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True Splits: A Primer on Three-Level and Four-Level homes

also Raised Splits and Split Entry Homes.

If you haven't already, please familiarize yourself with the history that gave rise to the split level as an important American vernacular. Much of this primer assumes a knowledge of the background of split levels, how they became popular, and how they work with graded terrain to create a visually pleasing appearance.

The Split-Level Neighborhood...

Chances are that if you live in a classic three- or four-level split, you can look across the street at another split. You can probably look to your left and right and see more splits; perhaps a few behind as well. In some communities, split levels are sprawling mansionettes on an acre or more. But the overwhelming majority are the smaller, 920 to 1500 square foot models constructed during the 1950s and 1960s. And although the concepts that follow have some ramifications for the larger set, it is the owner of the 1200 sq. ft. average that this page is designed to help the most. We begin with the yard, then the exterior, and then discuss the interior.

Landscaping & Hardscaping

Most people will say that the point of landscaping is to "beautify" your yard. It's one of the benefits, but not the prime reason for landscaping. The most basic, underlying reason for landscaping a home is to create a smooth transition from the outdoors to the indoors. Landscaping (growing stuff) and hardscaping (stuff like steps, decks, walkways) combine to create this transition. When it's done right, the transition is beautiful. Done wrong, it is unappealling at best.

Because most true splits are in mature neighborhoods, exterior landscaping is usually mature as well. If the overall appearance is pleasing, congratulations: you have little to do beyond maintenance and seasonal chores. On the other hand, if the landscaping was originally done amateurishly and you find yourself grimacing as you drive up the street, you have some work to do. The good news is that the recipe for landscaping the average three level split is simple and straightforward.

simple diagram shows typical exterior triangle created by the average three level splitVisual "triangle" the typical split creates
Of all the divided entry homes, the three-level is the easiest to create a pleasing appearance with. The house itself creates a "triangular" form. Often the driveway and walkway create a triangular formation with the house. And if your original landscaper had even half a brain, your front yard should have a large tree set to one side that creates yet another triangle with the house. If you think in terms of triangles, you generally can't go wrong with a three-level split.

simple diagram shows typical exterior triangle created by the average three level splitThis diagram shows the simplicity of triangular curb appeal. The blue triangle shows the visual created by driveway, walkway and house; the red triangle shows simplicity of landscaping with one overpowering element to create triangulation. It isn't necessarily a tree, of course. In a Mesa, Arizona split, for example, the large tree could be substituted with a saguaro cactus.

The "large item" triangulation isn't a hard and fast rule. Perhaps your home has a long, beautiful front yard. In that case, anchoring the most distant corner with a small arrangement of shrubs will do the trick. Or, you might use a line of fruit trees opposite the driveway to create the same effect. You might have something as simple as a mailbox with some tasteful plantings; the possibilities are virtually limitless. And you don't necessarily have to be "married" to the concept of triangulation when landscaping a three-level split -- it is merely an easy way to simplify the process. If your split is set 100 yards from the street, triangulation is thrown out the window.

Another important key to landscaping a three-level split is to visually lower the picture window. Most true splits have that large living room window on the middle floor, and it is often higher off the ground than the eye expects. Even if you're fortunate enough to have your middle floor at ground level -- and many are -- this window begs to be "connected" to the ground. Spend the money on mature shrubs, bushes, whatever you can use to make this happen. Even a climbing vine on a trellis will help. By "tying" the window to the ground, your house blends more fluidly to the surrounding landscape. The stark, "stand alone" look is OK for new construction, but it doesn't work for a finished house, and looks downright dreadful with a 40 year old home.

Here's a brand new split. Notice that even the pricey, arch-topped living room window on this split looks "unfinished" without something to anchor it to the ground. We're happy to report that it didn't take much for the homeowner to transform these grounds into a showpiece.

Same drill for your walkway. (Now we're discussing hardscaping) Lower entry or "raised" splits tend to have a doorway right at the driveway level, but the majority of three level houses have some sort of walkway and/or staircase leading from the driveway to the front door. On many older splits these are hideous concrete creations. Brick or wood look more appealing, but don't rush out with a sledgehammer if you have concrete. You can often revitalize the look of concrete by adding slate to the top, bricks on the sides, etc. But whatever your walkway, it is terribly important to "connect" it to the surroundings just as your picture window needs to be connected. The walkway and front stoop are the "transition" from the world outdoors to the world indoors. It should be a smooth transition, softened by plantings, gardens, or whatever...not a harsh, sudden change. Even stones can do the trick. If you look at the house at the bottom of this page, you'll notice that it uses plantings to create a transition worthy of a royal garden. If you need another example, take a look at the one or two splits in your neighborhood that have the most curb appeal, and you'll see these concepts first hand. Another resource I recommend is The Complete Idiot's Guide to Landscaping by Joel Lerner. I don't usually care for the titles of these "Idiot" books; in fact I don't like them at all. But the content of this book really clarifies a lot of landscaping techniques. (If you click the link, you'll be at Amazon.com, which I recommend for two reasons. First, you can return anything, and they ask no questions. Secondly, you can often find used versions at a fraction of the new book price, and you can even return those if the book doesn't do it for you.)

The mature landscaping on this house may be overdone for some tastes, but you cannot deny the overall look of comfort and natural, relaxed appearance of this home. The large bush below the bowfront window needs a trim, but anchors it so nicely. Other than that trimming, we might be inclined to leave everything else alone. The shrubs, grasses, flowers and other garden elements make a seamless transition between nature and the structure. Although we don't know if the homeowner planned it, the gardens on both sides of the driveway have a triangular shape from overhead. Whether or not this landscape suits your tastes, your first impression is that this is truly a pleasant, loving atmosphere for the family.

Exterior

If no major exterior renovations have been done to your home, chances are that it screams 1960. If you had renovations done during the 1980s or 1990s, chances are it just plain screams. Consider yourself lucky if you have the former situation.

Of all divided entry homes, the three level split has the most exterior charm, but the least exterior versatility. The three-level is a rather young vernacular in the scheme of home design, so it has a hard time trying to look like anything other than a late 20th century design. Splits can be gussied up to resemble a colonial, or a Tudor, or southwest, Oriental -- whatever -- but they really aren't any of these things. So unless you make wholesale changes, it just doesn't look right. Splits can pull off the contemporary look, even a log cabin look, but be prepared to spend. In fact some splits are built as stylish contemporaries or rustic log homes; if you have one, work with it and accentuate it. If yours has that 1960 thing going, the message is the same: Accept it, work with it, make it shine.

Splits built in the golden age of the three-level house often had multi-pane bowfront picture windows and shingle siding with a "tiered" look, alternating short and long shakes. In the 1980s, homeowners rushed to replace these with large double-hung vinyl windows and monotonous, beige-colored vinyl siding. It's unfortunate that so many did, because the original treatment simply works better with the house, and has infinitely more character.

Splits built back in the day were painted (yes, painted) blue, red, yellow, green, dark grey/blue, sometimes brown...a host of colors based on geographical location. Color! What a concept. Today many of these homes have been covered with vinyl, and non-descript non-colors such as white, tan, warm grey, and the ubiquitous beige are the order of the day. Consider how much more interesting and appealling a red house with white doors and shutters is versus a beige house with white doors and shutters. If you have any information relating to the original color of your house, you should strongly consider painting it that color -- assuming your home hasn't been wrapped in aluminum or plastic.

White exterior, white garage doors, grey shutters, grey front door. This house is so damn average, it positively snoozes. Let's assume the siding is vinyl, and I can't change it. All we need to do is paint the shutters and front door a bright blue, paint the garage door jambs and moldings in the same blue, and possibly the squares on the garage doors too. Then get to work on landscaping the transition from driveway to front door, and shape up the shrubs as well. It would also benefit from a sizable tree/bush on the side of the house, in front of the chimney. A lilac would be perfect in that spot. Give me three half-barrel type planters to anchor the three garage posts in front, and it will look much more appealling. Finish it off with a traditional lamp post at the base of the front steps and you've got it. This house would go from ho-hum to wow simply by buying two cans of paint, a lamp post, and a few bushes and flowers.

If your home has some of the other tell-tale architectural elements from the age of hula-hoops, embrace those as well. Common examples include the aforementioned bowfront window, glass blocks in lieu of a lower window, geometrically cut stone (grey shale is the most common), painted plank siding, tan brick, Dutch doors, brick walkways, and others. These fall into the "timeless" category, and could generally work as part of any vernacular from any era.

Some of the tell-tale elements you may not want to keep are white wrought iron railings, aluminum window awnings, silver aluminum storm doors, aluminum cellar doors, concrete walkways, etc. Then again, depending on your neighborhood, location, style, etc. you may very well choose to keep these to maintain a certain look.

This is a "lower entry" or "raised split," in other words, the front door is on the first or "informal living" level. This house may or may not have a fourth level below the living room; either way it is still referred to as a three-level split. This house clearly has a late 1960s look, owing mainly to the construction style and the windows. Although maintenance is a nightmare, in this case it is best to keep this bowfront window to complement the rest of the exterior. Here's another example of a home that could use a little color to jazz things up a bit. A 1967 era ochre or gold on the top level, sides and window accent would give this house a lot more oomph than the safe, sterile white. The front door treatment is nice but looks like average home depot fare and isn't right for this house. We'd go with a solid painted 1960s door -- perhaps with three small stepped windows -- and replace the two narrow sidelights with a wide single sidelight, with solid vertical glazing, or even glass blocks for a real authentic look; the long rectangular shape will complement the living room window. Right now the trend is very dressy doors with oval glass. If you have a bowfront window, avoid these at all costs. A 2005 door with oval glass on a 1967 house with a multiple-squared or multi-pane front window just doesn't jive. It's a bit like an old lady wearing a miniskirt; she looks like an old tart. Put her in a 1960s era pillbox hat, a pink skirt and jacket, with modest black pumps, and the old lady looks positively elegant. Same with the house. As for the landscaping, this winter scene doesn't show it well but the trees give this yard nice movement. The large tree on the other side of the driveway is overpowering the bedroom windows, and either needs to be aggressively trimmed or probably removed. Although this homeowner has plantings below the living room window, this view clearly shows that the desired effect is lost during the winter. If you live in a seasonal climate, it is best to use evergreens for front exterior landscaping. We need a substantial shrub to transition the area between the front door and the brick facade; it will help hide some of the aluminum downspout. I'd also like a potted shrub between the front door and the garage.

Interior

If you could travel back to 1965 and visit your three level split, you'd sneak into the garage on the middle level, and find a clean, comfortable family room/den inside the door. It would probably be wood panelled, and the room would revolve around a large new color television. It would be a little dark, but would have a very comfortable, relaxed feel. It might be done in a "theme," sometimes western, or perhaps a naval theme with ropes and a net. Remember, this is 1965. It's mid-day, and Jerry Mahoney would be on in black and white.

Move up the six carpeted steps and you'd enter a living room, brightly lit by the big front window. This room probably has wall-to-wall carpeting, except for a section near the front door where it might be anything from linoleum, to hardwood, to flagstone. The living room is dominated by a large couch, coffee table, and a number of upholstered chairs. Depending on whether or not the house has a fireplace, the couch is against the wall and has a large format mirror, or perhaps some tacky motel art above. A large wooden something or other has a prominent place in the room; this is the hi-fi set. Chances are the Sound of Music soundtrack, or perhaps Mary Poppins, is playing. Either way, you're hearing Julie Andrews.

The decor is completed with an odd mix stuff blending antiques, Spanish style, and modern design. Every flat surface has an ashtray somewhere. In fact, a floor lamp may even have an ashtray built in.

Moving to the dining room, this is a rather simple affair with a long table and chairs, and a serving buffet, hutch, or sideboard. In the dining room, as the living room, you'll notice colors you don't see any more...orange, aqua, turquoise, bright green, or perhaps a host of bright earth-tones. Window treatments are extremely simple, although the patterns might be complex.

The kitchen completes this floor, and is the hub of the household. It has entries to both the living room and dining room; the living room entry is probably adjacent to the stairs leading down to the den and garage. The back door is also in the kitchen, it might be a dutch door. You might also see a large handbell nearby -- useful for calling the children from neighboring yards at dinner time. Decor is simple; a metal table with a formica top. Countertops are also formica with a bright metal band around the edge. Wallpaper has a "theme" look, definitely pictorial, maybe a "Spirit of '76" or possibly picking up on the theme downstairs in the family den. The floor is vinyl tile or perhaps hardwood.

Below: Typical split circa 1965. The furniture and all other items are reduced a bit for clarity. In reality, most of these houses had (and still have) a lot less elbow room. The front door is at bottom the rear door is off the kitchen. In homes without a fireplace, the couch was usually placed along that long wall. The large rectangle in the living room (between kitchen and dining room, on the wall) is the stereo console. Sometimes this would be placed along the entry area to "divide" it from the living room. In cases where the couch is along the long wall, the chairs would often be placed at both ends of the picture window to "frame" it. The wall is simply the L-shape dividing off the kitchen and dining room, The area between dining room and living room is completely open in this layout. That's not always the case.

typical layout of the formal living area for a split level circa 1965

Below: Same typical split circa 1965. This one shows the more common house with no fireplace.

typical layout of the formal living area for a split level circa 1965 in home without fireplace

Now let's fast forward to the early 21st Century. If you have an "open" floor plan (no "break" between living room and dining room, or living room and entry area, or even kitchen and dining room) -- this is the first design element that you will want to come to terms with. If you appreciate the "open" style, then by all means, stick with it. On the other hand, if you wish to have some "break" between rooms, consider adding entries as indicated in red in the illustration below. Wide entries such as these do little to divide the rooms, but do create enough of a visual separation to be effective. Rooms are cozy, but connected. People entering the house will be in a threshold area, but feel very little barrier to overcome before entering the living room. In fact, the barrier by the front door can be as little as a series of potted plants on a stand, or perhaps an aquarium, maybe even a bench with a column. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination. What you do want to avoid is creating wide walls with very narrow entryways...this creates a closed atmosphere, and serves as barriers between rooms. French doors between living room and dining room are one surefire way to make your split seem pathetically small.

split level home formal living areas redone in a timeless home design

Keep in mind that the three (or four) level split is based on what was originally a Frank Lloyd Wright design. FLW championed "organic" architecture. Even though the average split bears virtually no resemblance to his original design, split level floorplans still work best with that concept in mind. If you could commission Wright to redesign your humble split, he might remove the walls between living room, kitchen, and dining room...and replace them with a single half wood/half glass wall, or something equally dramatic. And there's no reason you can't do the same.

Bear in mind that the decorating style should be coherent through the home, or at least harmonize. Now it's tough to tell a 15 year old that her bedroom should have a particular style...and that's fine. Let your child's imagination run wild in the private living spaces. But in your formal living areas, kitchen, den, and bath(s), some design cohesiveness is best.

Most splits are decorated in what could best be described as "eclectic." Then again, most American homes are that way, and there's nothing wrong with it. Obviously your exterior style will have some determination on your interior. Beyond that, realize that most splits are mid-20th century homes, and have existed during a prolific age of changing styles and tastes. Almost anything will work. But you should be aware that not all styles work as well as others in the average split.

Does your exterior scream 1960? A modern, Scandinavian style will work infinitely better than a cluttered Victorian look. Spanish appointments will do better than ornate monstrosities from Asia. Truth be told, a 1950s retro look might be your best bet. Queen Anne will do better than Georgian; Prairie style will be more at home than Santa Fe. But again, if your split is in a suburb of El Paso, the rules change completely.

Another consideration is your personal style and ethnicity. Are you a dark haired Italian beauty? If so, Tuscan style will work better than Mission style. If you are of Oriental descent, work with it...whatever your background, it is part of what you area, and it should be celebrated. A family of blondes with Northern European lineage should not strive for a tribal style.

Have you read through our "Fresh Approach" page? If you haven't, take a moment to do so. You'll do best to avoid "trendy" styles in favor of proven, classic looks. (Just watch how the currently popular and altogether ghastly "shabby/chic" disappears in a few years). One technique you might try is to find some older design/decorating books and magazines; perhaps at thrift shops, rummage sales, etc. Look at the photos that still look acceptable today -- there won't be many -- and you'll be looking at examples of timeless decorating styles.

Use common sense, visit your library, find things that fit your lifestyle. With enough research, careful planning, some experimentation -- and then more study and planning -- you can find a successful style that works for you.

This 1962 split was updated with the addition of the front porch. A porch serves to "draw the house down" into the surrounding landscape, giving it a better connection with its location...not to mention the "character" it adds to the exterior. With this porch, the homeowner now has an entirely new array of interior design choices to complement this exterior.

this bi-level resembles a splitAt first glance, the house at right appears to be a classic 3-level split. It's actually a bi-level; in this house the entry is divided equally betwen floors. To tell the difference, look at the position of the living room window -- it is on the same level as the bedroom windows. In a true split it would be located a half-floor below the bedroom windows, indicating a half-flight of stairs leading up to the bedroom level.

Split-Entry


Two or three sets of short stairs, three or four levels. Entry between floors. The front door opens in a foyer or entry area located in a wing off the main house. From the entry, a short flight of stairs leads up to the top floor and another short flight leads down. Usually resembles a three-level or "true" split-level (see below) from the exterior, but is actually a bi-level with an entry wing. In most cases this entry area is part of a garage wing. In others, the entry area might be a separate living room wing, although this kind of makes it a true split -- but it's all semantics and doesn't really matter.

Split-Level


Two or three sets of short stairs, three or four levels. Entry on a middle floor between two floors. The front door opens directly into what is usually the formal living area. This mid-level floor houses LR, DR, K, and has a short flight of stairs leading up to bedrooms, and another short flight of stairs leading down to informal living areas and garage. All true splits have at least three levels; many have a fourth level or cellar below the formal living room/entry level.

Split-Level/Lower Entry Same as above except entry is on informal/garage level. Short flight goes up to formal living area; from there another short flight goes up to bedroom area. Like standard splits, Lower Entry Splits have at least three levels; many have a fourth level or cellar below the formal living level. Lower Entry Split is often called a "Raised Split."

If you are in the process of searching for a contractor for a particular project, please know that you can use Angie's List to review, and ultimately obtain a quote from a local contractor in your area. We recommend this service because it enables you to find reliable carpenters, plumbers, electricians and remodelers based on reviews from your neighbors, rather than by picking the biggest advertisement in the phone book. Contractors can only be included in Angie's List if somebody else -- a customer -- thinks they should be in there. Most importantly, it tells you which contractors to avoid. (It's worth a click).

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