Drawing on Spanish Colonial traditions and mid-century trends, the Ranch architectural style blends form and function to create a space made for relaxed suburban family living. Its low-cost, adaptable features let even those on a moderate budget build a comfortable, modern home. These characteristics are a big part of how the Ranch home became one of America’s most popular architectural styles.
Casual California Style Goes National
The origins of the modern Ranch architectural style begin with Spanish Colonial architecture. Between 1910 and 1930, the Colonial Revival movement gave rise to numerous Spanish Colonial homes all over California. The traits of these homes were soon adapted for suburban living.
Some of the earliest signs of these adaptations appear in the work of architect Roland Coate, but credit for the Ranch architectural style as we know it today goes to architect Clifford May, who built a prototype Ranch house in 1931. By melding aspects of Spanish Colonial style, adobe ranch houses, and Modernist architecture, he created a more casual, flexible, and up-to-date alternative to the typical boxy Colonial house.
By the 1940s, Ranch style’s popularity had grown, but the homes themselves remained modest in size, due in part to the economic constraints of the Depression and WWII. With the war’s end and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) financing made available for homes in this style, Ranch homes quickly rose to popularity.
By 1950, Ranch style surpassed Minimal Traditional as the country’s favorite architectural style, with nine out of ten new homes built in Ranch style. Although these homes appeared in every region, they were especially common in warmer, drier climates and less prevalent on the East Coast.
Social trends helped the style along. Adaptable and relatively easy to build, Ranch homes suited the needs of returning soldiers looking for affordable family-living options. Increasing car ownership made suburban living more practical, and larger suburban lots allowed for larger homes. It also inspired the need for the Ranch house’s characteristic attached garage.
Aesthetic tastes of the time played a role, too. The simplicity of Ranch architecture offers the comfort of traditional features while allowing room to experiment with the more eccentric approaches that were developing during this time, such as International Style and Mid-Century Modern. For instance, a Ranch house might include traditional columns by the front entrance along with the large casement windows typical of International Style.
The Ranch architectural style flourished throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but gradually fell out of favor in the 1970s as the rising costs of land and energy made one-story homes less economical to build and heat. While some now look at Ranch homes with nostalgia, others find them dull and dated. The style isn’t as ubiquitous as it once was, but it still ranks in the top ten home styles in many parts of the country.
Low-Cost Modern Features
At first glance, the Ranch architectural style might not seem to share much with its Spanish Colonial predecessors, but look closely, and you’ll see the influence in the Ranch home’s low roof profile, limited detailing, and emphasis on strong horizontal lines. Many of the elements common to both have their roots in California’s culture and climate.
The classic Ranch style home is best known for its expansive, single-story asymmetrical U- or L-shaped floor plan. Split-level ranches had a moment in the 1950s, but didn’t catch on in the long run. At the height of the style’s popularity, homes averaged around 1,300 sq. ft., but grew to around 1,600 sq. ft. in the 1970s.
An attached garage or carport, often with space for two cars, typically sits to one side of the home. Both slab foundations and full basements are common. The sprawling, single-story design is ideal for keeping cool in hot weather, but it isn’t well suited to colder climates because it loses heat faster than a multi-story building and some rooms are too far from the furnace to be heated efficiently.
Ranch home rooflines are long and low-pitched with deep overhanging eaves. Shallow cross-gabled or side-gabled roofs are prevalent, but hipped roofs are also found. Roofs often sport a low, but wide and prominent chimney. Made for the dry California climate, these relatively flat roofs don’t fare as well in rainy regions, where they tend to hold water and leak. In snowy climates, they’re prone to ice dams. They are, however, cheaper to build than traditional steeply pitched roofs.
Windows are placed asymmetrically and vary in style. Horizontal bands of large casement or double-hung windows framed in wood or metal let light into the interior’s open floor plan and reinforce the design’s horizontal lines. Windows often have only horizontal muntins. Clerestory windows, a feature shared with Mid-Century Modern homes, make frequent appearances. In the 1950s and 1960s, a large picture window was a common feature.
Ranch homes are designed around laid-back family living and focus on the privacy of the backyard rather than on the street-facing front porch found in many traditional American architectural styles. The typical Ranch home’s front entrance is positioned off-center and framed only by a small porch and roof overhang. In the back, however, you’ll find a sliding glass door placed to create a seamless transition between the kitchen or dining area and a spacious back patio.
Brick is the traditional exterior for Ranch homes, but many combine several materials, including wood clapboard, stacked stone, and stucco. Brick veneer on the lower half of the facade with wood siding on the upper half is a common combination. A brick exterior with an entryway dressed up with wood or stone is another popular look. Brick veneer was favored for its low construction and maintenance costs.
Ranch home color palettes range from earthy “Eichler colors” through traditional ecru and gray to vibrant yellows and blues. The classic California Ranch aesthetic is based on darker earth tones with trim in a gently contrasting color such as cream or ivory.
With their adaptability, affordability, and family-friendly design, Ranch homes have earned a place of distinction on the American architectural scene. If you’re looking to build one of your own, get to know the Ranch architectural style in its many variations to find the elements that work best for your climate.