Contrary to popular belief, split level homes (also called “divided entry homes”) aren’t going away anytime soon. While many homeowners still scoff at the idea of choosing a split-level design when building a home, most of that is due to many preconceived notions that are at best misleading or incorrect. True, some of those notions are partly true, but nothing that can’t be addressed by minor renovations.
Besides, split-level homes have too many advantages over other home designs for them to just fade away into the sunset. We’ll talk about these advantages later on in this article. For the meantime, here’s a bit of background on how split-level homes came about.
Split-Level Homes: A Brief History
The 1960s in the U.S was an era where conspicuous consumption was the norm.German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse put it best when he wrote in his book One-Dimensional Man: “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.”
At the turn of the decade, ranch-style homes were the rage. It’s a home-style made for comfort as much as it’s made for the common man. But as is the case in most suburban communities, well-to-do families aspired to go for something different, not only because they can afford it but because it provides them with many benefits.
Amid the rapid expansion of suburban communities during this era, split-level homes began to emerge out of the woodwork. In the years following the events of World War 2, more and more American families aspired to build houses that are a step above the bungalow-style houses veterans bought with their G.I. Bill funds.
Moreover, the idea of split-level houses stuck because they are a more cost-effective option for families who had to build their homes on smaller lots.
Split-level homes enjoyed more prominence following the popularity of the classic American family TV show The Brady Bunch. America saw the eponymous family doing quite well for themselves while living in a split-level. And just like that, split-level homes became even more fresh and prominent.
The popularity of split-level homes wasn’t just a “sign of the times.” Amidst the continued growth of suburban communities, people needed to add more space as well as imbue their homes with a more family-friendly dynamic.
However, the popularity of split level homes gradually declined by the end of the 70s as the American population started to gravitate towards one-story houses, mainly because middle-age Americans became a little bit too wealthy to bother with split-level homes. At the time, it’s awkward to use the words “split-level” and “luxury” in the same sentence. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why the American public fell out of love with the home design, but one can surmise that part of it is due to an aging suburban community who felt that split-level houses have “too many stairs.”
With that said, split-level homes are not going anywhere. After all, they offer much in the way of versatility and flexibility, and a growing number of homeowners are starting to realize that all it takes to transform a split-level home into the dream home they’ve always wanted is a little innovation and creativity.
Types of Split Level Homes
To give you a better idea on which split-level home design is perfect for you, let’s discuss the many variations of the ubiquitous home design.
A bi-level home, also called a split foyer, consists of two levels with two sets of short stairs dividing them. Enter the front door and you’ll step into a landing where two sets of stairs can be seen, with one going to the top floor and the other going down the basement. Usually high-ceilinged, the top floor comprises the living areas—the living room, the kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, and the dining room. The basement is often lower-ceilinged, containing informal living spaces such as entertainment rooms, garages, and dens.
A raised ranch home’s front door directly provides entry to the ground floor, where a full flight of stairs can be seen. Going up the stairs takes you to a high-ceilinged top floor, which comprises the living room, kitchen, dining room, and the bedrooms. The basement, which can be accessed via another set of stairs on the ground floor, is partially below ground and contains the play area, the den, or the garage. If you’re having a difficult time picturing a raised ranch, imagine it as an elevated ranch house with a lowered front door.
The split-entry home is nearly similar to the bi-level home, except that the front door opens into a foyer that’s part of an entrance wing off the main house. The foyer gives instant access to two short flight of stairs, with one leading to the top floor and the other leading to the basement.
Another variation of the split-entry uses the foyer off the entry wing as a separate living space.
Split-level homes have a front door that enters into a middle floor, which is obviously between a top floor and a basement. The middle floor is typically used as the main living area, comprising the kitchen, dining room, and the living room. The middle floor also has two flights of stairs, one leading to the bedrooms, and the other leading to the basement and the garage.
Split-level homes also allow for improvisations, such as a fourth floor or a cellar right beneath the middle floor.
Designing Traditional Split-Level Homes
Many homeowners feel that “true splits” are outdated. However, people aren’t aware that the traditional split-level home has also evolved through the decades, with contemporary touches that make them stand out. Want to show those naysayers what they’re missing? Then follow these tips on how to spruce up a traditional split-level home!
Landscaping is essential in increasing the curb appeal of your home. But if your home has a split-level design, the rules have to change a little. It’s also important to bear in mind that landscaping is not done solely for aesthetic purposes, but also to smoothen the transition from the outdoors to the indoors.
There are two elements in creating that smooth transition: landscaping and hardscaping. By combining the manipulation of land via planting (landscaping) and the building of non-plant elements like walkways, patios, fences, walls, etc. (hardscaping), you can create this flawless transition while elevating the aesthetic properties of your home.
Divided entry homes provide many possibilities in terms of landscaping, and if you’re smart, you’re going to adopt the “triangle” design to improve your home’s curb appeal. Of course, creating this “triangulation” is also a great idea on account of the practicality of space it provides.
If you’ll notice, the positions of the walkway and the driveway potentially create a triangular formation relative to the position of the house. This provides another opportunity to create another triangular formation, which can be pulled off by adding another visual element off to the side. This visual element can be in the form of a large tree or an arrangement of shrubs, or even a small fountain if you fancy a Greek outdoor design.
There are many other stylistic choices you can go for besides triangular formations. The possibilities are limitless, and you’d do well to discuss with your landscape architect about potential visual elements that can spruce up the overall look of your home’s exterior.
The problem with most divided entry homes these days is the way they abandoned the classic and “retro” architectural elements to make room for more contemporary flourishes. The resulting look is rather drab and boring, and without the unique charm and personality that made the 60s or 70s version so appealing in the first place.
Ideally, if you want to go for a three-level home, you should never completely abandon the classic elements. After all, a split-level house with a red exterior, white doors and shutters is far more visually appealing than one with a beige exterior with grey shutters and a grey front door. So, embrace the “Americana” aspect of split-level homes, using timeless elements such as bowfront windows, glass blocks, Dutch doors, and brick walkways.
It goes without saying that the way you styled your exterior should partly determine how you would style the interior. But unlike your three level’s exterior, designing the interior allows you more freedom without much risk of butchering the overall look.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with adopting the classical look in this case, since split level homes were originally designed that way. But if you want to go more modern, adopting the Scandinavian style should work. However, you must also consider your personal style. If you’re of the Tuscan persuasion, then go ahead and go for the Tuscan look. As long as you’re able to accentuate your personal aesthetic with the clever use of space and contrast, then you’re well on your way to making your three-level split home stand out.
Designing Bi-Level Split Homes
Let’s face it: bi-level split homes have a “boxy” look that makes them look drab and boring.
Thankfully, you can minimize that “boxiness” through design flourishes with landscaping and through renovations on both the home’s exterior and interior.
One nifty trick that can help your bi-level split home to blend more fluidly with the surrounding landscape is to “tie” down the largest top-floor window to the ground. The problem is that doing this is difficult with most bi-level split homes, especially since there are smaller windows directly beneath top-floor windows.
A great workaround to this is to use landscaping flourishes so that the lower windows will not be as prominent.
Overall, the adjustments you have to make will depend on the topography of your lot. You can use landscaping tricks to minimize the inherent dullness of bi-level split homes.
Most bi-level homes have a dull interior. This is because people have this notion that going for a monotone look is acceptable just because bi-levels have a similar floor plan.
They’re doing it wrong.
When it comes to bi-level homes, don’t go for monotony. Go for cohesiveness instead.
Understandably, achieving cohesiveness in an open floor plan can be a tall order, especially the mixing-and-matching aspect of it. You can’t mix Scandinavian furnishings if the floorplan has a New England Colonial design. It only takes a few design mistakes to make your living space look and feel cluttered.
Use lighting and color to your advantage
In a bi-level home, you can see the entire space from anywhere, so it’s important that everything—the furniture, theme, decorations—should go together. As such, you need to use the right mix of colors to achieve that harmony. Lighting also plays a huge role in this, so use lighting fixtures that not only blend well with the overall color scheme but also accentuate what’s already there.
Don’t over decorate
It’s easy to get carried away when you’re decorating. If you’re designing a bi-level home’s interior, it’s important that you don’t overdo it. Visualize the overall design and aesthetic that you want to achieve from the get-go and focus on the essential elements that contribute to the whole package. Get rid of what’s inessential and do away with the stuff that doesn’t spark joy (as Marie Kondo would put it).
Preserve the flow of traffic
This is the tough part, but it’s extremely important that you preserve the interior space’s flow of traffic. Sometimes bi-level homes lack a master suite because homeowners feel they have too many walls. A skilled designer knows that a few small wall changes are what’s required to free up your home’s interior space.
The Raised Ranch
Ranch-style homes have a simple, rustic design that lends them a unique homely charm, but as is the case with bi-level homes, you can jazz up the landscape to give them more personality.
Create a sense of balance
The key to landscaping is to create a sense of balance. Since ranch houses are rectangular-shaped, you have to mind the spaces between plants and trees in a different way.
Again, using the triangular formation will serve you well here. One of your goals here is to place visual elements that help you achieve a rough balance (balancing elements that look too similar look drab and uninspired) For example, you can place a large tree and six small shrubs on the far side away from the walkway and then plant a small tree surrounded by six large shrubs on the near side.
With one-level ranch houses, you can spruce up the landscape by planting a tall tree in the front yard, with the canopy serving as the backdrop above the roof.
It’s hard to pull that same visual effect with a raised ranch home, particularly because not many trees are tall enough to achieve that canopy effect with a two-level ranch house. Sure, you can wait for the tree to grow tall enough to achieve that same effect, but that would take too long.
What you can do instead is plant a tall tree at the back of the raised ranch home so that it’s scaled down enough for the canopy to reach past the roof line. You can then put small trees in the front yard, but make sure they’re widely spaced enough to avoid clutter.
Your land’s topography, especially the slope around your home, should play a huge role in how you spruce up the landscape. Is your raised ranch home downhill from the road? Then place grass and shrubbery along the road or street to maintain an open view of your lot. If the street leading to your raised ranch home goes uphill, then framing the way with a front border of shrubs or flower beds (or a combination thereof) should create a visual spectacle for visitors when they come for a visit.
The raised ranch’s exterior may look outdated today, but you can posh it up by adding some embellishments. You can apply new paint, siding, and trim. You can even add a few modern touches, such as full-length sidelights at the front doors or adobe/stone facades. You can replace old windows with new ones, maybe even go for a traditional colonial approach (four upstairs windows and another four downstairs). If you have the budget for it, adding a front porch should add some personality to your ranch home’s exterior, aside from providing you with a nice space to bask in the beautiful scenery outside your home.
The raised ranch home’s interior is typically monotonous, but you always have the option to make add some bells and whistles. The following are interior design tips that will help shake things up. Make sure to also read our article on how to modernize your split-level.
Open the living room to the kitchen
The enclosed spaces that are typical in a raised ranch home can feel confining, but you can open things up by connecting the kitchen to the living area. You only need to remove the wall to pull this off. Doing this provides you with a good view of your home’s backyard even when you’re in the living room. Just don’t forget to make the necessary stylistic adjustments to smoothen the transition between the two sections.
Spruce up the interior with custom features and finishes
Ranch-houses scream laidback living, but that doesn’t mean you can’t add some modern elements to them. Think black-lacquered (or lighter pine) cabinets, white countertops, and backsplash tiles topped off with polished brass hardware or their variations. You can finish it off with dark stained oak floors as well. For a savvier living area, you can create a comfortable space by installing a white shiplap fireplace with a small entertainment niche surrounded by built-in shelves. And don’t forget to put a coffee table in there, preferably under a light iron chandelier hanging from a vaulted ceiling.
Knowing what works is difficult if you know next to nothing about interior design, but you can discuss your options with your contractor or interior designer to be able to decide which interior theme works best for you. Remember, when it comes to designing a ranch home’s interior, the general rule of thumb is to use the open floor plan to your advantage.
Quick Ways to Make Your Split-Level Home Stand Out
If you’ve ever visited a suburban community teeming with split-level homes, then the first thing you’ll probably notice is the monotonous design. That’s not to say that they’re ugly, but if you live there, it shouldn’t hurt to make your split-level home stand out.
Differentiating your split-level home, however, can be a scary thing. These houses are brimming with classic design elements, and putting in the odd furniture or using the wrong color may potentially muck it up.
Consulting an interior designer who specializes in split-level homes should directly address this. But what if you don’t have the budget to hire one?
Well, here’s some good news: You don’t have to be a millionaire to spruce up your split-level home. Believe it or not, you can start with the small stuff and still make vast improvements. The best part? You can always carry on from there.
So without further ado, here are quick ways to help you make your split-level home stand out.
Update your exterior lighting
If you own a split-level home, chances are the exterior light fixtures were already there when you first bought it. Since ranch-style homes typically use classic art deco architecture, their light fixtures probably look like they were built in the 1960s (think Victorian or Edwardian lighting).
If you feel that your exterior lighting fixtures need to be changed or updated, the last thing you want to do is go to Home Depot or Lowe’s for your lighting needs. Go to specialty retailers or antique dealers instead. Also, there’s the internet, so you should be able to find what you’re looking for in several minutes.
As to lighting manufacturers, you can never go wrong with Hinkley, Driveway Light, or Rooms to Go. Just make sure that what you’re buying fits the theme or overall design of your home.
Add a touch of color to the foundation
The foundation of a house is an essential element in the exterior color plan. Many homeowners tend to not pay it any mind. This is unfortunate since a splash of color on a home’s foundation can go a long way in differentiating your split-level home. But before you color it up, make sure that you have a color scheme that works. Ideally, you don’t want a two-tone effect because it dilutes the unique features of your home’s exterior.
Declutter your home’s exterior
Decluttering your home can do wonders for your property’s curb appeal, even more so if you own a split-level home. Start by throwing away or hiding away things that don’t add to the visual appeal of your home’s exterior. Besides, clutter only serves to obscure your landscape’s (and best features. You can highlight them by tidying up.
Things you can hide or throw away include broken or old garden tools, broken or old garden hoses, old yard toys, broken statues and ornaments, plastic storage bins, and many other odds and ends. By going outside and looking at your home from a good enough distance, it should be easy to tell which items don’t fit.
Color it up
The best thing about split-level houses is that you can make bold color choices and they’ll still look good, at least as long as you adopt a color scheme that works in relation to your home’s overall theme. So, go ahead and color it up when painting the window trims, doors, garage doors, decks, fences, and more. Chances are you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the overall result