted to know why most rooms seem to average around 8 feet tall. With a shorter height, couldn’t we make build skyscrapers with more floors without needing to increase the height? Couldn’t we just trust tall people not to jump indoors?
In Manhattan, we’re lucky to have literally hundreds of experts in about every field imaginable, so I reached out to Ray Buyle, an assistant professor and head of K-State’s Department of Architectural Engineering and Construction Science. Prior to teaching at K-State, Buyle worked for 23 years in the construction industry and presumably built many ceilings.
He said the 8-foot standard American ceiling height today is more complicated than one might think.
“Early American homes had ceilings that were as much as 10 feet tall for the first floor and less than 6 feet on the second floor,” he said. “These homes relied on wood burn fireplaces for winter heat and the taller ceilings allowed room for the heat to rise and still be comfortable at floor level. The bedrooms were typically on the second floor and were unheated, so vents through the floor allowed the heat from the first floor to rise and warm the bedrooms. Tall ceilings also become a sign of wealth.”
Today, modern heating and cooling systems are more efficient, and lower ceilings help reduce energy costs further, Buyle said. The standard 8-foot height comes from standardized construction materials, since plywood and drywall are typically manufactured in 4-foot-by-8-foot sheets, and studs for walls are pre-cut to allow for a finished 8-foot ceiling height, once flooring and ceiling drywall are installed.
The standard height also allows builders enough space to include a header above doors and windows to structurally support and carry the load of upper floors or the roof across openings. Ceiling heights likely vary around the world, though, since other countries use the metric system, Buyle said.
With that in mind, I can now sleep calmly at night, at least until some other silly question gets in my head
If you (or your five-year-old) have got a silly question, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I may help get you an answer in a future column.