Challenges of Split Level House Renovations




Photo by Renovation Design Group

by Dan Fritschen

Update: Split level homes were most popular in the 1950s and have a number of advantages and disadvantages to a modern homeowner. Split level homes are ideal for building on hills and steep slopes as they ideally slot into the landscape around them. They also tend to have more floorspace and a unique, flexible floorplan. However, the move towards more open plan living areas means that split level design may not be ideal. The increased number of steps and stairs is also tricky for anybody with mobility issues.

Split level house renovations bring both unique opportunities and unique challenges. There are essentially five types of split level house designs:

  1. Split Foyer or Bi-Level — Composed of two levels, with the entry level midway between the two floors. From the entry, a short flight of stairs goes up (usually 4-8 steps) and another short flight of stairs goes down. If the lower level of the house is built level with the ground, there will be outside stairs to the entrance. The lower level may be at least partly below ground level.
  2. Split Level — This type has either three or four levels and two or three short sets of stairs. The entrance is usually on a middle level and opens directly into a formal living room.
  3. Stacked Split Level — The stacked type has five or more levels with four or five short sets of stairs. The entry is on a middle floor, usually opening to a foyer with stairs going both up and down. The name is derived from the fact that additional bedrooms are “stacked” on top of the second living area. Many townhouses are of this type.
  4. Split Entry — The entry to this type of house is between floors and is usually located in an entry area off the main house. Like the split foyer, steps lead both up and down from the entry.
  5. Raised Ranch — This type of split level has two levels with a full flight of stairs and the entry into the lower floor. The living area is generally on the top floor, accessible by a staircase close to the entry.

Split Level Homes were very popular in the 1950s, particularly in the East and the Midwest. The house design is an adaptation that works well on uneven property. The house can be more easily built into the side of a hill or on a slope. These homes were designed to separate living areas from sleeping areas and to provide formal and informal living areas. They offer more privacy and quiet. Disadvantages include uneven heating and cooling and many stairs. The heating and cooling challenge can be met by installing a zoned system. The number of stairs can be a particular challenge for the elderly and disabled. This challenge can, however, be met by installing a glide chair.

Other limitations with this type of design include a lower level laundry room, no main level bathroom, shared bathroom on the upper floor with the bedrooms, and a lack of openness in the living area (particularly as compared to many contemporary designs).

Remodeling challenges specific to Split Level Homes are:

  1. Great care must be exercised in opening up the formal living area regarding bearing walls
  2. Many split levels have small rooms
  3. The steps between levels cannot be removed
  4. It is difficult to create a defined entry area
  5. It can be difficult to add a level to some types of split levels without losing balance and external appeal

Most of these challenges can be overcome with creative thinking, careful planning, and detailed attention to the design. For the most part, it is best to accept and work with the basic floor plan and modify access, flow between rooms, and a feeling of openness. It is also usually a bad idea to try to add another floor to a split level or to add on to the length of the existing house.

We have a number of workbooks to help with your remodel, packed full of great hints, tips and advice, and if you’re looking for design inspiration then you can browse 50 million images in our design gallery!

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