John is writing a series of articles for The Kingston Whig Standard focusing on various aspects of renovations. The articles appear below.
Eight Foot Ceilings?
By John Thomas
If you are renovating or building an addition, one of the things that might not occur to you is the ceilings height. We have become so used to the standard 8 ceiling that to plan for 9 or 10 ceilings almost constitutes thinking outside the loop. Of course, if youre dealing with an existing 8 ceiling, it may be very difficult to rebuild the roofline at an exterior wall, but maybe not. The effect of a row of high transom windows over standard height lower windows in a 9 or 10 ceiling can make a tremendously dramatic difference to a living area.
Eight foot ceilings were not always such a given. In the last century, pattern books such as The American Vignola gave carpenters details on how to build according to classical proportions. These books traced their design principles back to the Italian Renaissance which in turn had derived its basic ideas from ancient Greece. One "rule" was that the height of rooms should be equal to their breadth, and that on each successive floor, the ceiling heights should be one sixth less than those below.
But by the end of the 19th century, the classical designs had become so overlaid with decoration (think of the extreme examples of Victorian "gingerbread") that many architects felt a need to throw out all the classical baggage and get back to basic principles. At the same time, technological advances in glass and steel suggested new forms of construction. After the 1st World War, the so-called Modern Movement began in Europe, emphasizing simple honest architecture that would use indigenous materials and reveal the structure in the design. Thus the theoretical basis for all the exposed concrete and steel we see today.
These architects of the Modern Movement dreamed of supplying inexpensive, well designed, mass-produced modular housing that could be erected by local craftsmen. Beginning in the 30s, they exerted a tremendous influence on North American design. Unfortunately,since most of them were from Europe, their idea of indigenous materials was masonry. They were used to seeing buildings made of stone and stucco. Le Corbusier, one of the original deep thinkers, in an early trip to Greece, decided that the plain stucco houses of the Mediterranean were a perfect expression of form and function, and his most famous buildings clearly show that influence.
Its not surprising that, given the emphasis on concrete and steel, the ideas of the Modern Movement never really caught on with the residential home building market here. Instead, the inexpensive, efficient, modular housing that these architects had dreamed of was developed by our indigenous building trades. The invention of 4x8 sheets of plywood and drywall did much more for modular construction than all the pedantic dogma of the deep thinkers. Precut studs and engineered trusses enabled a home handyman to build his own home following relatively simple principles that actually worked.
But, as we noted, the modular system of studs and plywood exerted its own tyranny of proportions on housing. Now all ceilings were automatically 8. And much of the charm of the classically designed house has been lost because of the precut system of building. Nowadays, instead of building to classical proportions from the start, we see buildings being constructed in the form of modular boxes and then design "details" added on in the form of trim and circletop windows, for example, that somehow dont quite look right.
Its important then, when thinking about your renovation, to try and think "outside the box" of modern residential construction. Nine foot ceilings are just as easy to build as 8, not much more expensive, and may make all the difference to your project.
John Thomas is Renovation Chair of the Greater Kingston Home Builders Association and President of Thomas & Co., a local Renovations firm. Call 547-6063, or visit the construction site atwww.jkthomas.com.