Category Archives: Ranch Houses

We Built This Modern Ranch House

Learn By Doing

When it comes to home building, experience matters — and so does an artful simplicity. Houseplans.com chairman Stephen Williamson (our fearless leader) built Ranch House Plan 508-2 designed by Nicholas Lee, AIA (our fearless design director) as a kind of case study. It’s at the end of this minimalist

“running fence” of a driveway, beyond the Neutra-designed numbers that hint at rustic elegance to come. Just as with Plan 508-1 completed last year and also Continue reading

Ranch House Roofs and other Restoratives

Shake, Rattle, & Research

At the UCSB exhibition on ranch houses  last week I met the owner of a 1960s Cliff May-designed house who impressed me with the care he has taken in replacing the original shake roof on his 60+ year old home. Restoration projects can be problematic. His modern lightweight cement tile solution,

shown here, is successful because it remains true to the roof’s original architectural character while accommodating today’s fire codes. (Even if new wood shakes could be made non-combustible they would be prohibitively expensive.) I think Greg’s experience is useful for anyone thinking about roof replacement.

He used a Boral roofing product called Cedarlite 600 — which is designed to mimic heavy wood shakes — in a color called Silverwood (originally from Monier Lifetile). The 600 refers to weight: a 100 foot-square of Cedarlite 600 tiles weighs 600 pounds and there are 120 pieces to a square. According to Greg: “It’s a lower-density concrete tile with the primary disadvantage that it’s not as strong and walkable as the heavier concrete products.” Using heavier tiles might have meant beefing up structural support. Here are some Cedarlite examples.

Greg likes the texture and  says “It looks reasonably like shake but all the tiles are the same size — although there is variation in the molds and colors of the tiles. They can be slightly staggered but that makes it really easy for the corners to be broken off. Looking at the roof at a certain angle you can see diagonal patterns going up the roof. Most people don’t notice that but once you’re familiar with it that becomes the signature in verifying that Cedarlite 600 or it’s slightly denser cousin Madera 700 is what you’re actually looking at. I felt it was the best shake alternative available.”

Greg was worried about walking on the roof — for maintenance , clearing leaves and such. I spoke with Boral representative Altie Winters about this and she said that if you need to walk on a Cedarlite roof you should wear sticky shoes like sneakers and step where the tiles overlap and avoid the center of the tile itself. Greg used a polyurethane expanding adhesive  in lieu of nails. “The idea,” says Greg, “is that it provides a cushion in the air gap under the tiles which enhances the support when walking on it. It does seem to help quite a bit but you still need to be as careful as possible. At least when the tiles do crack they tend not to move since the adhesive is applied to much of the bottom. Supposedly this material also provides an R-4 insulation value as well. The polyset product was originally designed as a hurricane solution to eliminate the pitfalls of nails coming loose. In the West they market it as a walkability solution. So knock on wood that it will stand the test of time. We’ll see.”

SIDE NOTE: Boral recently introduced an intriguing product called the Boral Pure Smog-Eating Tile. According to Boral, the concrete roof tile’s coating contains a photocatalyst activated by daylight, which helps convert harmful nitrogen oxides into calcium nitrates. A 2,000 square foot roof of these tiles can oxidize the same amount of nitrogen oxide that a car produces from being driven up to 10,800 miles. So far the tiles only come in Mediterranean profiles that 

resemble terra cotta, as shown above.  Maybe they will produce a smog-eating shake look-alike too, some day.

Shakes weren’t the only roofing material in Cliff May’s repertoire; he also used terra-cotta  — on some of his larger custom houses he aimed for a rough hand-crafted look — and occasionally even standing seam metal. Perhaps his

most exotic choice was ocatillo branches, as shown above, to create a shade canopy over the pool at a marvelous oasis-like house in the desert near Tucson, Arizona. According to the owner the branches need to be replaced about every ten years.

The wide glassed-in or open gable, sometimes with a ridge skylight running

down the middle — as shown here at the splendidly expansive house that’s part of Bronzewing Farm, two hours north of Sydney, Australia — became a signature feature of Cliff May’s work. Incidentally, this roof retrofit used a composite tile (not concrete) and works very well.  (Photograph by Joe Fletcher for my ranch house book — shameless self-promotion department!) Such features have

inspired contemporary designers like Dan Tyree in Plan 64- 172. As Greg Friedman might say: such roofs are worth preserving with a little research and a light step.

Major Ranch House Exhibition at UCSB

From Corral to Cul de Sac in the Southern California Home

I just saw “Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House” in the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara, curated by Jocelyn Gibbs and Nicholas Olsberg. It’s the first scholarly  exhibition on the history of the suburban ranch house at UCSB since the late architectural historian David Gebhard founded the museum’s design archive in the 1970s and collected the Cliff May papers along with those of many other influential Southern California architects and designers (catalog to be published in April). The fence on the intro wall aptly expresses both the ranch house idea

and the intent of the show: to corral the many facets of ranch house history into a coherent narrative while showing off holdings from the museum’s extensive architectural drawings collections. It’s mostly about ranch house designer, developer, and popularizer Cliff May, who began his career in San Diego in the early 1930s with courtyard designs like this one, which cloaked functional planning and space for the automobile in the romance of history.

They were inspired by early California ranchos with their covered “corredors” or porches. In 1934 he moved to Los Angeles and soon began developing Riviera Ranch, an equestrian-oriented subdivision off Sunset Boulevard near Brentwood. With larger lots his plans could “sprawl” across the site.

This house — for his own family — became his best sales tool and a laboratory for trying out new ideas like residential incinerators and walk-in refrigerators. In the 1950s he and his architect partner Chris Choate developed their “low cost ranch house” concept using standardized, pre-cut elements.

(Image courtesy AD&A Museum.) Window walls and shallow gable roofs were signature features, as shown in the brochure plan and the supergraphic of another May design that dominates a section of the exhibit (below).

May’s designs resemble Eichler tract house plans of the same era — the ranch house concept was everywhere at that time and very malleable. The tract ranch house became popular for developers, which is when the word sprawl took on

a less positive meaning; this is an aerial view of Lakewood Rancho Estates, in Long Beach, California (image courtesy AD&A Museum). Meanwhile May was still designing larger and more lavish custom homes for people like the inventor of

the Lear jet and the composer of the theme song for the TV show Bonanza. The typical pool and patio example above — one of many in the exhibit — became synonymous with California living (image courtesy AD&A Museum).

By the early 1960s Cliff May ranch houses had spread across the country as this wonderful pin map — which I remember seeing in Cliff May’s last office — demonstrates. Some of the pins represent subdivisions of more than 25 houses — his designs are in almost every state as well as as Canada and Mexico.

The show includes ranch house designs by other Southern California architects, from John Byers to Rudolph Schindler, proving that Cliff’s wasn’t the only game in town. As Jocelyn Gibbs, who is the curator of the museum’s Architectural Drawings Collection, told me: the intent was “to suggest that the ranch house and modernist ideas are not incompatible.” Indeed, the ranch house idea was stylistically very loose — simply a one story house with a modern open plan and strong outdoor connections. It had little theoretical baggage.

The need to exhibit only work from the museum’s collections is understandable but I wish there had been a way to include the wider architectural context, from William Wurster’s Butler house at Santa Cruz, California of 1935

(image courtesy Modern in Melbourne), to John Yeon’s Watzek house in

Portland, Oregon, of 1937 (photo courtesy Inside Oregon), to Frank Lloyd

Wright’s Herbert Jacobs Usonian House in Madison, Wisconsin of 1936 (image courtesy GreatBuildings.com) to Walter Gropius’s Arnold Wolfers house in

Brooklin, Maine of 1947 (image courtesy The Downeast Dilletante). Most architects took the ranch house in a more strictly modern direction and didn’t acknowledge Cliff May’s contribution. Nor did most of the design critics of the day. But though Cliff May was left out of architectural debates at the Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere, it’s clear, as this exhibition vividly demonstrates, that Southern California had a richly experimental residential design tradition and that Cliff had the last laugh. The show remains on view through June 17, 2012; museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 5; free.


Barn House, Backsplash, and a Cool Thermostat

 A Rustic Space-Time Continuum

For many homeowners – with apologies to Star Trekkers – it’s really interior space that’s the final frontier. The potential for improvement is infinite. Take this new house by innovative and edgy interior designer Erin Martin working with an adventurous Napa Valley client. It’s both rustic — as a barn-inspired ranch house — and highly refined.

The big timber structure, which supports a sleeping loft over the kitchen, is exposed and becomes a foil for a sophisticated black and white furniture palette. The loft itself is simple but eye-catching, and not a little galactic,

thanks to an art piece suspended on a rope and resembling a dusty comet — or a hay bale on a bad hair day. It’s wonderful, like a tiny hint of Halloween. The table on the dining porch reads as a vertical extension of the floor, thanks to

the continuity of material — the same kind of boards are used for both. It’s a clever idea and makes you wonder just for a moment which is which — porch or table — rather like an Escher print. Martin’s design of the galley kitchen is particularly effective at enlivening our perception of space through the use of contrast. Her backsplash, for example, does more than protect the wall above the sink from water damage — not to mention the occasional “wormhole.”  She used antiqued mirror to cover the wall behind the range.

The soft indistinct reflection adds surprise while visually expanding the space into a sort of parallel universe. In this view straight down the galley


see how the backsplash almost blends with the windows, adding a little reflective mystery to contrasts with the bunkhouse-like floorboards. The peninsula dividing the kitchen from the dining/living area


includes an integral sink that simplifies the line of the counter, further blurring boundaries.

The barn has always been a good starting point for home design: a typical barn layout — which is similar to that of the Roman basilica — includes a high central portion and lower side aisles. One of our newest exclusive designs, Plan 530-2 below,

by Classic Colonial Homes, makes use of this arrangement for the garage; the living space is in the loft. Architect David Wright‘s Plan 452-1

glazes part of the roof to brighten the rear porch and the adjacent living room. Architect Francois Levy took took inspiration from gambrel-roof barns for his Plan 450-2.

Here the garage door is deceiving — it’s used not for a garage but as a way to open up an entire wall of the living space. Barns are always worth a look, if not a double take.

Heat Seeker

Finally, just in time for colder weather, a thermostat that turns up the heat through modern functional design: it’s the new Learning Thermostat from Nest, a company founded by Tony Fadell, formerly of Apple — so naturally it’s a sleekly appealing object in its own right. It’s also intuitive — just turn the dial the way you did with units of old but now there’s a new twist, not to mention a learning curve.

According to Tony: “Turns out you change the temperature in your house 1500 times a year. 1500! Our thermostat learns what temperatures you like so it can program itself. It senses when you’re out and turns itself down. And we started from scratch with design, so it’s beautiful.” I concur, though it reminds me a little of the lyric from Santa Claus is Coming to Town:  “He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake…” It has fully integrated software,  provides energy-saving tips, can be controlled from your smartphone, and installation is over most existing circuitry. If you’re good maybe you’ll get one!


Home Idea Hunting

Conceptual Drainboards Everywhere

Small ideas with large impact always grab my attention. For example, I just saw an early twentieth century farmhouse kitchen and I was transfixed — not so much by the kitchen as a whole but by the shiny wooden drainboard — which resembled part of the galley on a vintage yacht.

What could be simpler, or warmer in its honey tone and richly grained texture than this shiny slab and backsplash, with undermount sink and porcelain-handled taps. This kitchen, which was beautifully restored by Backen Gillam Kroeger Architects for the MacMurray Ranch vineyard, is a throwback but also perfectly contemporary in its use of a natural material as a thing of beauty in itself, without affectation. Such a drainboard is hard to do today — the various woods available are costly and maintenance around water is always problematic — but it is seductive nevertheless and reminds me of the counters made of sugar pine and other woods that early modern architects like Gardner Dailey and William Wurster used in kitchens, well before the explosion of new materials like Caesarstone or Zodiac. These latter materials are attractive in their own right but a little wood goes a long way toward warming up a space. The way to achieve a similar effect today without risking water damage might be to use wood on a kitchen island, as architect Jonathan Feldman does in this example.

Or simply purchase a wood-topped rolling cart like the John Boos Rosato Kitchen Cart (below)

or the Belmont White Kitchen Island (below) — both through Remodelista, one of my

favorite home resource websites, where co-founder/curator Julie Carlson has an exceptional design eye. Another way to use wood as a warm-up accent is shown in the house built from our Plan 508-1 by architect Nicholas Lee,

where the extended hearth — for display as well as sitting — is a length of recycled fir. Such a device not only warms up an all-white room but adds individuality.

Of course, paint is really the easiest way to personalize a space quickly. A new apartment complex called The Presidio Landmark in San Francisco – an elegant adaptive reuse of an old hospital by the architectural firm Perkins & Will – includes a model unit that shows a clever way to add character to a room without a lot of effort and expense: painted wainscoting, as shown below.

The green swath reaches to head height and draws the eye up, at once creating an intimate corner within the larger space. It adds personality without the expense of extra woodwork. Look around you — and keep that digital camera or I-phone handy — you never know when an idea for your new home will strike — or drain, as the case may be.

FLW Anniversary and Spring Plan Sale

75 Years Young

It’s incredible to think that the most famous modern house in America — Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pennsylvania by Frank Lloyd Wright — turns 75 this year. I have toured it twice and it still looks contemporary and forward-thinking today. Thanks to Fallingwater (Rizzoli 2011) a new book of essays and sumptuous photographs edited by Fallingwater’s director, Lynda Waggoner, you can take an engrossing armchair tour. Those cantilevered decks still inspire — though they have been strengthened over the years — but after three quarters of a century suspended over a waterfall anyone could use a little help!  In fact, the chapter by the engineer Robert Silman, who did the artful and seamless strengthening job with post-tensioned concrete (he was part of the team that helped first responders to the World Trade Center analyze the stability of surrounding structures)  is especially fascinating reading. (Wright photo courtesy Water history.org) Silman even quotes a letter from Frank to his client Edgar Kaufman, who had hired an engineer to second guess Wright’s own calculations: “You seem not to know how to treat a decent one [architect]. I have put so much more into this house than you or any other client has a right to expect that if I haven’t your confidence — to hell with the whole thing.” Don’t mess with Texas, er Taliesin! Spring is a glorious time to tour the house — to do so contact the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Spring Plan Sale and More Siting Advice

Though Fallingwater raises residential architecture to a high art, the principle of uniting structure and site should be an important part of every home design. One of the common refrains of this blog — and of Houseplans.com — is that every ready-made house plan should suit its lot or be adapted to it. Here’s an example, from our Spring Sale of Selected  Exclusive Plans (up to 40% off through May 31, 2011): the two-story Garage/Studio Plan 498-3 by architect Matthew Coates, which could easily become an in-law suite or backyard cottage. It’s a simple gabled box with a shed dormer but see how it is dug about four feet into the hill on the entry side so the car has a level pad. As you walk around it you see how each side responds to a different context, from the far side, where it’s not dug into the slope and it’s possible to have a straight path back to the entrance for the studio stairs. At the rear you can see how the stair takes advantage of the corner to bring  light not only to the stair itself but also down to the garage and up to the studio. The shed dormer takes it from there offering a private view into the forest. Our Flexahouse Plans 445-1 through 6, (also on sale through the end of May), make a similar point. Architect Nick Noyes designed the Flexahouse , which is a type of ranch house, in three configurations so it can suit different lot conditions, from long and narrow to short and wide. (Click Spring Sale Plans to see all our exclusive home plans on sale this month.)

Orientation to the sun is key; in the northern hemisphere a southern exposure is usually best for warmth in winter and cool breezes in summer; west-facing glass needs to compensate for hot afternoon sun with insulation or shading of some sort. A northern exposure offers cooler indirect light and is the classic orientation for an artist’s space. A breakfast area often faces east to catch the morning sun. In a way you can think of the house as a sundial: analyze each room — where will the sun be coming from when you think you’ll be occupying it most often? It’s easy to modify a plan by replacing a window with a door for more convenient outdoor access, say, or by adding a window to capture a view. And our Modification Department is happy to help! A good house plan is only good if it takes advantage of its site.