By far the most abundant architectural style among Silicon Valley homes is the ranch. A recent resurgence in interest in this unique and pervasive house design suggest it is regaining popularity, and there are plenty of reasons to love it! Here we’ll take a peek at the history, how to identify, and the function behind the ranch design. Ready to meet America’s dream home?
Back on the Ranch: A Brief History
In the early 1930s, San Diego designer Cliff May took the architectural world by storm with his spin on the Spanish colonial revival home. Inspired by adobe ranchos and modern design with an emphasis on comfortable California living, May developed this unique style. This soon evolved into the quintessential California ranch style.
It’s no surprise that the ranch has come to be known as a suburban style. Its popularity was widespread during the booming post-war years through the 1970s, peaking in the 1950s with ranch homes accounting for as many as 9 out of 10 new homes! (Witold Rybczynski, p 207)
Having saturated the market for decades, and with buyers wanting bigger homes, the market shifted away from building the sprawling single-story ranch in the later decades of the 20th century. Still the design retained popularity in the resale market. With more ranch homes celebrating their golden jubilee (some of the earliest are approaching 90) and some gaining historic designations there has been a renewed interest in ranch architecture over the last decade or so.
“Today, almost any house that provides for an informal type of living and is not definitely marked by unmistakable style symbols is called a ranch house.” (Sunset Western Ranch Houses (1946), IX – 1946).
Having left the depression and WWII behind, casual luxury and abundance were the mode du jour and ranch homes were the epitome of these traits. Also called “ramblers”, their low and wide design was a massive shift from former styles with their upright, shoebox layouts. The simple, asymmetrical style was modern and unpretentious. Wide and open designs emphasized spaciousness, and the lack of distinction between rooms fostered an informal use of space suited to laid back living with a family focus. An eclectic style, many of these houses may be seen as fitting into more than one design type, such as the “modern ranch”, “prairie ranch”, “storybook ranch”, etc.
Low with Flow, Wide and Rambling
From the street, the most distinguishing features of a ranch home are its low and wide appearance. The structure stretches out horizontally across the lot and parallel to the street, and the entrance is usually close to if not at ground level. However these traits relate more to its function than aesthetics. The essence of a ranch style is comfortable and informal California living, and that means outdoor living.
Outdoor rooms including courtyards, corridors (covered walkways), and breezeways are a hallmark of the ranch home. Patios at level with the floors become an extension of interior rooms.
Informal interior design and open concept living space contribute to the fluidity and flexibility of the ranch style. Fewer walls relax the boundaries between rooms, and large windows and glass doors further blur the line between indoor and outdoor spaces. Open some windows you can feel the flow of the ranch: an excellent cross-breeze and good ventilation through the house, another boon in our climate!
All the Trimmings
Ramblers are asymmetrical in design, often arranged in a rectangular, U-shape, or L-shape. The roof is typically low-pitched, either hipped or gabled, and with a deep overhanging eave. The expansive eave offers cover over the entry, and usually extends over a front porch. Older homes with detached garages frequently provide a protected breezeway with the roof stretching from the house to the garage.
Decks, patios, verandas, or other outdoor entertaining spaces are connected to the living or dining rooms, usually by glass doors (especially sliding glass doors) and oversized windows. The majority of windows face the back of the house, although a large street facing window, a picture or display window, is also common.
Ranch style décor tends towards local, natural materials. Interior wood paneling, exposed beams, flagstone or brick fireplaces and detailing on the façade, shingles, and mixed-material facades are all common elements. Sometimes called a modest style, the ranch tends to keep it simple without ostentatious or extravagant ornamentation (no marble mantles or grand porticos in the original designs).
For the Homeowner
Modest style does not reflect the cost today, however. The sprawling silhouette can make for a significantly larger foundation and roof, costing a pretty penny to construct or replace. It also generally takes up more land and requires a larger lot than other designs. There are compact ranches, two-story ranches (sometimes called “raised ranch”), and even multi-family ranch residences, but these are less-common. Possibly because of the expense to build, ranch homes have a reputation for being well-constructed.
Considered a more Universal Design, ranch homes are praised for their accessibility and adaptability. The ground-hugging single-story design is a sought-after feature for those considering mobility impairments and/or hoping to age in-place. Informal structure makes the ranch extremely adaptable to addition and modification. The open layout is easily customized – no need to tear down a wall and rearrange a hallway to expand the kitchen! Unless constrained by lot size, it is easy to expand with room additions. Ample roof space permits sustainable upgrades such as solar panels and rainwater collection systems. Ranch homes truly shine when it comes to personalization!
Did you begin this article thinking the ranch was dated or boring? When the style was first introduced it was innovative.
The iconic low and wide structure that distinguishes a ranch style come from two key elements: laid-back luxury and fluid indoor-outdoor enjoyment. Casual open floorplan designs and indoor-outdoor flow are still extremely popular in homes across the world and remain central to the California style.
And the ranch is a California style, designed around year-round use of outdoor rooms and offering cool relief from the summer heat.
There will always be people feel the ranch looks boring, dated, or simply prefer a different design, but there was a good reason for the ranch home’s long-lasting popularity. It is a convenient, flexible, uncomplicated, and comfortable California home design.
Ranch Homes Near You
Here in California you can find ranch homes just about everywhere! Most are subdivision tracts built between the 1950s – 1980s, but there are plenty of custom-built homes as well. If you are looking for a specific type, however, you can narrow your search. Eichler and modern style ranches can be found in neighborhoods around Palo Alto, Mountain View, Saratoga, Sunnyvale, San Jose, and more. The unique storybook ranch (sometimes called Cinderella or Dutch style) appears in neighborhoods like Dartmouth and Holland at the north end of San Jose’s Almaden Valley area. Generally, you will find ranch-types in suburban and more rural areas where land is more abundant.
Gallery: Silicon Valley Ranch Homes
Here’s a visual sampling of some of the ranch types found around Silicon Valley including in San Jose, Los Gatos, and Saratoga. (Oh, and for fun, I’ve tucked a few more vintage clippings in at the end! Enjoy!)