Why split-level houses?

Back in the '50s, a slew of split-level houses appeared across suburbia.

What’s the rationale behind them? What are they supposed to “do” that a traditional design can’t/doesn’t? It seems like they’d take up as big a footprint as a single-story, but add (not subtract) the number of stairs involved.

Has anyone lived in one? What’s it like?

If you have two stories, you get bigger back and front yards, while maintaining the number of rooms you’d have if you used the entire lot with one storey.

Yeah, but if you have two stories staggered to each other, you’re taking up as much square footage on the lot, but you can’t go from one end of the house to the other without going up or down stairs. That’s kind of the premise of my OP.

As a kid, a lot of my friends lived in a new subdivision with mainly split-level houses. IMO, they were kinda neat, with no real engineering superiority, just an interesting layout. The lowest level was usually halfway underground, which kept it cooler. The middle level usually didn’t have a full bath, but you only had to go up or down 6 steps to get to one.

A “tri-level” – two stories on one end, one halfway between them vertically on the other – combines the advantages of a one-story and a two-story. Actual split-levels were done either as ‘the in thing’ for a while, or in response to a sloping lot. The latter constitutes a plausible reason for building one.

Sorry, I read in haste. Come to think of it, it is kind of strange. I haven’t really seen a house like this, so I don’t really know why one would make one.

I think the idea is to have the versitality of a two-story house but with as few stairs as possible; I lived in this sort of split-level Ranch when I was a kid. The kitchen, dining room, living room, and a half-bath was on the main floor. A few steps up from the living room was the bedrooms and two full-baths; a few steps down, the laundry room, sewing room/spare bedroom, garage, and another half-bath. The lowest level was an unfinished basement.

When I was 11, we moved across the country to a raised Ranch and really noticed the difference. The bedrooms, full-baths, living room, dining room, and kitchen were all the upper floor and the garage, sewing room, a half-bath, and a family room were on the lower . The front door was on a landing between the two floors.

And, as Polycarp says, we had a (man-made) sloping lot. Lots of fun in winter!

Actually, a split-level is a very space efficient design.

We had a 4-level side-to-side split before our current house. It looked like this:



The beauty of the design is that there are almost no hallways. The stairs connect each level, and the rooms are right up in front of the stairs. Very little wasted space. Another advantage is that only the lowest level is completely below grade - because each level is only half a floor down, the third level’s grade is about 4’ from the floor, meaning you can have nice bright windows and it feels like you are above grade.

If you took the same square footage of living space and made it a 2-story, you’d have to have a stairwell between them, and a stairwell of that length takes up a lot of space. And then the larger top level needs lots of hallways to break up the rooms, each up more floor space. And, you have a lot of stairs to climb between levels.

ARgh. Forgot the code tag. The 4-level split looked like this:

-------    ____----------- <-- grade

We had a split level on a sloping lot. It made a lot of sense for several reasons.

Because of the slope, both the garage and the front door were at grade level. The laundry room (we didn’t have a basement) was on the entry level, but connected to the garage.

Because of the staggered levels, we had three bedrooms, a 2-car garage and a large living room, while the house took up basically the same footprint as a 2-bedroom house with a one-car garage.

Like Sam Stone said, all three bedroom doors AND a bathroom opened to a hallway that was only about six feet long.

As for having to climb stairs, you’d climb them anyway in a two-story house. And my mother, who had trouble with her legs, loved the idea of never having to take more than six steps to get to the other level.

Houses in the 1950s were generally very small by today’s standards. IIRC, the houses in the original Levittown were only 800 sq. ft. to make them affordable. (Today’s average is well over 2000 sq. ft.)

Split levels allowed for more square footage, but with a low additional cost compared to “colonials” (which is what most two-story houses were called in the northeast). Without having to do full stairs and the space that took up, they cost much less than 1.5 times the original but gave extra bedrooms for growing families.

I just moved from a 4-level as you described in your diagram and I am intrigued by the idea that it minimize’s hallway/stairway space, but I am having trouble picturing it. Refering to your drawing, it seems that you could shift the two left levels up 1/2 a level, keep the stairways as switch-backs, and still maintain the existing layout (at least in my old house). You would lose some of the openness that you get with 1/2 stairways.

I always assumed that most splits were just designed for aesthetics. The floor plan can be a little bit more open. In the case of 4-levels, it seems like the basement and sub-basement would be a pain to excavate and pour, but that is probably just my naivete.

And as has already been stated, you never have to climb more than a half-flight of stairs, but you always have to climb a half-flight of stairs.

Whats so bad about stairs? I can think of no one but the elderly or infirm that cant use the exercise.

I second the points about less hallway space and short flights of stairs.

In our split, the stairs to the 3rd level went straight down into the family room, so there were no hallways on that level at all (a bedroom door at the back of the family room). On the top level, the stairs opened onto a small foyer that had a two doors in the middle of the wall for the wide bedroom, a door at one end for the master, and a door at the other for the bathroom. Total hallway space in the entire house - about 6 ft.

You CAN accomplish almost the same thing in a 2-story, but it’s hard to do. As you said, you could have a stairwell with a landing halfway up that switched back in the other direction, but if it lands at one end of the much larger floor, you have to have a long hallway through the top level. If you land it in the middle, you can have the rooms clustered around it in a circle and save hallway space, but then your stairwell sits smack in the middle of your main floor, breaking up the space.

So if you want an open floor plan, it can be hard to do with a 2 story in a space efficient manner. For example, our current house is a 2 storey, and it’s VERY open on the top two levels, but it’s that way because the top level is half missing - the main level has a living room that opens up 2 stories, there’s a curved stairwell going up to an open landing, and then bedrooms are at each end of a walkway that cuts across the house. The result is an upper level that’s only 1100 sq feet, even though the main level is almost 1600. And about 100 of that square footage on top is hallway and landing.

There are advantages and disadvantages to all these designs. It’s easy to get an open floor plan with a split. And I’m guessing that structurally a split is very simple, because you’ve got that center load bearing wall going right through the entire middle of the house.

Another design that’s common around here is the ‘front to back’ split, and these are especially efficient on long, narrow lots that are common in the city. By running your levels front to back, you can pack a lot of house onto a narrow lot. A 2-story of those dimensions would be strange with the narrow and long levels. With the front-to-back split, each level is still relatively square.

Before the days of cheap heavy dirt-moving equipment, the split level allowed one to build on a ‘hillside’ lot. Previous to split-levels, these lots were not ‘buildable’.

My town and many of the surrounding towns here in Massachusetts are full of evidence to the contrary. You’ll typically see the “basement” floor being below grade at the street, and fully above grade at the rear. Many of these houses were built in the early 20th century. I’m actually skeptical of the whole “sloping lot” thesis. Most split-levels are tract housing, built on level ground.

My parents live in a classic split-level, and it’s a very comfortable layout. You get the separation between floors, with only a half-flight to negotiate, which doesn’t feel as daunting as a full flight. And as mentioned above, it’s a pretty open arrangement of rooms, with only one real hallway, and lots of natural light. So in terms of functionality, it’s an important architectural innovation. But I think it’s also the case that the split level is a big departure from what people in the first great wave of suburbanization had experienced growing up – lots of stairs, dark hallways, a shotgun arrangement of poky rooms. The split was *meant *to feel different, and to signal your arrival in the suburban Elysium.

That makes a whole lot of sense to me. Thanks.

We lived in a 3 bedroom split (no sub-basement) for 10 years. Some would call it a tri-level. Was a very nice floorplan with good traffic flow. Most I have seen have had a living/dining “L”, and kitchen on the main floor, befrooms up, and family room down.
While there may be no intrinsic problem with stairs in a traditional 2-story (plus basement) like we currently inhabit, the trip from the basement laundry to the 2d floor bedrooms can be a bit of a haul. Especially when you are in the basement and remember you forgot one thing up in the bedroom… In the split level, you are never more than 1 full flight away.
Unlike a ranch, it you can get a feeling of distance/privacy by being on a different level, instead of just another room. Also, the lower level is generally not fully below grade, as in the basement of a ranch.
We found it a very nice floorplan when we had young kids. I would readily buy one again, as I edge closer to the “elderly and infirm” categories.

I was actually wondering about this this weekend. Growing up, lots of my friends lived in 4-level splits. A few had 3-level. I was wondering if it had to do with the cost of digging a full basement? In the 4-level splits I’ve seen, only 1 of them is below grade. So you have half of the below ground square footage, but you still have some where to put a furnace and a laundry room. Since basement space is more expensive, per square foot, then above ground space, could this be part of the reason?

what is an “actual split level” and how is it different from a tri-level? All houses described here seem to fit the defintion of tri-level (or in sam’s case, quad-level), yet everyone is refering to them as split levels.