The modern ranch style house is a uniquely American design from the 20th century. First designed in the early 1920s, the style experienced a major boom in the years following World War II. Now, after a few decades out of vogue, ranch homes are experiencing a renewed interest.
What Is a Ranch Style House?
Ranch style homes are so ubiquitous across the United States that, even if they didn’t know the name, most Americans would know one if they saw one. Certain design elements are common to all ranch style houses, and other elements that make them unique. So what is a ranch style house?
Though there are different styles of ranch houses — also known as a rancher, rambler, or the California ranch — the defining feature is its low profile. The rancher is a single-story, asymmetrical house with a garage attached. They are most commonly found in rectangular or L-shaped, though creative architects have designed other variations.
Ranch houses, particularly those mass-produced for new post-war housing developments, tend to have gently sloping roofs with vaulted ceilings and overhanging eaves. However, as ranches were initially a modernist, artistic style, there are many early ranches with diverse roof variations, such as the sloped roof or the daring butterfly roof, a design in which the roof angles upwards from the center, rather than downwards.
The History of Ranches
1920s-1930s: The First Modern Ranch Style Houses
Ranches first appeared in the United States in the 1920s, though many consider San Diego architect Clifford May to be the father of modern style ranch houses based on a California house he designed in 1931.
Standing in contrast to the tall, boxy houses of the day, ranches were inspired by the low-slung homes that existed on actual ranches, as well as the low and naturally-informed Spanish Colonials, both of which featured single-story floor plans, low roofs, and wide eaves to protect the windows from the sun and elements. May designed his ranch house for breezy California living in mind, prioritizing informal space, natural light, cross-ventilation, and easy access to the outdoors. These houses were a radical visual departure from other, more traditional American styles, notably the American Colonial and Queen Anne houses that were holdovers from Europe, and ranches embraced the aesthetics of the foundling Modernist movement that would come to dominate all areas of the arts for most of the 20th Century.
1940s-1960s: Housing Boom
After World War II, America changed. The 1950s and 60s saw tremendous growth in wealth and consumption, not to mention the baby boom and housing boom to go along with it. Families were moving out of urban centers and rural areas into newly developed suburbs. The American economy skyrocketed in the post-war years, and the ranch style was the natural answer to the sudden demand for stylish yet easy-to-mass-produce housing. The post-war years saw ranch style house history shift from an architectural experiment to a suburban necessity. Easy to build, “cookie-cutter” versions of these homes started to become available in communities across the nation. It is estimated that by 1950, nine in every ten new houses built were modern ranch style houses.
Of course, style is ever-shifting, and by the end of the 1960s ranchers started to decline in popularity. The once radical style had now become a symbol of post-war America, with its mass consumerism, conformity, and traditionalism. As tastes shifted back towards traditional styles, developers began cutting costs and using cheaper materials in the ramblers they were constructing, leading to cheaper and blander homes that featured none of the style and flair the early modern ranch style houses were known for. Many of the ranch’s most popular features like open floor plans and attached garages were integrated into the new versions of traditional styles.
In the 50s and 60s, another style emerged: the split level. Architects of split-level houses took ranch style sensibilities but adapted them so they were able to build into steep hills, particularly in California. These employed the aesthetics and features that made ranches famous but included smaller flights of stairs to slightly delineate different areas of the house. This design made the attached garage feel a little less connected to the living spaces in the home.
1970s-1990s: Decline in Popularity
Land prices started going up, which also influenced the shifts in style in the 1970s and into the 80s. Two-story houses became cheaper to manufacture and developers could cut costs on the size of the properties. A two-story house with the same square footage as a one-story house could be built on a parcel of land half the size, whereas when a ranch got bigger, it could only sprawl outwards. The decline in ranch and split-level style homes built directly paralleled the rise in the construction of two-stories, until eventually, ranches ceased to be constructed in major developments. When they were still built, they tended to be in the western states and were most likely custom jobs.
If there is one rule in fashion and design, it is that everything old will come back in style eventually. Modern ranch style houses began to attract attention once again in the 1990s — tentatively at first, but growing with each passing decade. These once stylish homes have become an icon for design-focused Millennials and nostalgic Boomers alike, and their obvious benefits to both seniors and those looking for starter homes make them a great option for both generations.
The Appeal of Ranch Style Houses
The simple single-story basic ranch layout makes a great blank slate for customization. And since most modern ranch style houses were produced from the 1950s to 1970s, many original ranches are easy to find and in good shape. They also benefit from having relatively modern HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems so owners can enjoy a piece of American history without having to retrofit it for contemporary life, and the houses’ “good bones” make customizing the spaces easy.
Prospective homeowners also benefit from the single-story layout. Older buyers, particularly from the Baby Boomer generation, are gravitating towards ranch houses out of nostalgia and practicality, as they look for homes they can stay in for the rest of their life. Younger buyers enjoy the modernist aesthetic and can easily find great deals on these homes. Buyers who want to custom build their own houses may also opt for ranch styles for reasons of style and convenience.
The one-floor design makes ranch styles safe for anyone who has difficulty with mobility and stairs, from small children to seniors. It also makes it easier and safer to access the roofing, should the owner need to perform repairs or decorate. Stylistically, ranches attract buyers who prefer open interiors and large windows that allow in lots of natural light. Many of the original ranch style houses have creative designs that were well integrated into their natural surroundings, and these artistic homes provide a comfortable and serene oasis for their owners.
A new generation of homeowners has rediscovered the simplistic beauty and creative potential of ranch style houses. Recent design trends in furniture and decor have re-embraced the Mid-Century Modern aesthetic that pairs perfectly with these airy and sleek homes. In the space of one century, modern ranch style houses have shifted from radical design statements to symbols of American monoculture and conservatism, and finally towards nostalgia-inducing reminders of modernist design and American innovation. For prospective homeowners, a modern ranch style house, whether vintage or newly built, is a worthwhile investment and a stylish and customizable home option.
If you are interested in a Ranch-Style house contact us today at Mornington Estates to schedule a viewing or to discuss how we can make your home shopping a memorable and pleasant event. We want to make sure you get the perfect home that meets all of your needs.