What Is a Split Level Style House?

The exterior of a split-level house on a green lawn

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Even if you think don't know what a split-level house is off the top of your head, if you grew up in one of the countless number of suburbs that sprung up across the country in the 1950s, you've probably seen (or grew up in!) a classic split-level. If you somehow have never seen one in person, you've definitely seen one on TV, thanks to one of the most iconic (and unavoidable) sitcoms in television history: The Brady Bunch.

Taking its inspiration from the open-concept ranch houses of the pre-war suburbs, split level houses were specifically designed to give suburbanites plenty of room; packing lots of living space onto a small plot of land, split-levels were a spacious, affordable option for families. Today, they remain attractive to families of all sizes, as well as people looking for open, undefined space separated from living areas that can be customized to fit their specific life/work needs.

What Is a Split-Level House?

Unlike somewhat ambiguously-named house styles like Cape Cod, colonial, or craftsman, split-level homes deliver exactly what they advertised: a house with staggered levels. These houses have three or more levels, which are connected with short flights of stairs. 

What Makes a House Split-Level Style?

Split-level houses can sprawl out across a lot of land without being confined to a strict footprint, meaning it’s an easy style for architects to get creative with; there are no firm rules as to what rooms go where, or how the levels or staircases can be laid out. There are, however, multiple characteristics that many different styles of split-level homes share:

Exterior:

  • Multiple levels
  • Asymmetrical facade
  • Low-pitched roofs
  • Wide overhanging eaves
  • Double hung windows
  • Large picture window
  • Patio with sliding glass doors
  • Attached garages 
  • Use of natural building materials like brick and wood

Interior:

  • Large open-concept living areas
  • Short staircases
  • Multiple attic and storage spaces
  • Finished basements
  • Laundry room
  • Minimal ornamentation

History of Split-Level Houses

split level house - 70s era

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Split-level houses began to pop-up in the burgeoning American suburbs of the 1950s, and quickly gained popularity for their — at the time — “modern” aesthetic. In essence, the split-level is a spin-off of the ranch-style houses that came out of the 1930s, which featured open floor plans, large patio doors, and easy indoor/outdoor living

Unlike single-story ranch homes, split-level houses’ offered mid-century home buyers a lot more room, which made them ideal for families. And, because of their clever staggered design, these houses were able to cram more square-feet of living space onto a small lot of land, which kept them affordable to the emerging middle class. 

Types of Split-Level Houses

Standard Split

In a standard split-level home, the front door opens onto a ground-level entryway that leads directly into the middle level, which features the kitchen, dining room, and living room. Two short staircases branch off this entry area; one leading to an upstairs level containing the bedrooms and bathrooms, the other leading down to a finished basement that can be used for multiple purposes, like a home office, gym, den, or playroom. Usually, the basement level of a standard split is connected to an attached garage. 

Side Split

The most common type of split-level home is the side-split; a design where every single level is visible from the front of the house. This house is dividing into two sides, staggering the levels between each other. On one side, the kitchen and main living spaces are spread out over a single level. The other side of the house has two levels built directly on top of each other, each connecting to the main level with short half-flights of stairs; bedrooms and main bathrooms are found on the upper story, with a finished basement and garage underneath.

Back Split

A back-split ranch is laid out nearly identically to a side split, with one major difference: it’s been rotated 90-degrees. When you look at a back-split level house from curb, it will appear to have a single story, like a ranch-style house; walk to the sides or back of the house, and the other two levels come into view. 

Stacked Split

Stacked split-level house have at least four floors; think of it like side split, but with another story built over the living room. These houses have a main stairway that connects each of the staggered levels with short sets of steps. 

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