Help for a Ho-Hum House

Remodeling Possibilities for Ranch Styles

modern one story, large chimney, multiple windows
Arthur L. Richards Bungalow, 1915, Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

The American ranch style home was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie style homes, yet Wright's houses from the early 1900s still look far better than the 1970s raised ranches we find in the suburbs. What gives a house character? Big bay windows? Porches and pillars? Pink flamingos on the lawn?

Architects often speak of aesthetics, which is an individual sense of beauty. We all have our own sense of what we like to look at — what we think looks good. That's our aesthetic sense.

"My clients are often people who have a very strongly developed aesthetic sense," says North Carolina architect William J. Hirsch. "They appreciate beauty, they appreciate art, and they appreciate the finer things in life."

Non-architects may use the word "character" to describe what is liked in a house. Character, or curb appeal, is that elusive quality that makes a house special. On many older homes, character comes from craftsmanship and attention to details. It may be found in the bargeboard or the balusters, but homes from the turn of the 20th century just seem to have more character. Suburban tract houses built after World War II are often said to lack curb appeal because they are mass produced with cookie-cutter sameness.

So, the question is this: What Can You Do for a Ho-Hum House?

Great Location, Ho-Hum House

1970s Split Level raised ranch Home with large chimney on front, brick facade on lower level and white siding on upper levels, front entryway
Great View, Ho-Hum House. Kimberlee Reimer/Getty Images (cropped)

The house shown here is a raised ranch style built in the 1970s. The location may be ideal — a safe neighborhood, near stores and the train station, surrounded by families and children with similar interests. A lovely stream bubbles nearby, where youngsters gather to catch frogs in the summer. Town recreation facilities are just a stroll away. But even before they complete the purchase, the new owners, Abby and Michael, knew that the house was missing something. "It's everything I never wanted to live in." Abby says.

What Abby and Michael wanted was a place with pizazz — a home with style and personality. Sticking a few flamingos in the yard would not do the trick. Was there hope? The trouble began when their structural engineer inspected the house. Their new hideaway was not merely unattractive — it had serious flaws.

First, the roof. It was original — dating to about 1973. No way would it last another season. Next, the front entryway had been built on top of an existing porch. Repairs were so shoddy that the room was actually pulling away from the main house — you actually could slip fingers beneath the flashing. And then there was the matter of the windows. They had not been installed properly and would have to be replaced. To make matters worse, the mechanical equipment was in disrepair. Seems that the only thing that worked was the hot water heater.

With this much work that needed to be done, Abby and Michael decided that they might as well change the house — totally.

Michael, a building contractor, purchased an easy home design software program and Abby consulted with her dad, who sells three-season greenhouses. Together, the family began drawing plans and exploring possibilities. What could it look like?

The Facade

white masonry one-story home with walkway facade
Old Portuguese Colonial Villa in Mozambique, Africa. Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Getty Images (cropped)

They examined each side of the house individually, starting with the facade. The two largest problems with the front of the house was the entryway addition — that little box had to go — and the monstrous chimney, which was going nowhere. They considered an entirely new facade — building something directly in front of what was already there. They had seen this done as they examined modest houses from around the world. They had also seen Frank Lloyd Wright and Craftsman architect Gustav Stickley use pergolas to shelter and extend the roof. Would that work for a more modern-looking house? Yes, Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius used pergolas on his own 1938 home in New England.

The Roof

half-story dormer on roof of horizontal ranch with two-car garage
Expanded Ranch Home. Lisa Noble/Getty Images (cropped)

In spite of the problems, Abby and Michael knew there was hope for their rundown raised ranch. Sure, it was ordinary (Ugly! according to Abby) but it had potential. They began to list ideas. Possibilities included (1) change the entire profile of the house by raising the roof; (2) add gabled dormers; (3) consider cathedral ceilings and skylights or a mezzanine level interior; (4) re-route the roof overhang to sweep lower in the front, creating a front porch the entire width of the house; (5) change the roofing material, considering metal, wood shingle, slate, and clay tile; (6) raise the garage roof to visually counter-balance the height of the chimney.

The Windows

1970s split level raise ranch style suburban house, red siding, many windows
Raised Ranch from the 1970s. Kimberlee Reimer/Getty Images (cropped)

What is the view and where does the sun shine — architects struggle with both questions when designing a new house and placing it on a building lot. When a homeowner buys an existing home, however, decisions have already been made and all you can do is make adjustments. How can new homeowners repair the neglected windows and take advantage of the surroundings?

  • Choices expand if you plan on replacing the siding at the same time — siding, like molding, can cover a multitude of sins. Realize, however, that the siding you choose affects the look of the windows — vinyl siding may flatten the surface of an entire side, eliminating window depth that can give a home "character." When remodeling, look at what others have done, and don't make the same mistakes. Use 3D software to visualize exterior and interior views. Have an aesthetic plan when choosing types of windows to be included on one side .Open up the windows to optimize natural light. Change window trim, moldings, and shutters. How symmetrical do you want to be? How natural do you want to be — vinyl or wood replacement windows?

The Siding

yellow-sided raised ranch, shed roof, chimney in back
Landscaped Entry. Thomas Vela/Getty Images

Although vinyl siding is marketed as a low-maintenance product, its look becomes dated. One quickly realizes that vinyl is not a natural material in paradise. It ages differently than other materials, like brick, that may have been installed at the same time. New homeowners should think hard about curb appeal when considering the options of exterior siding.

If you buy a house with vinyl siding, consider removing it. You may feel better immediately without being surrounded by the equivalent of bubble wrap packing material. You also may find out the original design of the house underneath — were the windows larger, smaller, in different locations? Were other door locations tried before they cobbled together that box of an entryway?

Maybe you don't want a two-tone look on the outside, part brick and part something else. Maybe a whole new surface treatment, such as cedar shakes, is in order.

Considering Additions

Front view of a tidy split level brown brick family home with green grass and blue sky and car in driveway.
Split-Level, 1970s. pamspix/Getty Images

Some additions to existing buildings can be very surprising, even when designed by world-famous architects. In 2006, Pritzker Laureate Sir Norman Foster, a very famous British architect, finished up an addition to the 1928 New York City building owned by the Hearst Corporation. Foster added a 42-story, high-tech glass tower that soars above the masonry of the Hearst Building. To many people, it just looks ridiculous. Maybe the aesthetic is okay for New York City, but when YOU construct an addition, you might want to consider the whole aesthetic look before you build.

Abby and Michael wanted a place with pizazz, but the raised ranch they bought did not have the sparkle they envisioned. Maybe one the of the problems with the house was the front addition of the entryroom. It just doesn't look right, and the main entrance is off-center. What could they do?

They could tear down the entryway and rebuild it, making it more grand, higher, and with a more inviting, centered door and walkway. Or, they could make a more simple entry — smaller and less obvious. Or they could recreate the entire facade of the house by adding to the current addition in the front, creating a covered walkway along the front of the house.

A more involved solution is to change the style from a Raised Ranch to a Split-Level style — in essence adding a third story. Keeping in mind the problem of the chimney placement, Abby and Michael would have to decide if they want to build an addition in the style of the present house or build to suit their own aesthetics.

Porches and Decks

wooden deck around house and trees
Wrap-Around Deck. Chuck Schmidt/Getty Images
  • Sometimes a house's view is its finest asset. Sometimes a porch can move the eye's focus off a problematic part of the house. Exterior areas can add living space to a ho-hum raised ranch house, so owners Abby and Michael considered these options: (1) build a new back porch, which will add to their comfort but not the house's curb appeal; (2) add a large front porch, which is uncharacteristic of Raised Ranch-style homes but more common in split-level ranch houses; (3) add a deck with a wood type that complements the house's exterior, and build the deck to wrap around two sides of the house. A deck on the ho-hum side of the house may move the eye away from the ordinariness — adding a trellis or pergola over the deck is an economical way to move the entryway out from the facade.

Landscaping

Suburban 1970s split-level raised ranch style house with a big yard
Strategic Landscaping. Kimberlee Reimer/Getty Images (cropped)

As Michael and Abby reviewed their home improvement ideas for their raised ranch, they also considered the setting of their new home. What landscaping changes can give a home curb appeal?

Plant trees and hedges strategically. You don't want to cover the daylight into the dark spaces of the house, but you could use planting to completely cover the first floor of a raised ranch. Use new driveways, walkways, or patios to change the focal point away from areas you want to de-emphasize, such as a large chimney. Incorporate the architecture of porches and decks into the landscape architecture.

A Remodeled Ranch

two story, gently sloped front gable roof, large vertical windows
Remodeled Raised Ranch. Kimberlee Reimer/Getty Images (cropped)

The house shown here looks very different from a traditional raised ranch and unlike Abby and Michael's ho-hum house they were about to buy. Yet this house began with many of the same features and the same problems. To add character and curb appeal, the owners of this home made several key modifications, including (1) created a focal point with a prominent roof gable; (2) added dimension (height) and texture with vertical siding; (3) created an intimate sheltered entry beneath a second-floor porch; (4) added oversized windows to expand light and give the illusion of grandeur and height; and (5) created an interesting visual flow with multiple adjoining roof lines.

Without the care and attention to detail, what might this house look like?

Updating a Victorian-era house presents different issues than remodeling a house built in midcentury or later. Thinking and planning before acting are good tactics for any remodeling project. Architect William J. Hirsch says that a house should "fit" you: "It should fit your needs, your desires, your lifestyle, your aesthetic sense, the needs of your family, your aspirations — everything about you."

The bottom line is to live in a healthy home that reflects you and what your familiy considers beautiful.

Source

  • Hirsch, William J. "Designing Your Perfect House: Lessons from an Architect." Dalsimer Press, 2008, pp. 90-91