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Remodeling a Split Level House (part 1/2)

We work on split level, aka bi-level homes all the time.  These are homes where the front door is halfway between the lower level and the upper level.  When you enter, you have to immediately go up a half flight of stairs or down a half flight of stairs.  

Do you ever wonder why there are so many split level homes in Boulder?  Do you live in a split level and the layout is driving you crazy?  Do you ever wonder what you could do to make it flow better?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, this (and the next one) is the blog post for you!  I personally think split levels get a bad rap and that they have great potential to be beautiful and to flow gracefully.

Why Are There So Many Split Level Homes in Boulder?

In short, it’s all about efficiency and maximum square footage for minimal dollars.  

In all places that have a climate where there’s a winter, homes’ foundations should be buried in the earth deeper than the earth freezes.  The reason for this is that we don’t want the home’s foundation to move.  If too shallow, a foundation can be subject to movement from seasonal freezing/thawing of the earth.   In the Front Range, this means approximately 3ft deep.  That’s why many homes have a crawl space.  Back when the home was built, the builders dug a pit 3’ deep and poured their concrete foundation walls.  This is still how we do things today.  

Lots of Boulder’s homes were built post WWII and have a crawl space as described above.  Then somebody figured out that for just a little more money and materials, you could almost double the square footage of home.  This is the birth of the split level home.  Thousands of split level homes sprouted up in Boulder and the Front Range in the 1960’s.

Check out this drawing: 

Difference between 1-story home and split level home

As you can see, the only structural difference between a split level home and a standard ranch home with a crawl space is the short wood-framed pony wall that sits on top of the foundation.  This pony wall jacks the main level higher up and converts the crawl space into a full height space.  Add the concrete slab on grade and you’ve created a whole new 2nd level*.

*  ”Garden level” is a common term (and clever euphemism) for a lower level that’s ½ below grade, ½ above grade.

Another efficiency move that many split level homes employ is to cantilever the main level floor joists out past the foundation to make the main upper level slightly bigger.  See the above diagram and the picture at the top to visualize what this means.


Pros of a Split Level Home:

  • More floor area:  A split level has almost double the square footage of a ranch home with the same footprint.
  • Great place for mechanical equipment and laundry.  Anyone who’s had to change furnace filters in a crawl space appreciates it when you don’t have to crawl to the furnace.

Cons of a Split Level Home:

 The diagram above makes a great case for why the split level is so sensible.  But in reality there are a few things that make a standard split level home difficult to live in.

  • The entry to the home is split between floors.  You can’t roll right into the main level.  You have to immediately navigate stairs to move into the house.  This makes entering and leaving the home a disjointed experience.  Over time this can grind on people.  
  • Lots of stair usage.  For people with mobility issues, split levels are very difficult.  You have to use the stairs anytime you want to leave the house.
  • The entry is small and cramped.  In a standard mid-century split level, there’s no room at the entry to do anything except go up or down the stairs.  There’s no spot for shoe/coat storage, no room to take off your shoes or coat, no room for multiple people to stand when entering, and no room for the homeowner to ever greet guests upon entering. 
  • Not attractive.  Many people think the standard split level is flat out ugly.  The cantilevered upper level can make the house look like a mushroom.

So What Can You Do To Make Your Split Level Remodel Fabulous!?

In my next post we’ll highlight 2 split level projects in Boulder, CO and what Sobo did to make them awesome.  

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