Home on the Range: Enlarging and Elaborating Your Ranch House

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Bruce Wentworth, AIA, is a practicing architect whose
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“I own a one-story 2,220 square foot Ranch house built in the mid-1950’s, and I’m looking for more room and a generally more spacious feeling. I’d like to expand and upgrade the kitchen, create a family room, and extend a cramped bedroom and bath. What are some architectural considerations that will ensure that the end results look appropriate?”

- K.W., McLean, VA


The Ranch house is, of course, an American classic. It originated in California in the post-war era and quickly became one of the dominate “modern” architectural languages of America’s suburban landscape. What Ranch homes lacked in distinctive design details they made up for in relative spaciousness, latest conveniences, larger lot sizes, attached garages, and solid construction. Ranch homes also had a particular appeal to growing families seeking to escape urban density for greener, less crowded environs. Larger ranch homes, in fact, are often referred to as a “ramblers” owing to the way the single-story, multi-winged structure opens expansively, utilizes space and rambles across its site. Not coincidentally, the rambling effect may also be one of the reasons why ranch homes are comparatively easy to enlarge— an undertaking that generally takes homeowners on one of two possible routes: up or out.

It should be noted here that architecture classified as “modern” is almost astylistic when compared to the more differentiated design elements of earlier historic languages. In this sense, a ranch is something of a stripped-down, blank slate that can be redefined and accentuated into an authentic architectural statement. On this score, I have seen strikingly beautiful, well-integrated homes in styles ranging from Tudor to Contemporary that started life as a modest ranch. Still, before changing to a radically different language the existing house most be analyzed carefully. To choose an appropriate course of elaboration, you must thoroughly understand what you’ve got.

If your goal is to substantially increase square footage, and the lot is small, the savvy remodeler can implement what is humorously referred to as a “pop-top”. This involves removing the existing roof and building a new second floor above the existing single story. “Pop-tops” can accommodate drastic changes to the home’s original architecture, mainly because a full-scale remodeling of this magnitude will impact all aspects of the existing house. A “popped up” ranch, for instance, can be readily redefined as a Colonial, although Craftsman, Tudor, and even Contemporary are suitable stylistic alternatives. The “pop-top”, however, is a more expensive enlargement strategy (by about 25% or more) than adding a new single-story wing. Among other factors, the plan requires altering the first floor to accommodate a new stair well, reconfiguring existing living space and developing a new façade. As little of the existing house is untouched, “pop-top” remodeling requires vision, commitment and deep pockets.

On the other hand, if you are fortunate enough to have a large lot that accommodates a new rear or side wing (and there are no setback restrictions), you can minimize costs with a new same-level addition. This simpler approach will often allow your family to continue living in the house during the remodeling. Building a wing that forms a courtyard within an “L” plan configuration also has the benefit of creating space for a patio—a change that often improves the home’s indoor/outdoor continuum. For a cost-effective architectural solution, Ranch houses are most easily elaborated in a Contemporary style. A variation on Contemporary that we frequently use when remodeling ranch homes is Prairie style, a subtype of modern architecture popular in the 1920’s. The Prairie employs hip roofs, overhanging eaves, and horizontal bands of windows with cladding treatments that handily adapt to the specifications of traditional ranch houses.

The “pop-top” addition

A “Pop-top” to a Ranch is frequently executed in a traditional Colonial style aesthetic. Because adding a second floor effects all elevations (exteriors), the homeowner can have pretty much any of the desired Colonial sub-types. Roof lines can be made steeper, shapes and sizes of windows changed, and surface materials enhanced. Generally, the second floor addition stays within the existing footprint. As a rule, the two-story house is reconfigured so that the first floor contains the living spaces while the second floor is designated for bedrooms and private baths. A “pop-top” remodeling is only limited by imagination and budget.

One-story addition

If your lot is spacious enough to accommodate expansion at the rear or side, integrating a new addition with an existing ranch house can result in a very compelling design– at about 25% – 30% less than the cost of a “pop-top” approach. Ideally the addition’s roof lines should match and extend the existing roof. Ranch houses usually have low pitched gable or hip roofs which are easily replicated and emphasize the horizontal. Window styles are simple and range from double-hung to casement to slider. Probably the most important design characteristic of a ranch house is its emphasis on a horizontal rhythm.

Exterior Materials

Historically, ranch houses are usually clad in exterior materials that reinforced the horizontal character of the design. Examples are brick, stone, and clapboard. The cladding materials should, thus, be chosen for this purpose. Slim horizontal brick, horizontally cut stone, and long lengths of clapboard all work well to enhance the ranch home’s style.

If you wish to enlarge your ranch home some of the most important considerations are: maintain the horizontal, repeat roof lines, and be consistent with exterior materials. Adhering to these principals will take you a long way towards achieving a sympathetic addition that won’t look tacked on, and will enhance your home’s aesthetic and market value.

Bruce Wentworth, AIA, is the principal of Wentworth, Inc a metro area residential architecture, construction, and interior design practice. Questions on residential architectural styles can be sent to www.AsktheArchitect.org or call 240-395-0705 x 100.