Ranch Architecture

Single-story, open ranch homes are modeled after the casual style of true Western houses.

The ranch architectural style is like jazz and great cheeseburgers -- it’s an art form unique to America. Low-slung ranch homes, modeled after the casual style of homes on true Western ranches, were first built in the 1930s and spent the next four decades popping up like mushrooms all over the countryside. After falling out of favor in the 1980s and 1990s, ranch homes are now enjoying a return to vogue, mostly as custom-built homes.

The ranch house can be considered a subtype of modern-style architecture, which embraces open spaces and the connection between indoor and outdoor living. The art form was pioneered by California architect Cliff May, whose houses were often a single room deep so each room could open to the outside and benefit from sunshine and warm breezes.

Key Elements

  • Single-floor living. The ranch home’s low profile comes from its roots in the Western United States, where working ranch homes were one-level, practical and unadorned. Modernist influences also kept ranch homes simple and single-story for the most part, although split-level ranches did become popular in the 1950s.
  • Asymmetry. Classic ranch homes are often shaped like “L”s or “U”s.
  • Sliding glass doors. One major purpose of the ranch style is to link the outdoors and the indoors. Sliding glass doors became a standard way to let in as much light and view as possible while connecting the living space directly to a patio.
  • Backyard emphasis. Earlier American homes focused on the front porch, but ranch homes were designed for a private life out back.
  • The garage. The spread of ranch homes coincided with America’s flight to the suburbs, which meant these homes had to accommodate cars -- usually two.

Famous Examples

  • Rancho del Cielo. Ronald Reagan’s “Western White House” near Santa Barbara, Calif., was the former president’s retreat from public life.

  • The homes of Joseph Eichler. Like those of Cliff May, the ranch homes designed by California architect Joseph Eichler are enjoying a resurgence. Eichler’s designs are heavily influenced by modernist principles.

Practically Speaking: Hassles and Headaches

Ranch homes tend to be easy to maintain because they’re often made of brick, which requires little fuss, and they’re sparsely adorned. But their flat style can spell trouble down the road; rainwater tends to collect on poorly drained flat or near-flat roofs and leak as the house ages.

Ranch houses were created for the California landscape and climate. If you’re living in, say, Minnesota, a home designed to enjoy balmy weather is not necessarily a good fit, but that didn’t stop ranch homes from being mass-produced ad nauseam across the country.

Lifestyle

Ranch homes are synonymous with laid-back living. They emphasize the family-friendly backyard, usually connected to the kitchen or dining area via a sliding glass door and flat patio. It’s hard to picture a ranch house without a barbecue grill out back, isn’t it?

But the style also evokes a less eco-friendly era, as its sprawling floor plan gobbles up land and is not particularly conscious about conserving space or resources.


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