Not long ago, there was an article in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Ceiling Height Versus Performance: Sometimes It Can Make a Difference.” It seems that if you’re supervising computer programmers, or other people who have to deal with lots of details, you’ll get better results if you put those folks in a room with low ceilings. That was the finding of Joan Meyers-Levy, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

She had students perform various tasks on laptops, some working in a room with a high ceiling, while others worked in a room with a low ceiling. But before you read any further, look at the ceiling of the room you’re in right now. Apparently, it makes a real difference in how your day is going to go.

Ms. Meyers-Levy was at the airport when she first came up with this over-our-heads thought. She looked up and realized that she was in a place with a high ceiling. Most airports do have high ceilings. Then she realized she would soon be going into a place with a very low ceiling – the cramped quarters of an airplane. She wondered if this was going to affect the way she perceived things, so she went in search of answers.

Ever wonder why the ceilings in government buildings are as high as they are? Maybe the politicians order them that way to make us feel smaller and more humble. Houses of worship also have high ceilings. I always feel humble when I’m in one of those places. How about you?

Lots of big corporations have buildings with tall atriums. You enter these and feel tiny. Ever been to Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York City? It’s all polished brass and rose-colored marble, and the further you walk into that Palace of Excess, the taller the ceilings get, and the smaller you feel. Ride the escalator up into the throat of that soaring atrium and look down on all the tiny people scurrying below. I figure The Donald wants us all to feel small, at least compared to him.

The Journal asked Ms. Meyers-Levy how she did her study, and she explained that they used two similar rooms in a building the students use each day. Both rooms had 10-foot ceilings, so they had a contractor install a false ceiling in one of the rooms, bringing it down to a height of eight feet. I’m in a room with an eight-foot ceiling right now. How about you? Feels normal to me. You?

Back in the day, most of our ceilings were of the 10-foot variety because Willis Carrier hadn’t yet come up with air conditioning. Before Willis, and during the warmer months, folks would be more comfortable in a room with a high ceiling because hot air rises. This is also the reason why Victorians slept in those beds that required a footstool to get up onto. The closer you are to the ceiling, the warmer you will be during the colder months of the year because, well, hot air rises. That also explains the canopy over the bed, and the curtains around it. Both keep the body heat (and the stench) in.

But back to Ms. Meyers-Levy and her students. She found that the ones in the room with the high ceiling saw relationships between different pieces of information and focused on the similarities between these things as opposed to their points of difference. And she found just the opposite in the room with the eight-foot ceiling. It turns out that the lower the ceiling, the more we tend to process information in a more detailed way. According to Ms. Meyers-Levy, we process more freely in a place where there are higher ceilings. We process in a more focused and detailed way in a room with lower ceilings. High ceilings let our imaginations soar. Low ceilings force us to get to work on those nitty-gritty details.

And that got me thinking about technicians who work in cramped boiler rooms, or worse, in crawl spaces or cramped attics. Do those techs think better because of what’s looming over them? Does a low ceiling make them better troubleshooters? Or do they just want to solve the problem as quickly as possible and get the heck out of that horrible place? Questions, questions, questions.

When Willis Carrier gave us air conditioning, we lowered our ceilings because it’s cheaper to cool the air in a room that has an eight-foot ceiling, as opposed to a room with a tall ceiling. There’s just less air volume in that smaller space. So we lowered our ceilings and got down to the business of paying greater attention to details. I’m not sure if that stopped us from imagining as much as we used to because some pretty neat inventions followed air conditioning. For the heck of it, I dug out a photo of Thomas Edison’s lab at Menlo Park, NJ. It has a very high ceiling. Hmmm.

And with that in mind, perhaps I was wrong about the ceilings in government and religious buildings. Maybe they’re tall in those buildings because we’re supposed to be thinking big, lofty thoughts while there.

I know those tall ceilings make those buildings more interesting to heat. Hot air rises. Many religious buildings find that if they use ceiling fans during the winter, the fuel bills actually increase.

Apparently, the hot air doesn’t rise all the way to the ceiling. It goes up only so high from those old steam- or hot-water radiators before falling down by natural convection. This leaves cold air up near the ceiling, and ceiling fans will stir that cold air into the warmer air below, lowering the overall air temperature in the building and causing the burner to run longer. Go figure.

I have an old book on radiant heat that shows a drawing of the Liverpool Cathedral in England. There’s an antique radiant system in that building and the book’s author, T. Napier Adlam, writes that there’s just a 1-1/2-degree difference in temperature between the air four feet above the floor and the air at the triforium level, which is 90 feet above the floor. A radiant system, when controlled well, is a fine choice for a building that has a high ceiling.

But don’t try to heat the folks in that building by installing the radiant system in the ceiling. The further away from the radiant source we are, the less we benefit. That’s why it gets cold in the winter. We’re sort of leaning away from the sun during those months, like you’d lean away from a hot fire. Keep those radiant ceilings close if you want to be cozy.

In Ms. Meyers-Levy’s test, she gave the students anagrams to solve. An anagram is one of those puzzles where you have to unscramble letters to form a word. Some of the anagrams were synonyms for words that conceptualized freedom – words such as “liberation,” for example. Others were synonyms for “confinement.” Still others were irrelevant – words like “cheese.”

The students in the rooms with the high ceilings were faster as solving the freedom-related anagrams than were the students in the rooms with the lower ceiling. There was no difference in either room for the “cheesy” words.

Her conclusion was that folks who design office buildings should think long and hard about what work gets done in which room. She suggests we put the bookkeepers and accountants in rooms with low ceilings. You might even want to put those folks in a crawl space. They’ll focus better there.

And the people who plan long-term strategy for your company – those big-idea people – they need big spaces in which to think.

So what are you doing? And how high is your ceiling?


Dan Holohan

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