Q. While traveling recently, we stayed in a beautiful home with high ceilings on each floor. We want to make our ceilings taller and have high windows above our regular ones, like we saw. Is there any way to do this without rebuilding the whole house and if not, why are ceilings so low compared to what we saw?
A. All things eventually seem to boil down to just one issue, money. When standards for ceiling heights were established in building codes, the height was based on two things, economics and safety.
The safety of building occupants is regulated in many ways to prevent building collapse, illness, security and survival. Fire is probably the most prevalent way that people lose lives at home (other than falls and bad cooking, or falls from bad cooking) so the codes have prescribed that there be enough room at the ceiling for smoke to gather while occupants crawl to safety.
Even though 7 feet 6 inches is the current minimum height for new construction and 6 feet 8 inches is the current allowable height for existing basements, gypsum board panels, also called wallboard or sheetrock, are manufactured in 4 feet x 8 feet sheets, hung horizontally, making it most economical not to cut the board (which adds labor cost) making the magical 8 feet wall height the standard.
The average home has the bare minimum structure, which is why many floors bow a little, squeak sometimes, and make it hard to install air ducts or better insulation. Truthfully, the building codes are generally written to minimum standards, so if somebody tells you your home structure was “over-designed,” be glad and wonder why every home does not have a little extra safety factor. The bridges you cross as you navigate around are required to be 100 times stronger than bare minimum. Your home is required to be approximately 1-1/2 to 2 times stronger, not leaving much room for error by an unknowing builder.
So, you should also be glad that the confident person who told you how strong your home is does not design bridges. Your home is allowed to be as tall as the local zoning codes limit. Typical heights for homes from the ground to the roof peak are between 30-35 feet, depending on your community’s accepted zone, but you should always check with your building department, since some communities still have 26 feet but allow for extra height based on F.E.M.A. flood levels.
There is probably nothing you can do with your current ceiling heights but there are many beautiful combinations of window arrangements that can be designed if you choose to rebuild.
Ten and twelve feet tall walls are also standards, since the wallboards are generally manufactured in 2 feet increments. Just remember that the cost of labor goes up relative to the height of the walls and ceilings, as scaffold has to be erected to do the work. Tall ceilings also affect energy code requirements and heating cost. Welcome home!
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