Exterior Design for Split-Level Homes

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For most of us, the exterior of our split level is the last thing we address when remodeling or just “spiffing up” our residences. It tends to be the most difficult for the do-it-yourselfer, and the most expensive either way. And unlike the interior, it is very difficult and costly to fix poor design choices and other mistakes.

Part I: Your House is NOT 2-dimensional!

Take a moment to understand how a visitor perceives your house as they drive up, park, and then walk to your front door. Do it yourself, looking at your house from a variety of angles. What do you really see?

If your house is like most split-levels, bi-levels, or raised ranches, you’ve probably got an attractive front elevation. The front — viewed straight on — probably has plenty of windows, maybe some nice shutters, an attractive entry area, and maybe some brickwork, horizontal trim, or other visual enhancements. But it probably ends there…exterior beauty on most splits is limited to the front.

Now look to the side of the house, standing in a position where you can see the front and one of the sides at the same time. How much glass on the side? Any shutters? Do any of the design elements (trim, brick, etc.) continue to the side?

I bet they don’t.

Take a look at the house above. Not a lot of bells and whistles on this low budget exterior, but the front is charming just the same. Plenty of glass, neatly hung shutters, cantilevered upper level, and an attractive louvered vent. Now look at the side of the house. Did the architect run out of ideas? Not at all. Construction costs dictate the design. If you live in a split, you know what this big warehouse-looking wall is: the long wall in your living room and dining room. Imagine how nice those rooms would be with windows on that wall…and imagine how nice the exterior of that wall would look with windows, window flower boxes, and shutters.

Think about it for a few moments, and with a little imagination, you can see how architects and builders in the late 20th century borrowed from Hollywood. In the movies, it looks like you’re in a busy city, or perhaps a western cowboy town. But you’re really seeing facades. It’s nothing more than a good looking “front” built on to a warehouse or simple shed. A lot of bi-levels and raised ranches are the same way; to cut costs and keep the price of (then) entry-level or mid-level homes nice and low.

Fortunately for Hollywood, they show those movies on a 2-dimensional screen. Unfortunately for you, your house is 3-dimensional. The front looks great, the side looks terrible. If you understand this concept, congratulations. You are probably one of the few people in this country who now understands one of the most obvious shortcomings of the average split-level home.

The best thing is, there are plenty of ways to fix this situation. Take a look at the house on the left. This was built prior to the Great Depression, prior to the baby boom, prior to widespread home ownership, prior to suburbia, prior to the advent of split-level homes. You’re looking at the front, but notice how the trim elements wrap to the side. Notice how the dormer has an extended roof. Notice also the windows — and shutters — on the side of the house. The side is as attractive as the front. The house is seamless; it simply smacks of quality with awesome curb appeal. You can imagine the resale value is far beyond that of a 20 year old house with identical or even higher square footage.

Extended roof, additional windows, wrap-around trim, shutters that match the front. Why can’t the side look as good as the front? The answer is that it certainly can, although it tends to be a costly thing to do. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but there is very little that will even come close to enhancing your home as much as a facelift for the sides and rear.

At right is a tidy split level. The protruding area to the left of the front door is a garage, with bedrooms above. Naturally we’d rather have the garage door on the left side of the house, with windows and shutters facing the road, but the lot shape doesn’t allow this. So let’s see what we can do with this house…

Notice that the entryway requires guests to walk along a plain wall, exposed to the elements. Let’s extend the garage roof a bit. Maybe we can’t completely cover the walkway, but another 18″ to 24″ of eaves — on both sides of the garage — will add character to the home and a sense of “transition” for the visitor, now having a feeling of “protection” from the elements even if they really don’t. If we extend the other rooflines, living room, and even the double rooflines above, this house will have so much more visual impact, and connection to the land. Let’s hang some potted plants from those eaves, and add some trim.

Second thing to do is add some glass to those walls. Even though we’ve extended eaves over our guests, they’re still walking along the side of a warehouse as they approach the door. Let’s put windows in there, matching the double-hung windows in the living room. If you’re leery about guests looking into the garage, some frosted glass or even curtains will obscure the view.

The side of the living room could use a window, also matching the front. What have you got on this living room wall inside the house that could possibly be more attractive than a window with sunshine? An entertainment center? Could that possibly be more entertaining than the world passing by? Entertainment centers might be the single most ridiculous piece of furniture ever invented, but they’re used to fill 80% of the living room walls in a split level. And it’s mainly because you’ve got that big long empty wall inside the house. Give it a big window and you’ll be rid of the empty wall, and you’ll have a much, much better house. Inside and out.

The most noticeable design element on the front of this house is the brickwork. Unfortunately it’s only a Hollywood facade. We can leave the upper floor as-is, but let’s wrap the rest of the house in bricks. Along the garage, on the sides. Let’s put matching blue shutters on our new windows.

The garage is the only remaining “problem.” Again, not much you can do here. An obvious ploy is to leave the white siding above the door, but paint the door to match the shutters. It’s worth a try. We might also hang some sort of woodwork or other design element on the siding above the door. This would be an awesome spot for a centered wreath with pine swags during the Christmas holiday, a flag on Federal holidays, etc. And don’t underestimate the value of a basketball hoop and backboard in this spot. You won’t win any design awards, but more importantly, it says “this house is lived in and we enjoy family activities.”

Do these things, and this average split-level will become the most appealling home in the neighborhood.

continues below…

Part II: Would Dynamite be More Effective than Paint?

Fortunately, wholesale remodeling of the exterior of most bi-levels, splits & raised ranch houses is usually only necessary for the sides and rear. Like the examples above, the front of the home is usually at least somewhat pleasing to the eye.

But not always.

If the front elevation of your split is simply dreadful — as if the builder added small windows to a tool shed, or the architect thought it was a weigh station at a sand & gravel pit — you’ll need to work a little harder. Or perhaps you’ve got some early 1970s concoction, in which a then-futuristic roofline now simply looks frumpy. Too little glass? Lack of an overall “look”? Take heart, there are a number of effective “tricks” that will enable you to remodel the exterior from zero to hero.

Remodeling considerations are different for each type of split, be it raised ranch, bi-level, or three-level split. After you finish with this page, it is suggested that you use the links above left to review the unique characteristics for your particular home. Now back to your hideous exterior…

Roofline: One of the most effective ways to improve any house that was originally constructed on a tight budget is to re-define the roof. Typically, a split-level roof will have a standard overhang on the front and rear, and none on the sides. By extending everything, you actually extend the home to the ground, and soften the disconnect between the house and the surroundings.

In many respects, this is a fairly simple way to add character to your home exterior. It’s just a matter of adding length across the roof, and just a few more inches to existing overhangs. It visually “lowers” the house.

Glazing: Another remodeling “fix” that doesn’t require a knowledge of rocket science is to enhance the size and/or number of windows. The eye expects a certain ratio of glass to siding, and when it doesn’t see it, simply says “ugh.” (This is the same concept in the “side of the house” discussion above)

Another aspect of the windows is the exterior trim. Unless you’re going for a contemporary design — lots of wood and angles — you need something to transition the glass to the siding. Shutters are obviously the easiest, and most common, way to do this. Nothing wrong with shutters, unless of course they’re the wrong shutters. Maybe those vinyl panel shutters aren’t the anwer; perhaps a board-and-batten design might add some pizzazz. Think about it, shop around, look at photos. Right now there are so many bi-levels and split-levels with beige vinyl siding and raised panel shutters…it’s enough to make someone shudder. (heh heh heh). Seriously, do some research. There are a bazillion different types of shutters, many of which you can construct at home. You don’t haveto buy the same vinyl shutters everybody else buys.

Above left, a raised panel shutter; on the right is a board and batten type.

Above are two variations on multi-color board and batten type shutters. These could be made in virtually any home workshop, and painted to any of thousands of color combinations. While louvered shutters are the most common, a less-common design such as this could be just the sort of thing your house needs to give it a little “oompf.”

Part III: Major Overhaul, or Quick Spiffing-up?

Unifying the sides and front of your home (as described in Part I above) can be a costly, time-consuming undertaking. If the scope of such a project is too overwhelming right now, keep in mind that you can enjoy a “new” exterior simply by purchasing a few cans of paint. Repainting your home a colonial red with white trim when everyone else has jumped on the beige bandwagon just might make your home a neighborhood showpiece. The key is to take a long, hard look at the exterior of your home, and determine just how drastic — or modest — are the steps you’ll need to take to create an exterior to be proud of.

Elements of the Exterior

The way your home exterior appears to the world is determined by a number of factors, some of which you can have little or no influence on. These include topography, climate, neighborhood surroundings, angle of view from roadways, overall environment. While you cannot generally change these elements, they do play a part in how you present your home. Exterior design for a split level in a crowded Warren, Ohio subdivision is different from that of the same split in rural Ohio just ten minutes north.

The elements that you can control are style/color, landscaping, hardscaping, and accessories/finishing/lighting.

Yes, you theoretically could change the surroundings, but it’s unrealistic. Therefore the only course of action available to you is to adapt your style and your exterior design to your surroundings. Are you in that 1964 Warren Ohio subdivision? If so, that southwest stucco look you really want will be quite out of place. But if every house in the development has a Colonial look with double-hung windows, then a move to a Tudor facade with casement windows will give a “related” but definitely different appearance. It would be just different enough to stand above the crowd, but not so radically different that it will stick out like a sore thumb. Are you in a neighborhood of dull 1970s bi-levels? A shift to a contemporary exterior will have the same positive effect.

This is not to suggest that a complete overhaul of your “look” is required. If your house is reasonably attractive, and the style suits you, it could be that some less radical sprucing-up will do the trick. The paint scheme that differs from the average hum-drum…stripping your door and window frames and going with stained wood instead of paint (in fact most houses look better in natural materials vs. the typical vinyl siding that is so in vogue)…any of these can be accomplished in a weekend or two on the average split level home, and at generally reasonable cost.

After house style and color, landscaping is the second most important factor that you can control. In most parts of the country, landscaping (and maintenance) is the most time-consuming part of home ownership. Rather than address landscaping at length on this page, we discuss it specific to each type of split level on the individual primer pages (please see above left), as well as an overall discussion on our Landscaping Philosophy page.

Until recently, very few homeowners looked closely at hardscaping, and perhaps might not even have known what it means. Hardscaping refers to the structural landscaping that supports the house, man made or otherwise constructed. Walls, walkways, steps, decks, planters. Here is the domain of pavingstones, railroad ties, bricks, cement, etc. It is one of the most backbreaking, and generally over-priced, aspects of home design and maintenance.

As a rule, the more “processed” your material is, the longer it will last. Cement will outlast wood, plastic will outlast cement, etc. But the catch-22 of it all is, the more “natural” your material is, the better your home will look. Fun stuff, huh?

Take a walkway, for example. Concrete will last for years, but it is least desirable in appearance. Paving stones look a lot more attractive, but cost more and require more maintenance. Natural stone looks even better still, but is very difficult to do properly and very tough to keep in place…unless, ah, you use concrete. See how it goes? The same factors apply to accessories/finishing/lighting.

Accessories are an often overlooked opportunity for making your home shine. I recently went through a lot of rigamarole trying to obtain a custom made address marker. Eventually, I “settled” for something that wasn’t what I wanted, and wound up paying almost $200 for it. As is usually the case, I saw the exact type I really did want at a home just a few blocks away. Lesson learned? Don’t “settle” for something because you think you need it. I should’ve slapped up a couple temporary numbers on the mail box, and waited until I found the right marker. Even though it’s just an accessory, it’s better to wait for the perfect item rather than spend money on a so-so item. Chalk it up to experience, and move on.

Whether it’s hardscaping, lighting, or some other accessory, these are all facets of home maintenance that require balance during planning/selection. The average 1,000 to 2,500 square foot split level home usually has concrete walks, aluminum shutters, a plastic mailbox, plastic light fixtures…and so on. While this cornucopia of man-made materials may not be the most attractive, it is certainly practical and requires minimal maintenance. Yes, we’d like to replace all of these with less “processed” materials…brass or copper instead of plastic light fixtures, wood shutters instead of aluminum, brick instead of concrete, a cedar mail post, etc., but again, the degree of practicality dictates the material.

Factors to Consider in Material Selection

Just how “corrosion resistant” should your materials be? Answer the following questions with a 1, 2, 3, or 4, and total your score. Answer “1” if the question does not apply or has little impact on your circumstances. Answer “2” if you are uncertain. Answer “3” if the question applies somewhat, and answer “4” if it definitely applies to your circumstances.

  1. Temperatures where I live can vary more than 70º during the year.
  2. The materials used will be exposed to temperatures above 95º more than 30 days during a year.
  3. My home is located within 10 miles of an ocean.
  4. I do NOT enjoy home repairs, handiwork, etc.
  5. The materials will be exposed to direct sunlight most of the day.
  6. Average annual rainfall in my area is more than 45″ per year.
  7. Average annual snowfall in my area is more than 30″ per year.
  8. Typical daily humidity in my area is below 30% or above 70%.
  9. My home is sometimes subject to windblown sand or dust.
  10. We always have a “mud” season.

Remember, if it does not apply to you, take 1 point. If it applies to you, take 4 points. If it’s somewhere between, take two or three points.

If you scored 19 or less, use natural materials wherever and whenever you can.
If you scored 20-29 use natural materials wherever they can be maintained or replaced conveniently and/or inexpensively.
If you scored 30 or higher plan to use plastics, aluminum and concrete everywhere you possibly can for maximum longevity.

These results must be tempered with common sense, of course. This is presented mainly as an exercise to help you consider other factors — not even covered above — to help you determine the types of exterior materials that will provide the best mix of curb appeal and environmental resistance.

Specific suggestions for each type of split level home are offered on the individual primer pages: Split-Level or 3-Level PrimerBi-Level or 2-Level Primer, or Raised Ranch Primer.

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