David Baker Architects Its the Ceiling Heights, for One Thing

David Baker Architects Its the Ceiling Heights, for One Thing

It’s the Ceiling Heights, for One Thing Its The Ceiling Heights

Low ceilings make uninviting spaces that rent for less, feel cramped, are less visible from the street, and dont allow commercial uses to easily flourish.

One of the main things people like about older San Francisco buildings is the taller ceiling heights, both at the ground floor and the upper stories.

At the ground floor, ceiling heights are a critical part of what makes a retail space inviting and what makes a building feel comfortable for pedestrians on the sidewalk next to it. Many people have fond memories of old-fashioned retail establishments with high ceilings and generous natural light here in San Francisco. Typically, the older ground-floor retail spaces were a story and a half tall. And indeed, many of these places still exist and contribute to our beloved older neighborhood commercial streets.

Low ceilings make uninviting spaces that rent for less, feel cramped, are less visible from the street, and dont allow commercial uses to easily flourish. For just these reasons, in new suburban malls and shopping centers, retailers consider ceiling heights of 16 to 24 feet essential to the success of the stores. And that is exactly what they build.

Of course, taller ceiling heights are also required for light industrial uses to be located on the ground floor of a building. Tall ceiling heights are just as important on the upper floors of a residential building. Pre-World War II apartments in San Francisco have a well-deserved reputation for feeling spacious and being filled with light.

High ceilings are the design element most often mentioned when people talk about what is special about San Franciscos historic apartments. These rooms often have ceilings as high as twelve feet, compared with standard ceiling heights on new construction today of eight feet. Instead of gracious, an adjective we hear more often describing these spaces is mean.

The squashed ceiling heights, found at both ground floors and upper floors of newer buildings, make it very hard to achieve the feelings of space and grace appreciated so much in traditional buildings. Whether people are consciously aware of this fact or not, it has a profound impact on the comfort one feels in them.

These issues dont come up in the suburbs, where all buildings are more or less single story and where working, shopping, and living are separated into zones that people drive between. In a city, where activities are mixed vertically in the same building, it is critical to livability that multistory buildings be designed to feel comfortable.

Why cant we design new buildings with the higher floor-to-ceiling heights that we find on most older buildings? Both the answer and the solution lie in the relationship between the Planning Code and the Building Code.

GOVERNMENT CODES AFFECT BUILT FORM IN UNINTENDED, AND SOMETIMES NEGATIVE, WAYS The design of new buildings in San Francisco is influenced by two sets of overlapping rules: first, the local San Francisco Planning Code, written and administered by the San Francisco Planning Department; and second, the national Uniform Building Code (UBC), administered by the San Francisco Building Department but written by the International Congress of Building Officials.

Not surprisingly, these two codes have been written in isolation from each other. The interaction between these codes unintentionally pushes buildings into a format of low ceiling heights at both the ground floor and upper floors, even when this is not desired by neighbors, city planners, developers, architects, or the future residents of the building.


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