What Is a Ranch House? A Suburban Architectural Gem


What is a ranch house? If there’s one architectural style that says “suburbia,” it’s this type of home design. Comfortable in design and humble in every sense of the word, this iconic, homegrown archetype actually has a glamorous past.

What Is a Ranch House? A Suburban Architectural Gem

What is a ranch house?

The American ranch arose in the 1930s as an alternative to the vertical, European-inspired styles of the 19th century: the Queen Annes, the brownstones, the Gothic cottages, and the Greek Revivals. Although traditional ranch houses are still a popular style with home buyers, nowadays it’s common to find homes that borrow different design characteristics from ranch houses. So what is a ranch house and what exactly are those characteristics? We spoke with Alan Hess, an architectural historian who studies ranch houses, about six key qualities of America’s favorite style of home.

1. Ranch houses are horizontal

Ranch houses reflected the growth of America during the mid-20th century, when land outside cities was cheap and highways were blooming across the nation. The design evoked easy, informal living, low-slung and close to the land—as it would be at an actual ranch.

2. Ranch houses emphasize outdoor living

Many of them have sliding glass doors that lead out to lush patios. In a warm climate, an L- or U-shaped ranch house might even wrap around a pool. The style was meant to blur the lines between indoor and out the way formal homes hadn’t before.

3. Traditional ranch houses have one story

Yes, you can have a horizontally oriented home that’s more than one story (see the Colonial Revival, for instance), but a ranch is a one-story show.

There is also the split-level ranch, a single-story on one side that then opens into one-and-a-half or two stories on the other. We’re not ignoring you, split-level! You’re just the offspring of the original.

4. Ranch houses have flat or low-pitched roofs

That doesn’t mean they’re completely flat, but the steeply pitched gables of earlier homes don’t apply. That’s partly because the American ranch was inspired by actual ranches in Mexico, and first became popular in California. Ranch roofs can also have overhanging eaves.

5. Ranch houses (usually) have attached garages or carports.

They came of age at the dawn of the automobile, and they’ve got the car space to prove it.

6. Ranch houses have simple exteriors

No, they’re not as clean-lined as Bauhaus buildings, but ranch houses are of the modernist era, and they don’t have extravagant architectural details like Gothic’s vertical siding or the ionic columns of Greek Revivals. While many of them had decorative shutters, that was pretty much it in terms of lavish components.


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