A new project on the boards at Whitten Architects has revitalized an interest and a personal fascination with the residential dwelling model that dominates suburban landscapes. I am of course referring to The Ranch. The ranch has become so ubiquitous on the American suburban landscape that its style has been rendered all but invisible. Still, its mid-century roots have drawn the attention of designers and architects. These houses were the very stage sets to our childhood memories, and it is this sense of familiarity that has defined home for so many. Just as intriguing as the ranch itself is the economic and cultural climate that made its proliferation possible. Though the styling and architecture of the ranch can vary significantly, they all share the same bones and strongly resonate with today’s homeowners and home-seekers.
A brief history will put the reign of the ranch into perspective. After World War 2, 10 million veterans returned home eager to start families and purchase their first homes. Government programs such as the Housing Act of 1949, which promised a "suitable living environment for every American Family," and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which financed 4.5 million of homes, encouraged a significant suburban exodus and drove a huge increase in consumer demand. The shear quantity of new construction and a renewed cultural interest in design allowed for an experimental approach to construction for eager first time buyers. The suburban population doubled from 1940 to 1970s with some 20 million homes built from 1950 to 1970. About 70 percent of these homes were ranches.
The early ranch concepts have their roots in the mid nineteenth-century adobe ranchos, which in turn borrowed their forms from Spain and Mexico. Single level plans, generally L or U shaped, bound a covered veranda or a central patio. Front facades were opaque, plain, and protected, contrasting strongly with transparent back elevations opening onto the veranda. All of these meant the ranch was meant for practical, comfortable living.
With its quiet, unassuming front facade the ranch presents an image of modest, comfortable living to the suburban streetscape. These homes often feature strong, horizontal forms characterized by chunky stock fascia boards dressing their flat, butterfly, side, or low gable roofs. These horizontal planes seem to float above a continuous exposed structure. Oversized chimneys often anchor the front facade and modern composition. The prized automobile that made this whole suburban exodus possible was often parked front and center. The carport served as a showcase instead of the expensive garages we see so often today and which have become part of the building envelope and house proper—a defining feature of the McMansion aesthetic of the early 90’s.
The mid-century ranch popularized the open concept plan. Family, dining, and living were designed at a comfortable, livable, human scale, rather than the massively inefficient, cavernous, two-story "great rooms" that would follow. Open, multi-purpose rooms allowed for supervised play in newly child-centered neighborhoods. The open plans were framed by built-ins to store consumer goods made available in the consumer boom.
The organization of the plan included clearly defined private bedroom wings with narrow hallways and modest bedrooms. The bedroom wing was clearly separate from the open central living spaces dividing the children and adult wings. This private adult wing predates the master bath/master suite that is now standard.
Exposed post and beam construction, open plans, and walls of glass afforded views overlooking private backyards or patios. Floor to ceiling glass and clerestory windows introduced natural light absent from the classic Cape. Newly available sliding glass doors opened onto patios, creating a larger living space than the built square footage would suggest by blending indoor and outdoor living.
Prefabrication and mass production made this modern approach of open-concept living and floor-to-ceiling glass economically feasible. Steel structures and kits of parts were available for order based on high consumer demand. The durable interiors showcasing natural materials, such as wood post and beam construction, stone fireplaces, plywood cabinetry, and modern amenities of slab foundations with radiant heating have stood the test of time;
Ranch Revival – Style and Performance
The revived interest in the ranch comes from its pragmatic bones that simply make great sense to today’s homeowner, not to mention a fantastic space to showcase trending midcentury furniture. First-floor living, open concept plans with restrained square footages, indoor and outdoor living space, bright and interesting spatial volumes, and use of natural materials remain appealing today.
Although there are meaningful challenges posed by this building style, new building products offer exciting possibilities for this building type. Today’s mostly transparent walls have significantly higher performance with triple glazing compared to their single-pane counterparts. Window lines such as Intus offer models that speak to price points more inline with their double-pane competitors.
The flat or low slope roofs in a northern climate also have generated some controversy. Rigid foam and membranes now available have high R-values and straightforward air sealing is possible. Meaningful thermal performance is achievable with these simple geometries without the need for over-insulated under-utilized attics.
Thermal bridging at continuous exposed structure from indoors to out is a move that building science professionals would turn their noses up at. Having spent time in these spaces, I’d say you can’t beat the look—I would take my losses.
I am excited to see a new interest in this building type. The bones of the ranch transcend generations as their plan concepts are appealing, their modern forms and volumes are inspiring, their commitment to natural and durable materials are lasting, and their economies are impressive. These characteristics inspire provocative yet restrained renovations, and inspire the new home dreamers and plan makers.