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 Misunderstood Raised Ranch…
Of all split level homes, the Raised Ranch is the most uncommon — as well as the name most commonly misused! The majority of homes that are called “raised ranch” by the average developer or real estate agent are actually bi-levels. Often when a house looks like a two-floor version of a ranch, the name “raised ranch” is applied. But usually this is misleading.
The true test to determine if you actually have a raised ranch is this: If you walk in the front door, and then have to climb an entire flight of a dozen or more steps to reach the main living floor (living room, kitchen, etc.), you’re in a raised ranch. The “foyer” or entry area is on the ground floor, and the living area is one flight up.
Some “raised ranch” homes, such as the example at left, are actually standard ranch homes that are configured in such a manner that they appear to be a raised ranch. In this case, the staircase is on the exterior, and entry is at the main level. Although this is not a true raised ranch, the circumstances this homeowners faces are nearly identical. So for the purposes of this essay, we’ll treat this as a raised ranch too.
At right is a “true” raised ranch. Once you enter the front door, you need to ascend a full flight of stairs to reach the main living level. Because of this, the foundation at the front of a raised ranch is generally right at ground level. There is nothing structurally wrong with that, but it causes a number of headaches when you are trying to improve the landscaping and curb appeal of your home.
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. Frank Lloyd Wright called it “organic” architecture; making the home “one with the surroundings.”
The true raised ranch is one of the most difficult vernaculars to tie to its environment. We live in a world of four-square homes, colonial, capes, saltboxes, ranches…the main windows are in-line with the front door. On a raised ranch, however, The high, main window that our eye expects to see next to the front door is positioned awkwardly elsewhere. In the example immediately above, it’s stuck strangely on the second floor. In the upper photo, it’s located above the garage — and the front door on a raised deck only adds to the visual confusion.
Either way, you’ll have a lot of work ahead of you to bring the raised ranch into harmony with your surroundings.
Some homeowners go crazy landscaping raised ranches, somehow thinking that “more is better.” Unfortunately this usually results in an overdone appearance, in which the visual becomes just a massive amount of stuff.
With an average “front yard,” the easiest way to landscape a raised ranch is to position a substantial tree — at least the height of the main window — one-third the distance between the steet and the house, and set slightly to the side. The idea is to create “triangulation” which is one of the easiest concepts for the do-it-yourself landscaper to put into practice. In this case, it visually “links” the house to the surroundings. As shown in the illustration above, when viewed from the road, the tree obscures or minimizes the odd window. From within the house, however, the tree is distant enough that you can see most of the road easily around it. It’s much like the principle of a goalie and a defender in a soccer game. The defender goes out to meet the opposition, and minimizes the offensive player’s view of the goal. But because he is far away from the goaltender, the goaltender’s view is not obscured.
Below is another way to implement triangulation in landscaping a raised ranch. In many cases, this could be considered the basic blueprint for landscaping the average raised ranch. The house and walkway are plainly illustrated in black. The largest window, in the living room, is indicated in yellow. Tree height is relative to the width (wider trees or shrubs are also taller in this design)
Notice the walkway in the illustration above. It’s straight, square, boxy, stiff…just like the house. If ever a vernacular begged for a little bit of curve, the raised ranch would top the list. Look at the two raised ranch houses in the illustration below. Notice the two walkways, both going to the same driveway. Use your imagination and add landscaping to both. Which house has more curb appeal?
On many older raised ranches, front walkways 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 raised ranch homes 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.)
Above is a raised ranch that really does it right. The front porch — even though it is little more than a covering for the walkway — draws the house “down” to the surroundings. It also helps eliminate the “boxiness” typical to most. Second thing is the landscaping. It is basically triangulation, using shrubs and trees, and a large tree to minimize the odd arrangement inherent to a raised ranch. 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.
If you own a true raised ranch (door at ground level, LR DR K & BR upstairs) you are basically faced with two courses of action for your exterior: 1) Accept the fact that you have a raised ranch, and make the best of it, or, 2) Change it to something else.
Because the raised ranch is basically an “upside-down” Colonial, the vernacular doesn’t sit well with some people. If you own one, however, chances are that its awkwardness doesn’t bother you. If so, congratulations — odds are that you’re the type of person who isn’t rushing to “keep up” or overly hung up on appearances and materialism.
In this case, your best course of action is to make the most of your home. New paint or siding, new landscaping, attractive extras where appropriate (such as shutters, etc.) will go a long way toward beautifying your home. Replace steel front doors with wood. If your budget is a little bigger, the most rewarding major improvement is to replace old windows with larger, dressier new windows. If money is of no consequence, adding a front porch is the next step. Each of these will add significant curb appeal to your RR.
On the other hand, you may decide that you’re done climbing stairs…for whatever reason. Perhaps you have older visitors unable to make the climb, or living on the top floor is unbearably hot. In this case you can consider transforming your home into a center hall colonial. This won’t work with a narrow raised ranch (narrow end and garage face the street) but will work with the type shown in the photos just above. It is not for the casual do-it-yourself person, nor is it appropriate for a family unable to cope with complete disruption of the household. You also have to consider how the house is situated; if it is built deep into the side of a hill, this type of overhaul is hardly practical as it would result in having no kitchen windows.
One alternative is to re-do the exterior only; by converting the windows to a traditional colonial style (four upstairs, picture window downstairs). Refer to diagram below. This works well if your house has other trappings of colonial style.
Many raised ranch homes 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 raised ranch 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 raised ranch is dismal.
But it really doesn’t have to be that way…
The logic goes that because most raised ranch homes 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. In many cases a raised ranch will be located alongside a bi-level, and they are often identical but for the location of the front door and the stair patterns. 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 floorplan is easy 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 the average-sized raised ranch is lack of a master suite. This is often a case of “too many walls” rather than “too little space.” In the example below (even though the illustration show a bi-level, the principle is the same) 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 floorplan, three bedrooms upstairs. Below: By moving the third bedroom downstairs, the cramped master bedroom becomes a luxurious master suite. (bi-level shown; staircase is different on raised ranch; but that is really the only difference)
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 raised ranches 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 raised ranch.
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 RR is on a Florida waterway, 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.