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Get the Look: Ranch Houses

Ranch houses are a uniquely American style of architecture with a low profile and plenty of glass to link the interior with the landscape outside

Written by Debra Steilen
  • Werner Straube

    The Ranch House

    A 20th-century invention, the long, low ranch home was the go-to housing design after World War II, when people—and their cars—flocked to the suburbs.

    But its actual origin was earlier—in the 1930s—when California architect Cliff May began designing homes that took aspects of working houses on actual ranches and the haciendas of Spanish descent and incorporated them into a new style of architecture. What emerged was a laid-back, low-slung residence with an open floor plan and sliding glass doors that linked it to the backyard.

    See examples of ranch homes’ predecessors on the next three slides.

  • Scott Little

    Adobe Haciendas

    Single-story haciendas—usually made with adobepopulated Southern California’s ranches and rural areas long before Cliff May started drawing up ranch homes. These simple structures were usually only one or two rooms deep with porches extending along the front and courtyards or patios in the back—perfect for enjoying fresh air and sunshine. 

  • Michelle Newman

    Working Ranch Houses

    Houses on 19th-century cattle ranches were practical, unadorned, single-story buildings on the prairie. The 20th-century suburban translation? A one-level home—its long side facing the street—combined with a broad front lawn and a spacious backyard set up (at least during the Baby Boom years) for raising children. 

  • John Reed Forsman

    Prairie-Style Precursors

    Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie-style architecture also influenced the development of ranch houses. Prairie-style homes featured strong horizontal lines, low-pitched roofs, and free-flowing spaces that blurred the line between interior rooms and the natural world outside. Another harbinger: Prairie-style exteriors featured natural materials and very little ornamentation—all the better to blend into their surroundings.

    Architect: Ken Dahlin

    See more of this contemporary Prairie-style home in Racine, Wisconsin.

  • Michael Garland

    Horizontal Housing

    So, how do you recognize a ranch house? The most obvious characteristic is a low profile; these homes hug the ground and boast additional features (see the following slides) that heighten the desired connection between indoor and outdoor living.

    This horizontal emphasis began with the work of Cliff May, who grew up on a working San Diego ranch. Modernist influences (think clarity of forms and emphasis on horizontal lines) kept ranch homes simple and mostly single-story. Ranch homes’ popularity exploded during the late 1940s and '50s with the post-World War II Baby Boom and the shift of population from cities to the suburbs. Suburban land was plentiful and relatively inexpensive, which supported the sprawling style of this type of house.

    Magazines—such as Better Homes and Gardens—played a big role in popularizing the look and idea of the ranch house in postwar America. 

  • Mark Lohman

    Asymmetrical Shapes

    Another clue that you’re looking at a ranch house is an asymmetrical footprint. Ranch homes come in three basic shapes: rectangular, U-shaped, and L-shaped. The latter two, a far cry from the formal facades of Colonial and Georgian homes—have wings that embrace patios, swimming pools, and other outdoor features. And that integrates ranch homes into their landscapes.

    Another benefit: These L- and U-shaped homes were easily expandable; homeowners could simply add on to the wings to accommodate their growing families. 

  • Richard Leo Johnson

     Low-Pitched Roofs: Gable

    Ranch houses typically feature low-pitched roofs with deep overhanging eaves—a characteristic that reinforces these homes’ horizontal appearances.  Gable roofs are the most common option, with side gables on the long part of the house that runs parallel to the street, and front-facing gables on wings.

    See a ranch house with a hipped roof on the next slide.

  • Edmund Barr

    Low-Pitched Roofs: Hipped

    Hipped roofs are ones in which all sides slope gently downward to meet the walls, with no gables. Built in 1956, this California ranch has a hipped roof with dark gray shingles that are nearly the same color as the exterior facade. At ground level, the reclaimed-brick driveway leads to a front entry that, if not for its yellow door, would be entirely nondescript, another hallmark of ranch homes. For this style of house, the real outdoor action takes place in the backyard.

    See a ranch home with a cantilevered roof on the next slide.

  • Philip Harvey

    Cantilevered Roof

    A cantilevered roof is one in which the beams are anchored at only one end; in many cases, these roofs provide covered space for outdoor living. And that's the case with this Ranch home, built in Arizona in 1966. A super-thin cantilevered roof appears to float over the home’s walls of glass (as well as the recently added infinity-edge pool). The lack of a visible support system for the roof creates clean architectural lines that enhance the home’s horizontal point of view. And the cantilevered roof offers all-day shade, a great boon for pool parties and other backyard entertainment.

    The original architect if this home, William F. Cody, studied architecture at the University of Southern California, where he worked for Cliff May.

    Architect: William F. Cody
    Renovation Architect: Lance Enyart
    Landscape Architect: Rick Jones

  • Michael Garland

    Recessed Entries

    Unlike Craftsman bungalows with their spacious porches, ranch homes typically feature recessed entries for receiving visitors. Porches, if they exist at all, are shallow (often with decorative iron detailing) and clearly not intended for serious social interaction; that activity is reserved for the flat patio or lush grass in the backyard. Solid wood entry doors are often adorned with decorative patterns of small windows or raised panels.

    The next two slides show the contrast between a ranch home’s modest front entry and the back of the house, which opens to the outdoors.

  • Philip Harvey

    Cloistered Entry

    Presenting a guarded face to visitors, this home’s entrance sports a russet-color door surrounded by a courtyard of concrete and brick, which is softened by native grasses planted in river-rock beds. Plantings are designed to support the home’s long, low lines. 

    See the back of this house on the next slide.

    Architect: William F. Cody
    Renovation Architect: Lance Enyart
    Landscape Architect: Rick Jones

  • Philip Harvey

    Wide Open

    A rear view of this same ranch house shows that it becomes one with the landscape through a series of 10x10-foot windows offset by steel posts and beams. A sleek modern terrace serves as an outdoor living area sheltered by a cantilevered roof.

    Walls of glass were influenced by such Modernist architects as Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.

    Architect: William F. Cody
    Renovation Architect: Lance Enyart
    Landscape Architect: Rick Jones

  • Ed Gohlich

    Exterior Cladding

    Siding materials were typically chosen to reinforce a ranch home’s low-slung character: clapboard siding, long lines of bricks, and horizontally cut stone. Multiple siding materials sometimes met on the same exterior. A common combination married the use of brick on the lower section of the exterior walls with clapboard siding up above.

    See the next slide for a more vertical approach.

  • Susan Andrews

    Board-and-Batten Siding

    Seemingly at odds with their horizontal point-of-view, some ranch homes were clad in vertically oriented board-and-batten siding (shown). A veneer rather than a structural system, this highly textural siding offers a more rustic, traditional look.

    Pictured: Painting the edge of the roof a contrasting color helps emphasize this home’s ground-hugging shape.

  • Jason Wilde

    Minimal Ornamentation

    Like the Prairie-style houses that preceded them, ranch homes seldom feature much in the way of ornamentation, other than shutters. Like board-and-batten siding, these decorative accents (which typically aren’t hinged and therefore can’t be closed) offer some of the traditional style seen in homes built in earlier decades.

  • John Francis Peters

    Large Picture Windows

    Ranch homes can also be recognized by the large plate-glass picture windows often installed on the side of the house facing the street. This architectural feature strengthened the home’s indoor/outdoor connection by flooding its interior with natural light. Improved technology in the mid-20th century made it possible to manufacture larger sheets of glass.

    Picture windows open ranch homes to the street, allowing people walking or driving by to see a “picture” of the home’s interior. Such windows also let the people inside see a “picture” of the neighborhood outside their home.  

    Architect: John Francis Peters

  • Michael Garland

    Additional Window Types

    Picture windows didn’t do all the work themselves; smaller operable windows were needed to provide light and ventilation throughout the home—without sacrificing privacy. Architects chose a variety of windows framed in wood, steel, and aluminum: double-hung (in pairs and triples), casement, jalousie (louver), awning, panel, corner, and clerestory.

    Clerestory windows near the ceiling (shown here on either side of the front entry) were often installed in bedrooms and bathrooms while protecting privacy.

    Some architects made a clear division between public and private space in a ranch home by leaving the street side of the house entirely windowless. 

  • Laura Hull

    Sliding Glass Doors

    Sometimes picture windows were combined with sliding glass doors to create “window walls” that strengthened a home’s connection to its setting. Even if sliding glass doors appeared alone, they still let in large amounts of light, made the most of the view, and connected the inside of the house to the patio or terrace. In other words, ranch homes were designed for families to enjoy their leisure time in the backyard—unlike earlier architectural styles that included front porches that served as outdoor living rooms.  

  • John Granen

    Flat Patios

    Installing sliding glass doors was only one part of the indoor-outdoor equation. The other part was constructing a flat patio just outside those doors. This created a seamless transition from the home’s interior to the yard, where swing sets and charcoal grills awaited, and any number of leisure-time activities took place: backyard barbecues, hide-and-seek and other children’s games, and adults-only cocktail parties—just to name a few. 

  • Mark Lohman

    Staying Connected

    Think about it. If you’re working in the kitchen, what better way is there to keep an eye on party guests or kids in the backyard then through a wall of glass?

  • Edmund Barr

    Attached Garages

    The popularity of ranch homes—which went hand-in-hand with the growth of suburbs following World War II—meant architects needed to think about accommodating cars. In earlier decades, homes may have included detached garages at the rear of the lot. Ranch houses started having attached garages or carports—which, of course, intensified the long, low look of this architectural style.

    Some ranch homes were built on concrete slabs rather than above basements. Including a large garage helped make up for lack of storage inside the house.

  • Michael Garland

    Ranch House Variations: Southwestern

    Despite their common reliance on horizontal orientation and an inside-outside connection, not all ranch homes look alike. This Spanish Colonial-influenced house features stucco cladding, clay roof tiles, and wide porticos.

    See more variations in the following slides.

  • Erica Georg Dines

    Ranch House Variations: Colonial

    This ranch home’s formal, symmetrical design, along with its entry portico and multipane windows—contributes to a Colonial Revival appearance.

  • Kim Cornelison

    The Ranch House Today

    Back in the postwar years, ranch homes seemed to be designed for working-dad/stay-at-home-mom types of households—like the Cleavers on Leave it to Beaver. Today’s families look considerably different, and all of them—from blended families to empty nesters—are looking for homes that fit their particular needs. This is why ranch homes are becoming popular again after a decades-long lull; they’re well-built and relatively easy to remodel thanks to generous yards (with mature trees) that accommodate growth. Not to mention the new appeal of the ranch for many Baby Boomers is one-level living, making it much more accessible to age in place.

    See the next three slides for examples of ranch homes that have been remodeled to suit their present owners’ needs.

  • Werner Straube

    Case Study: Remodeled Ranch

    Lifestyle changes caused Susan Brunn to convert her humble 1955 ranch house in Minnesota into a chic Hamptons-style shingled home. Although the project produced plenty of interior and exterior changes on both levels, the home’s footprint wasn’t altered. An open floor plan means Susan can entertain with ease—a high priority. She also enjoys working in her sunny lower-level office. “I feel like the house has grown into the lot,” Susan says. “It is now what it was always meant to be.”

    Renovation Architect: Jeff Murphy
    Space Planning and Interior Design: Rosemary Merrill

    Tour this remodeled suburban Minneapolis ranch house.

  • John Granen

    Case Study: Before-and-After Ranch

    Cheryl and Danny Hansford spent a full 18 months spiffing up the 1960s architecture of their longtime home overlooking a golf course in Pleasanton, California. Their goal? To get more room for family get-togethers, as well as a bigger party space. As a result, the whole place went through recalibration and repurposing—inside and out. “I was living in a ‘grandma’ house,” recalls homeowner Cheryl Hansford. “Now I’m all about things that are clean and simple.”

    Here, the 1969 ranch is clad in shingles, which gives the house a stylized Craftsman look.

    Landscape Designer: Martha Criswell

    See how this California ranch got a fresh start.

  • James Yochum

    Reinvented Ranch

    Built as a standard, no-frills ranch, this Michigan home was reinvented by removing the existing roof and rebuilding it at a higher angle. New windows and a dormer were also added. These structural changes, plus painting the exterior brick yellow, give the home French country appeal. 

  • Want to learn about more architectural styles? Click here to understand the Queen Anne look.

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