Renovation Solutions: Remodeling the split-level house

Published: Friday, Dec. 13 2013 5:34 p.m. MST

Before: When it comes to remodeling your split-level house, it is best to capitalize on the classic style instead of fighting it. Make changes that enhance it and solve the problems without taking away from the classic design.

Brent Murray, Renovation Design Group

Split-level homes have made a comeback in recent years. Drive around some of the new "starter-home" neighborhoods around the Wasatch Front and you'll find many variations on the split-level theme.

You'll also find split-level homes in many older, established neighborhoods. They first appeared in the 1930s but really came into their own during the building boom after World War II. Today, these older split-level homes find themselves in need of updating. Your best bet when working with a split is to embrace all that is classic about its style.

A split-level home is essentially a non-traditional multistory structure. These homes are often modest and always efficient in their use of space. There are two types of “splits”: The classic split-level home generally includes a one-story side and a two-story side. You enter into the single story, where you will typically find a living room, kitchen and dining area. On the two-story side, you usually have bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs and a family room, laundry room and garage downstairs. Half-flights of stairs connect each level.

The other type of split-level design is the split entry. This is basically a two-story house with an entry located halfway between the upper and lower floors. When you enter a split-entry house, you walk onto a landing between two half-flights of stairs. You have to go up or down to get to any part of the house.

Split-level homes offer several advantages. They are a sensible way to accommodate a sloped lot or to build on a flat lot without a great deal of excavation. Moving through the house can be easier than a traditional two-story house since there is only a half-flight of stairs between any given level. Plus, the lower level is built partially above ground, which allows much more light than a traditional basement.

But there are also challenges. A dedicated entry area is often missing from a split-level home, as you often step right into the living room. While there is a separate entry in a split-entry home, it is invariably small and cramped, leaving everyone feeling that they are likely to tumble down the stairs if they aren’t careful. The main level is usually half a story above the backyard, which impacts indoor/outdoor connections. A half-flight of stairs is required on the exterior to get up to the level of the front door — these are rarely designed well and are often awkward to negotiate.

Most requests when remodeling split-levels replicate requests common to any home, including opening up the rooms on the main floor to create a great room and constructing a more spacious master suite. The added challenge for a split-entry home is to revise the entry to provide a more gracious space and to enhance the home's curb appeal in the process.

The Smith project is a good example of discovering a split-entry home’s glory. An addition was created to enlarge the kitchen, dining, and family room on the main level, as well as to increase the size of the lower level family room.

Besides making the home functional for their large and active family, the other challenge was to give their split-entry home's exterior a face-lift. The narrow, dangerous stairs from the driveway to the small porch were removed. A new porch and much more gracious entry stairs were constructed. The dated 1970s yellow brick and sea-foam green aluminum siding were replaced with red brick and cement fiber-board siding to create an updated yet traditional look that blends in well with the existing neighborhood.

If you have a split-level home in need of some TLC, it is best to work with an architect to accomplish your goals and create a master plan. Obviously, you found something intriguing about your house when you bought it. Work with the style of the house instead of fighting against it.

While it is a challenge to update the exterior of a split-entry home, a good architect will not be daunted. With some work and creativity, you can have a gracious entry and a stylish look to the exterior of your “split” while you enjoy living in an icon of mid-century style.

Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the Principal Architects and co-founders of a residential architectural firm focused on life-changing remodeling designs at RenovationDesignGroup.com. Send comments or questions to ask@RenovationDesignGroup.com

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