Renovation Solutions: One family's experience with remodeling a split-level home

Published: Friday, March 21 2014 4:09 p.m. MDT

This is the gathering space that the Smiths added off their kitchen and previous informal dining area.

Kevin Bunnell, Renovation Design Group

Last week we discussed the common issues of remodeling a split-level or split-entry house. The Smiths found that common thread of a love/hate feeling toward their house and their situation. They loved the neighborhood, the lot and the view. Their split-level had appeal, and with a little tweaking of the floor plan, they knew they could stay there for a long time.

This is a good real life example of last week’s suggestions for addressing the common issues of a split-level house, which are the lack of details/curb appeal, the division of rooms and functions (i.e. lack of gathering space near the kitchen) and a tight, awkward entry and porch.

When the Smiths decided it was time to remodel, they knew they wanted a better gathering space. With their six children still at home, they understood that even when they eventually fly the coop, their family would grow again by way of future spouses and grandchildren. A comfortable and convenient gathering place would be useful both in the present and in the future.

When they created the master plan, they decided to divide the project into phases. Phase one was an addition to enlarge the family room, and phase two was to relocate and enlarge the kitchen. Phase three was to update the exterior curb appeal of the front of the house, and phase four involved renovating the master suite. They ended up blending phase one and phase two once they got into the construction process. "I couldn't imagine stopping and starting again down the road," Tiffany Smith said. "We just wanted that part of the house finished."

The addition created 400 additional square feet on the main floor, and they duplicated the space in the basement. On the main floor, they used the space to create a great room, which included relocating the original kitchen.

The old kitchen was a galley layout, but it unfortunately also served as the hallway, which was the only access to the family room that had been previously added onto the rear of the home. Any time the dishwasher or the refrigerator was open, there was a major road block.

"Now there is a dedicated pathway to the great room," Smith said. "We don't have to have the company come through the kitchen to get to the gathering area."

Prior to the remodel, the laundry room and the pantry were combined. "Before, the kids would throw all their dirty clothes on the washer, just inches away from all of our food," Smith said. "I didn't realize how weird that was until now that they are separated. I love it."

The original downstairs family room was typical of many dark basement spaces in Utah. "It was more like a bomb shelter — very dark and cave-like," she said. "No one wanted to go down there."

Because of the large span of their children's ages, they wanted to create a friendly, safe and cheerful place where some of the children and their friends could hang out. They added light with large windows and window wells, as well as a walk-out door with the basement addition. Now it is a secondary gathering space that is used every day.

The Smiths also decided to move right into phase three and give their split-entry home an exterior 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. They replaced the dated 1970s yellow brick and sea-foam green aluminum siding with red brick and cement fiber board siding to create an updated yet traditional look that blends in well with the existing neighborhood.

The exterior update also extended into the landscaping. Living on the side of the foothills, their backyard was steeply terraced with multiple layers of retaining walls. They were approached by their excavation contractor. "He had a project down the road from us that need fill dirt," she explains. "We were looking to get rid of some dirt to level out the yard. It just worked out, so we decided to go for it."

Previously, it wasn't a usable yard for kids. "There wasn't really anywhere to kick a ball," she said. "We love the new yard now."

The Smiths don't see themselves moving anytime soon. "We joke around about our burial plots being in the backyard," Smith said. However, they are not quite finished. "Phase four is our master suite," she said. "But that will be down the road."

The Smith project is a good example of discovering a split-entry home’s glory.

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 it. 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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