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Split-Level House: Everything You Need to Know (Including Why It’s the Quintessential American Design)

Photo: Getty Images/Tony Anderson

Even if the term split-level house sounds unfamiliar to you, there’s a good chance you’ve seen this type of home before. With their staggered levels and half-flights of stairs, split-level houses are ubiquitous throughout the suburbs of the United States. Thousands upon thousands of split-level homes were constructed in the mid 20th century for families moving outside major cities. “I grew up in a tract development in the Bay Area during the 1970s and many models in our neighborhood were split-level in layout,” shares Karen Nepacena, the designer behind Destination Eicher and author of Midcentury Modern Style: An Approachable Guide to Inspired Rooms. “Often, a more formal living room and dining room were situated on one level, while the bedrooms were located upstairs and the kitchen and family room were located on a third lower floor.”

Though split-level homes are not commonly built today, many of the mid-century ones still exist, so the style remains quintessential to American neighborhoods. Anyone buying a house in the suburbs, especially in the Midwest, is bound to come across one—so it’s helpful to learn about this type of home. Here’s everything you need to know about split-level houses.

What is a split-level house?

<h1 class="title">North American Home</h1><cite class="credit">Photo: Getty Images/Verena J. Matthew</cite>

North American Home

Photo: Getty Images/Verena J. Matthew

A split-level house is a single-family home with multiple stories that are staggered, rather than stacked on top of one another. Each floor doesn’t run the full length of the house, so split-level houses tend to expand horizontally, rather than vertically. “On the outside, these homes present great architectural lines that can make them look generous in scale,” explains Nepacena. “Sometimes, split-level homes are situated on a hill property, incorporated into the angle of the land.”

Short or half-flight staircases connect one floor to the next in a split level home. Typically, the front door is on the ground level, with stairs running both up and down from there. “Open stair railings provide division between floors, giving views into the various living spaces from a single point,” Nepacena describes. “The multilevel design also helps give a spacious feel to the home and entryway.”

Most split-level houses feature three floors, but they can come in all shapes and sizes. “I have seen split-level homes with two, three, and even four levels—three being the most common—with myriad layouts,” says San Diego–based interior designer Julie Crosby. “From condos to large homes, there are a multitude of configurations.”

What is the difference between a split-level house, a two-story house, and a bi-level house?

As we mentioned, the floors of a split-level house are staggered. Conversely, the floors of a two-story house are stacked on top of one another, so the second level is directly above the first. The floors overlap entirely. A bi-level house is more similar to a split-level house, in that the floors are staggered, but there is no middle level—there are only two levels overall. At the entry of a bi-level house, there are two short sets of stairs, one leading up and the other leading down.

What are the defining characteristics of split-level houses?

External features

  • Asymmetrical silhouettes

  • Low-pitched roofs

  • Mixed-material façades

  • Natural materials like brick, stone, and wood

  • Steps leading to the front door

  • Attached garages

  • Double-hung windows

  • Large picture windows or bay windows on the main level

  • Minimal ornamentation

Internal features

<h1 class="title">Open floor apartment</h1><cite class="credit">Photo: Getty Images</cite>

Open floor apartment

Photo: Getty Images
  • Three to five levels

  • Short or half-flights of stairs

  • Open floor plans

  • Vaulted ceilings on the upper level

  • Large, glass sliding doors off the main floor that lead to a back patio

  • Finished basements on the lower level

  • Multiple attics and storage spaces

  • Minimal ornamentation

What is the history of split-level houses?

Split-level houses came to prominence in the US after World War II, during the baby boom, when young families were moving to the rapidly-developing suburbs. “This style of architecture gained popularity in the mid-century as a way to maximize living space on smaller lots,” Crosby explains. “It became prevalent in tract home design during the housing boom and suburban sprawl.”

Since split-level houses allowed architects to cram more square footage into compact lots, the homes were more affordable, which made them attractive to many middle class Americans. The open, airy floor plans and abundance of natural light (thanks to all the windows) were also a welcome departure from the dark, closed-off Craftsman houses that dominated the early 20th century. They provided more space than ranch-style homes too.

What are the different types of split-level houses?

<h1 class="title">1970s SPLIT LEVEL SUBURBAN...</h1><cite class="credit">Photo: Getty Images</cite>

1970s SPLIT LEVEL SUBURBAN...

Photo: Getty Images

Standard split

A standard split-level house has an entryway on the main floor, where the living room, dining room, and kitchen are usually located. From the main floor, there is a short flight of stairs up to the bedrooms and bathrooms, as well as a short flight of stairs down to the finished basement level, where there might be a family room, home gym, or office and access to the attached garage.

Side split

The most popular type of split-level house, the side split is recognizable for showcasing its three levels on the exterior. One side of the house, which typically includes the living area, dining zone, and kitchen, is a single story. The other side of the house is split into two stories, with the bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs and the finished basement downstairs. The Brady Bunch house, for example, is a side split.

Back split

A back split is basically a side split—but rotated 90 degrees. They both combine a single story and a double story for three total floors, but instead of sitting side by side, the single story is in the front and the double story is in the back of a back split. That means that a back split-level house may appear to be a ranch house from the front. The other two stories can only be seen from the back or side. Back splits are often built into hills.

Stacked split

A stacked split-level house has at least four floors. It’s like a side split, but there’s an additional level over the living room, dining room, and kitchen. There are several short sets of stairs leading off the main staircase to all the different levels.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of living in a split-level house?

Advantages

According to Crosby, the split-level home “is a space-efficient design for a compact footprint or uneven lot that still maintains distinct spaces for different areas.” She notes that the bedrooms are often private and quiet, even when the rumpus rooms are lively. The open layout of the main level, along with the sightlines to other floors, make split-level houses feel more spacious than they are. Split-level homes are especially suited for big families that need lots of bedrooms and leisure zones. Plus, they’re often more affordable than new homes.

Disadvantages

The primary feature of the split-level house, its many short flights of stairs, can be a serious drawback for certain people. “The multiple sets of stairs can be an issue for small children, elderly family members, or people with mobility impairments,” Crosby admits, adding that the layout can be challenging for remodeling or building an addition too. Homebuyers should know that split-level homes can also be difficult to sell because they’re viewed as outdated and difficult to renovate.

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest