Renovation Solutions: 3 common problems and tips to remodeling the split-level home

Published: Friday, March 14 2014 4:45 p.m. MDT

Before: This true split-level home has some shortcomings in curb appeal, but nothing an exterior remodel couldn't fix.

Daniel Barton

Owners of split-level homes often have a love/hate relationship with their house. They love the amount of living space provided and the privacy the house design offers.

They appreciate that teens can be alone in their bedrooms on the top level of the house or in their lower-level family room, while Mom and Dad can relax in the main-level living room.

Owners also love how they get the feel of a multilevel house without having to trudge up full flights of stairs.

On the flip side, this type of layout divides a home into several distinct "boxes" or areas that make it difficult to connect spaces to each other. In addition, the entries are often cramped and challenging for today's modern homeowners.

Split-level homes actually had a prestigious origin — historians credit Frank Lloyd Wright as the inventor of this style around the turn of the 20th century. He believed split-level homes could be an affordable option for the average American family. However, it was not until the housing boom following World War II that this style began to be built in virtually every area of the nation and became the mainstay of mid-level residential marketing through most of the 1950s and ’60s.

A split-level home is essentially a non-traditional multistory home. 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. This is the true split-level house.

All true split-levels have at least three levels, but many have a fourth level below the formal living room/entry 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.

Because these homes were built as an economical alternative to the more traditional (and pricey) colonial or cape homes popular in the previous decades, many were constructed with little or no attempt to add detail or charm to the residence. Windows were limited, and facades were usually dominated by large garage doors. Most of the other complaints center around heating and cooling problems: Splits, because of their multiple levels, are often plagued by hot and cold spots.

Remodeling this type of home will typically address the three main concerns:

1. The lack of details inside and out.

2. The division of rooms and functions.

3. An insufficient entry area with stairs too close to the front door with the split-entry design.

Most homes of this vintage are in need of a curb-appeal update. This can be accomplished by improving and upgrading the exterior finishes and by adding trim details and additional windows.

Closing the gap between the existing kitchen and family room may require relocating the family room — in other words, creating an addition on the kitchen level that will allow space for gathering in the "great room" sense.

Finally, a small addition at the front of the home can push out the front door of a split-entry home, providing sufficient space to create a gracious entry point into the home.

As with any home remodel, there are plenty of options to fit various budgets and situational needs.

There is hope for the homely split-level home. All it takes is some creative thinking, an architect and a willingness to invest in your home and neighborhood. Once you address the issues that are bothering you, you will be able to say you wholeheartedly love your split-level house.

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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