Hands-down, the split-level owns the title of architects' least favorite house to remodel. “It's a difficult type to work with because it's so poorly constructed, and the room sizes are way too small,” says Lane Williams, AIA, a Seattle architect who says he tries to avoid split-levels. This house type is plagued by some of the same quality-of-construction issues as the ranch, from which it evolved as a method of gaining space and privacy and handling hillside sites. But it contains its own particular set of design challenges.
The entry to many split-levels, for example, dumps guests in front of two stairwells the minute they step in the front door. “You walk into a stairway that gives you a mixed message,” Sarah Susanka says. “It's the thing people dislike most about split-levels — should I go up or down? You have to add on more entryway to build a message about where to go.” Widespread tactics include adding mudrooms and vestibules to the foyer or using interesting detailing to emphasize one set of stairs over the other. And adding or extending a front stoop gives the entry more of an exterior presence. Once they get further into the house, split-level dwellers also complain about an isolated feeling from one room to another. As a remedy, Robert Gerloff suggests removing the walls between the main living spaces, instead using an island to separate the kitchen from the living and dining room.
Many architects also use the cost-effective front-stoop maneuver to improve the split-level's much-maligned street elevation. For example, The Levine Group (formerly WL Architect–Builder), a Washington, D.C.–area design/build firm, recently transformed a standard split by simply removing its ill-proportioned shutters and building a small, covered front porch. More dramatic adjustments work too, when the budget and client allow. Chicago architect Ellen Bailey Dickson, AIA, enveloped her own split-level in Tudor-style gables of shingles and stone, rendering it unrecognizable — and much more attractive.
Despite the home's interior and exterior problems, it does have some redeeming qualities. Its popularity among buyers in the 1960s and '70s wasn't for nothing. “For my money, the split-level has a dynamic, almost voluptuous, spatial arrangement,” says Neal Payton, AIA, of Torti Gallas & Partners in Silver Spring, Md. It packs a large amount of square footage into a relatively small footprint, something growing families appreciate. As prices in close-in suburbs inch toward the stratosphere, split-levels are often the only house types left that younger buyers can afford. Whether architects like it or not, the split-level may be the “it” remodel of the future.
Straus Residence, Daly City, Calif.
Locus Architecture, San Francisco
Hong Lee Construction, San Francisco