For big effects, McKinney Architects relied on small moves, such as partially enclosing the entry hall (above) and rearranging the kitchen (top). Bold interior paint color choices also paid handsome dividends.

For big effects, McKinney Architects relied on small moves, such as partially enclosing the entry hall (above) and rearranging the kitchen (top). Bold interior paint color choices also paid handsome dividends.

best feature: open floor plan

to do:

  • reinforce structure
  • add volume inside
  • improve relationship to out doors

Perhaps no other house type has inspired as much love and loathing as the ranch. This descendant of Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian houses became ubiquitous across the post–World War II landscape, and architects adore its open, one-story plan. But its plain exteriors and minimal detailing can elicit disgust among the general public. “We've never really warmed to the ranch the way we have with some other houses,” says Marlene Heck, professor of art history at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.

Most ranch lovers and haters agree on its biggest flaw: shoddy construction methods. In its heyday, the 1950s and '60s, builders emphasized speed and efficiency over quality, and today's aging stock shows it. “I often deal with quality-of-construction issues when remodeling a ranch house,” says Georgie Kajer. “We think about how to re-pipe, how to rewire, the condition of the foundation. Slab-on-grade doesn't fare well in earthquake country—we have to look really closely for cracks.” Some areas may have better-built collections than others—Heather McKinney, AIA, swears by the solid construction of the '50s and '60s ranch houses in her home base of Austin, Texas. Generally, though, this house type's drywall walls, aluminum windows, and slab-on-grade foundations in warmer climates point to a weaker structure than that of its prewar counterparts.

Cedar shingles, a series of French doors, and an added-on carport rescue this 1960s ranch house from aesthetic oblivion.

Cedar shingles, a series of French doors, and an added-on carport rescue this 1960s ranch house from aesthetic oblivion.

Credit: Krista Whitson

While Kajer and McKinney often deal with ranches that open to the back yard in Cliff May fashion, their colleagues to the north and east aren't so lucky. “Ranches in the Midwest were more about type than about site,” says John Senhauser, FAIA. “You're not getting that indoor-outdoor exposure. We usually try to connect the plan more to the site and extend the living area into the yard.” For Evanston, Ill., architect Stuart Cohen, FAIA, establishing a relationship with the back yard mitigates the ranch's infamously low ceilings. “What can you do with 8-foot ceilings?” he says. “The character of the space still has to do with that incessant horizontality. You do what Wright did: make the whole exterior wall glass. Then you promote the horizontal continuity inside and the relationship between those spaces and the terraces outside.”

Adding vertical volume also helps. “We try to give the clients one tall space,” says McKinney. Sarah Susanka advocates adding a few ceiling height changes to break the 8-foot monotony. Of course, some ranch remodels strip off the entire original ceiling and add a second story, which is only recommended if the owners want a completely different house to the one they bought. “It's hard to keep it as a ranch if you add a second floor,” says Stephen Muse, FAIA, of Washington, D.C., who recently turned a ranch into a shingle-style house by adding a second floor and revamping the exterior. “You have to rethink the entire house.”

project: Adams Residence, Austin, Texas
architect: McKinney Architects, Austin
general contractor: Paul Reinert, Dripping Springs, Texas
landscape architect: Coleman & Associates, Austin
project size before: 1,625 square feet
project size after: 1,700 square feet
construction cost: $80 per square foot

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