June 29, 2017 / Luxury Lifestyle

The Return to Ranch Homes

An American classic, the ranch-style home has weathered the vicissitudes of architectural fashion and is now being spectacularly reimagined for the 21st century


If any property perfectly encapsulates how the traditional ranch, or ranch-style home, has evolved, it’s Los Altos Residence, whose name refers to the Silicon Valley city in which it is located. And while Silicon Valley may not have existed when many of the iconic ranches that dot the US landscape were conceived, today a new generation of homemaker is discovering the appeal and benefits of ranch living.

This property in a Los Altos neighborhood is a contemporary imagining of the Northern California ranch style. Photograph: Nick Lehoux. Banner image: Studhorse in Washington is designed in a sleeker style, inspired by modernism yet still embracing a relationship to the land. Photograph: Benjamin BenschneiderThe work of US architects Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the single-story Los Altos Residence was imagined as a “modernist reinterpretation of a ranch-style home,” with rectilinear volumes arranged around outdoor spaces. 

The H-shaped home has many connections to the great outdoors, taking full advantage of the area’s mild climate and green vistas. Nature matters here: the home’s front was designed around an existing Japanese maple tree—a nod, say the architects, to “the relationship shared between residence and site.”

A 10-foot table made from locally sourced Claro walnut is the centerpiece of the Los Altos Residence’s dining space. Photograph: Nick Lehoux“We thought a ranch house that stretches out across the site was perhaps the best solution to help us create a private world in the middle of a dense suburban neighborhood,” says Greg Mottola, principal at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. “We believe this design approach engages your spirit, bringing a sense of warmth and connection to the natural world. 

Connecting to the landscape
With stunning examples around the world, the original ranch has roots dating back to the Spanish colonial cattle ranches of the 17th through 19th centuries, and even further back to Mexican adobe haciendas.

Woods, including Douglas fir, western red cedar, and gray elm, provide Los Altos Residence a sense of warmth and continuity with the outdoors. Photograph: Nick LehouxFollowing the Second World War and up until the 1970s, the ranch home was the most popular style of living accommodation in America. Its laid-back, low-slung frame referenced those that had sprawled across prairies and vast, open landscapes. By forming private spaces, the ranch’s common L- and U-shaped layouts recreated the solitude of the open frontier.

The Western ranch on some level symbolizes not only success but also boyhood dreams and the iconic cowboy lifestyle

The style did indeed hark back to the Old West, looking to the ranches of Hollywood greats including Will Rogers, John Ford, and others. In California, the ranch eventually evolved into a sleeker style inspired by modernism. But above all, the single-story house with its open floor plan embraced a relationship to the land, a blurring of the lines between indoor and outdoor—as it does today.

Part of the environment
On a 20-acre site in the remote Methow Valley in Winthrop, Washington, Studhorse was designed to allow its owners to have a direct and engaging experience with the environment throughout all four seasons. Made up of four unattached structures placed around a central courtyard and pool—a layout that references traditions of circling wagons—the residence was arranged to frame specific views of the surrounding Studhorse Ridge and Pearrygin Lake.

Located in Washington’s remote Methow Valley, Studhorse makes the most of its position overlooking a 60-mile-long glacial valley. Photograph: Benjamin Benschneider“The ranch by definition is a horizontal structure that is laid out on the land. You can essentially walk out onto the landscape from all rooms and engage with it directly,” says architect Tom Kundig, principal and co-owner of Olson Kundig, the Seattle-based firm behind the project. “The ranch style has always been part of its environment and part of the landscape. This is especially true on the west coast [of the United States] where big skies and big horizon lines are so prevalent. In some ways, the ranch home almost takes a subservient role to that landscape, and that’s why it’s so enduring.”

The layout and floor-to-ceiling windows of Studhorse are arranged to frame breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside, wide horizons, and dramatic skies. Photograph: Benjamin BenschneiderTo this, Zackary Wright, Christie’s International Real Estate Executive Director for Asia Pacific and Western North America, adds, “Architectural styles reflecting the tastes and sometimes the level of sophistication of the owner may differ, but for all, the Western ranch on some level symbolizes not only success but also boyhood dreams and the iconic cowboy lifestyle.”

Open up to the sky
Back in California, East Bay House, conceived by San Francisco-based firm MacCracken Architects, was also designed to embrace its surroundings. Built on the foundation of a U-shaped California ranch-style home dating back to the 1950s, the new 4,100-square-foot residence incorporates taller windows and doors into five spacious cedar-clad volumes, designed to enhance the views of the surrounding hills.

East Bay House in California, built on the plot of a previous ranch home, combines the best of the style’s vernacular with contemporary elements. Photograph: Rien Rijthoven“The essence of a great ranch home captures and capitalizes on an outdoor–indoor connection as well as private and outward focus, with broad areas of operable glass,” says principal and founder Stephen MacCracken.

Higher ceilings, full-length windows, and glass doors maximize East Bay House’s stunning location. Photograph: Rien RijthovenWhen asked what clients should bear in mind when commissioning a modern ranch-style home, the architect advises avoiding the less desirable aspects of traditional versions, including “wide, low eaves that reduce views of the sky and often the horizon. Low eight-foot ceilings, which can be oppressive, monotonous, and force doors to be low,” he says.

Back to nature
On Waiheke Island in New Zealand, just 12 miles by ferry from downtown Auckland, Owhanake Bay House—comprising three pavilions that appear to move with the landscape and two bath houses, all designed by Strachan Group Architects—reflects the “long and low” profile of the ranch house that, for architect Dave Strachan, holds the style’s enduring value.

In this New Zealand take on the ranch, three narrow pavilions appear to bend to follow the contours of the landscape, allowing ease of movement through the environment. Photograph: Patrick Reynolds“Long and low generally hugs the land better and is less visually dominant on the landscape.” Using durable natural materials that both reflect site context and hold up to its seaside environment, the one-level home offers function along with form. “Single story offers easier access for all, without the need for stairs, and many rooms have direct connections to the ground.”

The essence of a great ranch home captures and capitalizes on an outdoor–indoor connection

Designed by Copenhagen-based Norm Architects, Reydon Grove Farm sits on the border of a working farm in England’s Suffolk. The minimalist home’s long, narrow profile and open-plan layout bring the surrounding meadows, farmland, and enclosed garden directly into the space.

Designed as a long, narrow, flat-roofed pavilion, Reydon Grove Farm is of a size that harmoniously matches the scale of this working site’s existing barn and dairies. Photograph: Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen“I think a natural reaction for many people is a longing for getting back to basics, slow living, reconnecting with nature,” says principal and partner Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen. “They want to enjoy natural settings and the simple joys of life, but bring with them a cultivated preference for modern design aesthetics. As an architect, the challenge is to bridge a contemporary approach with the archetypal elements of the ranch.”

 View more articles about architecture


  • Architecture

Joann Plockova
is a Prague-based journalist specializing in design and travel