If you haven’t already, please familiarize yourself with the history that gave rise to the split level as an important American vernacular. Much of this primer assumes a knowledge of the background of split levels, how they became popular, and how they work with graded terrain to create a visually pleasing appearance. This page addresses the exterior and interior issues that relate specifically to bi-levels.
The Bi-Level Neighborhood…
It may have been called a “junior colonial” or perhaps a “colonial split.” It may have been “modular,” or “stick built” on site. Regardless of what you prefer to call it, if you open the front door to a dedicated landing halfway between two floors, you’ve stepped into a bi-level. Some bi-levels built today are luxurious monstrosities, but the majority are the smaller, 1000 to 1500 square foot models constructed during the 1970s and 1980s. And although the concepts that follow have some ramifications for the larger set, it is the owner of the 1300 sq. ft. average that this page is designed to help the most. We begin with the yard, then the exterior, and then discuss the interior.
The Exterior, Also Landscaping & Hardscaping
Most people will say that the point of landscaping is to “beautify” your yard. It’s one of the benefits, but not the prime reason for landscaping. The most basic, underlying reason for landscaping a home is to create a smooth transition from the outdoors to the indoors. Landscaping (growing stuff) and hardscaping (stuff like steps, decks, walkways) combine to create this transition. When it’s done right, the transition is beautiful. Done wrong, it is unappealling at best.
Bi-levels built properly, compensating for the surrounding terrain, are relatively easy to landscape. Hopefully some part of the building is below grade, or at least the grade has been back-filled to cover a portion of the first floor. Ideally, the lower floor windows are at hip-level when viewed from the exterior.
Unlike the “true” three-level split, the average 20 year-old bi-level seldom has intrinsic charm. Unfortunately the older bi-level tends to present a rather humdrum, boxy appearance that generally goes nowhere. While landscaping the three level split is mainly about enhancing the triangulation of the exterior, landscaping the bi-level is more frequently about drawing away from the exterior.
This photo clearly shows the repetitive, unimaginative rectangular design that typifies the average American bi-level circa 1975. While there is very little that could help the exterior short of wholesale remodeling, a more effective use of landscaping will minimize the dullness.
The challenge in a three-level split is to “tie down” the large picture window usually found on the middle level, to anchor the house more closely to the ground and surrounding environment. The bi-level exterior has a lot of the same requirements, except that it is much more complicated. By “tying” the largest top-floor window to the ground, your house blends more fluidly to the surrounding landscape. Unfortunately, most bi-levels tend to have windows below the main living room window, and it is almost criminal to cover those windows. Or is it…do they have to be completely visible? Can they be partially obscured to lend harmony to the exterior? Are they even attractive to begin with?
In some cases — very rarely — the lower windows are positioned such that they should actually be accentuated. But this is usually not the case; the photo at left illustrates one of those rare homes where it does work. Notice that you are looking “up” at this house…if you look “down” from the street it is highly unlikely that the lower windows would have the same appeal. This clearly illustrates how fickle the bi-level exterior is, and how so much depends on the topography of the lot.
Note that the bi-level at right is identical to the one above — same windows, same type of terrain. It’s the exact same house except that it is in a different location. Notice here that some landscaping has been used to make the bottom windows less prominent. Both approaches work well…it’s really a matter of personal preference in this case.
Prominent lower windows generally only work well when they are the same size as the upper windows, as shown by the two examples above. More commonly, bi-levels present a large picture window above two bottom floor windows. Note in the sketch below how the landscape planner uses varying heights to “draw down” the windows.
Same drill for your walkway. (Now we’re discussing hardscaping) A few bi-levels have a doorway right at ground level, but the majority of divided entry houses have some sort of front stoop and/or staircase leading up to the front door. On many older splits these are hideous concrete creations. Brick or wood look more appealing, but don’t rush out with a sledgehammer if you have concrete. You can often revitalize the look of concrete by adding slate to the top, bricks on the sides, even using concrete stain, etc. But whatever your walkway, it is terribly important to “connect” it to the surroundings just as your picture window needs to be connected. The walkway and front stoop are the “transition” from the world outdoors to the world indoors. It should be a smooth transition, softened by plantings, gardens, or whatever…not a harsh, sudden change. Even stones can do the trick. If you need an example, take a look at the one or two bi-levels in your neighborhood that have the most curb appeal, and you’ll see these concepts first hand. Another resource I recommend is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Landscaping by Joel Lerner. I don’t usually care for the titles of these “Idiot” books; in fact I don’t like them at all. But the content of this book really clarifies a lot of landscaping techniques. (If you click the link, you’ll be at Amazon.com, which I recommend for two reasons. First, you can return anything, and they ask no questions. Secondly, you can often find used versions at a fraction of the new book price, and you can even return those if the book doesn’t do it for you.)
Here’s a bi-level that really does it right. The roofline is unusual — at first glance it even makes the house look like a split. Most importantly, it eliminates the “boxiness” typical to most old bi-levels. Second thing is the landscaping. It is creative, varied, but not overdone. Finally, it is clean and cared for. There is nothing otherwise spectacular or outstanding about this exterior, it is not showy or new, yet you cannot help but be captivated by the overall appeal this home presents.
Bi-level exteriors tend to fall into one of three categories: Attractive, average, or dreadful.
Puttin’ on the Ritz: The Attractive Exterior
Whether it is a Tudor, contemporary, or even typical mid 1970s exterior, there is some particular charm to these bi-levels that separate them from the pack. Usually, the “bi-level boxiness” is minimized, the paint is fresh, and the landscaping is imaginative. This is the house the neighbors point to as the one they want to emulate. How do you obtain it? Lots of glass, extra — but simple — appointments, and a roofline(s) that minimize the rectangle. The best of the best emphasize natural materials: Wood or brick, lots of glass, perhaps stone. Very little plastic. Doors should be wood instead of metal or fiberglass; vinyl siding is a definite no-no. Maximum windows. Walkway is likely flagstone (tile in the southwest) instead of concrete or paving stones. The exterior is “bright” and is not overpowered by any single tree or other feature, but blends nicely with surrounding terrain. In the example above right, you’ll notice attractive but not overdone landscaping, three different roof angles, and exterior accents at the roof peaks and below the windows. The owner has not spent a fortune on this exterior, yet it is clearly an attractive, desirable home.
Anywhere USA: The Average Exterior
If you have a home that fits in this category, take heart in the fact that 90% of your fellow bi-level owners are right there with you. Perhaps you’ve polished up one of the dreadful boxy houses, or more likely, it just happens to be average to begin with. No shame here; we’re all in this together. The trick is to determine what it will take to add the pizzazz that will push your house up into the “wow” territory. Take a look at the house immediately above left, and compare it to the one above in the “Attractive” category. Both have a Tudor facade, both have half-brick exterior, both have the same roofline. In fact, both houses are the same age — and both have identical floorplans and original exteriors. Yet this one is rather humdrum when compared to the first…why?
The answer is somewhat complex, but fortunately, the recipe for improvement is not complex at all. It may cost a bit, but it isn’t out of reach for most home owners. First of all, the roofline is obscured by the mature oak tree — and it isn’t just this camera angle. This tree requires either wholesale pruning or removal. The best course of action is probably removal, with replacement by a smaller tree that will be large enough to add the necessary drama to the property. Second course of action is to bring out the windows. The angled accents that match the paint color are fine, but the darker background and windows themselves need some help. There are a few colors that could work wonders here…a dark blue, forest green, perhaps a rust color, even natural wood…anything that will lend some oomph. The grey on grey is just too dull. Another trick would be to add one conical shrub to the front, somewhere near the door; it would add some needed dimension and draw the upper and lower levels of the exterior together. Next, replace the grey door with something to match the new accent color, and hang some flowerpots from the cross member over the stoop. Finally, give us an English style lantern or lamp post. Those few steps will take this nice average home into the stratosphere.
Dullsville: The Dreadful Exterior
Not all dull, boxy bi-levels are holdovers from the early 1970s. At right is a relatively new construction that just can’t seem to find its way. It’s a large home, obviously costly to build, yet the exterior screams DULLSVILLE. Add a front porch to half of this. Give it some window accents…add a sidelight to the front door. Hire a landscape planner. Do these things, and this positively boring facade will leapfrog right past the average category and into the top category. But as you can see, the recipe for moving completely to the top requires a significant overhaul. If the budget is rather tight, work on just the windows and landscaping would move this into the “average” category. As you can see, the more box-like and boring your home is to begin with, the more work that will be required to make the leap upward.
Many bi-levels built during the 1970s simply lack charm, and it is unlikely that the “look” will ever be in vogue. If you’re in this situation, your only alternative to wholesale remodeling is to sell.
Some of the tell-tale architectural elements from the 1970S actually do add a certain appeal. Full height sidelights at the front door, cut grey stone facades, and some then-contemporary window designs have a timeless charm, and most likely should be kept. Chances are if your house has some of these elements, the house design was decent to begin with, and it is just the coloring and little “extras” that need to be addressed. What worked in 1989 just ain’t working today.
Some of the tell-tale elements you may not want to keep are white wrought iron railings, aluminum window awnings, silver aluminum storm doors, aluminum cellar doors, concrete walkways, etc. Then again, depending on your neighborhood, location, style, etc. you may very well choose to keep these to maintain a certain look.
A stroll through most bi-level homes reveals a hodge-podge of looks and styles that generally lack harmony. In most cases the furnishings are run-of-the-mill, and the arrangements are unimaginative. In short, the interior of the average bi-level is dismal.
But it really doesn’t have to be that way…
The logic goes that because most bi-levels have a similar floorplan, the layout of the rooms and the furnishings will have a sameness as a matter of course. Look at your neighbors homes, and you’ll agree. If your couch and loveseat aren’t in the exact same arrangement as theirs, you probably tried it that way or even had it that way for awhile. Then you shifted things around because it was dull. Chances are it still is. If you visit enough neighbors, you’ll even find identical furniture, purchased from this or that popular furniture store.
Because there are lines in the house, we tend to color inside the lines. We seldom consider being innovative, despite the fact that the bi-level floorplan is one of the easiest to modify. You can add walls where there are none, or take down walls if it will help (consult a licensed contractor or engineer first, or do so at your own peril). For example, if you have an open floorplan but really desire a bungalow look, you simply add archways between the open rooms. If you want a Victorian feel, add walls with very narrow entries. And if you want a thoroughly contemporary look, remove walls and put new ones in on different angles. Put an open counter between kitchen and living room. Put a low reading loft in the attic and add in a steel spiral staircase.
Another common complaint about average-sized bi-levels is lack of a master suite. This is often a case of “too many walls” rather than “too little space.” In the example below, the first floorplan is the “stock” or standard house from a highly competent developer. The second is the exact same house with a few simple wall changes. By moving the third bedroom downstairs (not shown) and opening up the space, the cramped master bedroom can be “opened up” with a large luxurious room complete with double-sized whirlpool and walk-in closet. Now that is a master suite.
Top: Standard bi-level plan, three bedrooms upstairs. Below: By moving the third bedroom downstairs, the cramped master bedroom becomes a luxurious master suite.
A more in-depth study of the floorplans above reveals a host of other opportunities for changing the character of this house. Notice the open floorplan between living room, dining room, and kitchen. This is ideal for contemporary style…Scandinavian furnishings would be ideal for this house. Santa Fe style would also look fantastic here. City modern, art deco, even western/ranch would work great. But if your style, furnishings and decorating taste lean anything toward Victorian, Louis XIV, Queen Anne, Chippendale, Federal or even New England Colonial…anything along those lines, the wide open floor plan will be a disaster. Division between rooms is quite important in this case; let’s remake the house for a formal sense of style:
Above: Using walls between living room, dining room and kitchen manages to preserve the flow of traffic, yet creates the barriers necessary for a formal lifestyle.
Let’s keep exploring. Suppose the open floorplan isn’t for you, yet you don’t want the confining quarters of a formal home. Maybe your style is less defined, or a hodge-podge of decorating themes. In this case, we’ll opt for the bungalow feel — rooms are clearly defined by entryways, but the entryways are large enough so that guests feel no barriers moving from room to room…
Above: Using walls to define entryways between living room, dining room and kitchen preserves each room as an individual unit, yet facilitates easy transition from room to room. These rooms flow into one another, which works well with a more casual decor.
Bear in mind that the decorating style should be coherent through the home, or at least harmonize. Now it’s tough to tell a 15 year old that her bedroom should have a particular style…and that’s fine. Let your child’s imagination run wild in the private living spaces. But in your living areas, kitchen, den, and bath(s), some design cohesiveness is best.
Most bilevels are decorated in what could best be described as “eclectic.” Then again, most American homes are that way, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Obviously your exterior style will have some determination on your interior. Beyond that, realize that most splits are mid-20th century homes, and have existed during a prolific age of changing styles and tastes. Almost anything will work. But you should be aware that not all styles work as well as others in the average split.
Does your exterior scream 1980 contemporary? A modern, Scandinavian style will work infinitely better than a cluttered Victorian look. Queen Anne will do better than Georgian; Prairie style will be more at home than Santa Fe. But again, if your split is in a suburb of El Paso, the rules change completely.
Another consideration is your personal style and ethnicity. Are you a dark haired Italian beauty? If so, Tuscan style will work better than Arts & Crafts. If you are of Oriental descent, work with it…whatever your background, it is part of what makes you unique, and it should be celebrated. A family of blondes with Northern European lineage should not strive for a tribal style.
Have you read through our “Fresh Approach” page? If you haven’t, take a moment to do so. You’ll do best to avoid “trendy” styles in favor of proven, classic looks. (Just watch how the currently popular and altogether ghastly “shabby/chic” disappears in a few years). One technique you might try is to find some older design/decorating books and magazines; perhaps at thrift shops, rummage sales, etc. Look at the photos that still look acceptable today — there won’t be many — and you’ll be looking at examples of timeless decorating styles.
Use common sense, visit your library, find things that fit your lifestyle. With enough research, careful planning, some experimentation — and then more study and planning — you can find a successful style that works for you.