Remember the basics
Note that the ideas on this page are a reference point…fuel for the imagination. These are not “plans” but general concepts of how to make an addition on a raised ranch, bi-level or split-level…and how to avoid the common pitfalls that rob a home of curb appeal. Before undertaking your addition, the concepts below, and whether or not they apply to your home, should be considered. Many architects will scoff at these concepts — and for every one that does, we’ll show you an architect-designed addition to a split that is positively ghastly. Having said that, we’ll remind you that you positively must consult with an architect, but remember that you have final authority (and responsibility) to make sure that the design is seamless and does not rob your home of its charm and character.
You probably know someone who took a small ranch, raised the roof a bit, added dormers, and wound up with a dandy little Cape Cod and a lot more living space. Or the guy with the average 4-square who added a small wing that made a big difference in kitchen space. And since virtually everybody thinks of adding more “elbow room” at some point, you probably figured it would be an easy task with your split.
Perhaps you even looked at a few architectural drawings, or talked about it with a builder. The first plans probably looked incredible: cross-gabled roof lines, a copious number of windows, exciting new angles. As you explored costs and ideas, you might’ve stumbled upon someone who talked about how simple it is to just extend the existing floorplan of a split…using the same roofline, etc. The house gets longer, it isn’t quite as nice as the plans you saw….
Extending the long dimension of a split-level home is part architectural nightmare, and generally a disaster in terms of curb appeal. Another easy expansion is to “raise the roof.” Unless you’re thinking of dormers — and even that can be a visual fiasco — do NOT add a level to a split level.
Generally speaking, a split level with the long dimension facing forward should be added on at the rear. By the same token, a split with the narrow end facing forward (usually a raised ranch or bi-level) should have at least some portion of the addition offset to the “side.” In both cases, the worst thing visually for a split level is to extend the length of the house. Below are a few “good” additions…
…and a few “bad” additions:
Additions on “True” Splits (3-level homes)
Let’s suppose you found a photo album of a nice neighborhood of cozy 3-level homes circa 1954 to 1970. The landscaping is young, trees may be small and scrawny, but the houses fit the contours perfectly. Garages are on the downhill side of the lots; lawns frame the modest homes perfectly. After you’ve studied the photos, let’s suppose you could go and have a look at the same neighborhood today. You’d probably be shocked at the changes. Shrubs have grown in, trees have matured. The lawns look smaller, as landscaping and hardscaping consume a larger percentage of space.
But there’s something else…the houses. What was “quaint” in the photos seems to have gone kablooie; some of the homes are completely unrecognizable. Some have upper levels added on, some have been stretched, some have upper levels and added length. Lots are smaller simply by the fact that there is “more house” sitting on them. Some houses are so darn long they almost demand two front doors; some have added upper levels that are so unwieldy that they seem likely to crush the pre-existing home. And to top everything off, all the houses are wrapped in plastic and surrounded with floodlights, motion-sensor lights, walkway lights, and every other knickknack, jimcrack and gewgaw money can impulsively buy at the mega homecenter.
The simple fact that you are viewing this webpage means that you are probably considering adding on to your own split level home. You may even have the one house in the neighborhood that hasn’t had some outrageous addition shoe-horned onto it. So if you absolutely, positively must add on to your tidy little split, here are some helpful concepts to keep in mind:
BEFORE: Here’s a typical three-level split, as originally constructed. The garage and informal living floor (one window) are at driveway level, with bedrooms above. Front entry, formal living area and kitchen are slightly above driveway level. For the purposes of example, we’ll use this as our “before” house. Although you may have a slightly different roofline, or a mirror of this house, the same principles apply.
As with virtually any split-level in which the longest length is parallel to the street, the best addition is a “wing” off the back of the house. It adds space without detracting from the original charm of the front elevation.
Acceptable addition to length, at left:When you do have to add on to the length, less is more. Here’s a conservative addition that adds elbow room to the living room, and either enlarges the dining room or permits an eat-in kitchen. When used in combination with an addition to the rear of the house, this could even be used to create an extra bedroom. Notice that we changed the front living room window (it’s wider). Adding length without increasing glazing at the front of a house means a hideous amount of siding, which drastically reduces curb appeal.
Awful addition to length, above: Here we took the easiest route to go big, big, big…but it’s bad, bad, bad. As mentioned above, increasing length without increasing glazing (windows) is a no-no. When you do it to the front of a house, it’s a downright disaster. Our charming split now looks like it has a warehouse attached.
Acceptable addition to length, above: Here’s the exact same addition as the dreadful one above it…Notice how a simple thing as a window makes all the difference in the world. Windows bring the outdoors in, and improve the transition from nature to home when viewed from outside. Windows are one of the few things where “more is better.” Expanding on the concept of integrating the home with the environment, this addition screams for a slightly extended front roof and…voila…you’d have a front porch! Pull up a rocking chair; it’s hard to imagine a more perfect split.
Acceptable addition to length, left: This is an attractive addition; unfortunately a lot of homeowners get it wrong. We’ve simply added a garage to the side, and moved the formal front door to where the garage door used to be. This type of thing is ideal for people who like to entertain. It gives you a rather large foyer/entry area, and people are free to mingle and move on up to the original living room and back down, etc. Or you might like this entry area if you live in New England…instant mudroom! But again, because the old garage and informal living room at this level are quite large, there are a lot of possibilities for this arrangement. Now, as for “getting it wrong,” most people don’t realize the importance of having the new garage roofline on the same plane as the living room roofline on the opposite side of the house. It not only looks aesthetically pleasing, it adds square footage above. Because a garage need only be a single story high, most people add it as just a single story. As a result, the house winds up with an odd third roofline, and the garage looks like an attached shed.
Acceptable addition to length, left: This is another take on the addition described above. Here we’ve left the formal entry where it was originally, and used the old garage space to create another bedroom, and then some. If you move the driveway as well, it creates a nice long walk to the front door, with some excellent landscaping opportunities. And remember, the new roofline absolutely must match the one opposite. Local ordinances may not permit anything less than a full-height floor above, so in that case you simply have a high-ceiling garage…and plenty of new storage space. Or you could go right to the height of your peak — but keep the cross-gable to add interest — and add a window of course. Now you’ve got yet another new bedroom, or perhaps a lovely master suite.
Acceptable addition to height, left: Splits of any kind are tough to add on vertically; they usually wind up looking like a creation worthy of Dr. Frankenstein. Here’s the exception. Some splits are designed such that the roof can be raised, a dormer or two added, a closet and bedroom space robbed to make room for stairs, and you have an attractive level above the formal living area.
Awful addition to height, right: Same house as above, same concept of adding a level above the formal living area, but it’s positively horrifying. But wait, it gets worse…
Awful addition to height, right: This is a complete abomination. Homeowners usually do this one all on their own, and nobody has the sense to speak up and tell them they ought to tear it down and start over.