Tips for Choosing Windows for a Ranch-Style House

Split Level Ranch Style House Mid-Century Modern

Getty / H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock

Window companies are often not very knowledgeable about matching window styles to house style, and that is especially true for ranch-style homes, which often get short shrift from home design professionals. These casual style homes were built by the hundreds of thousands during the post-war housing boom of the 1950s and 1960s, and at the time they were seen as a cheap and easy way to populate the burgeoning tracts of suburban housing. Little thought was given to the style aesthetics, in the same way, that Colonial, Victorian, Craftsman, and Tudor were well-defined styles with architectural and decor expectations.

Fast forward 60 years, though, and the humble ranch-style home in its various forms is now often known as a mid-century modern, and owners are spending considerable effort to make them match period aesthetics. And because they are now aging structures, these ranch-style homes are very often receiving new windows. If you are remodeling one of these homes, you are faced with the challenge of picking windows that are appropriate for the style.

A window sales representative who suggests double-hung windows (and this is very often the recommendation you get) simply doesn't know much about the history of ranch-style architecture. To appropriate remodel and renovate a ranch-style home, it's important to know a little bit about its basics.

The Basics of the Ranch-Style Home

The ranch style is also known as the California ranch, the American ranch, or the rambler ranch. As the name implies, this style originated in the Southwest U.S. It is recognized for its long, low-to-the-ground profile, and (usually) an open interior layout. The eaves have wide overhangs, intended to shelter the home from the intense sun. The style aimed to marry together modernist materials with a sensibility of wide-open spaces to foster a relaxed, easy-going lifestyle. In widespread residential use, the style varies greatly, from the modest ranch-ramblers with hip or gable roofs that fill older suburbs, to more dramatic split-level ranches with vaulted ceilings and long, flat sloping roofs. But all versions share a common heritage.

There were several themes in the original ranch style that need to be kept in mind if you want to be historically accurate when choosing new windows:

  • Ranch homes use long horizontal lines. Window styles need to be consistent with this aesthetic.
  • Ranch homes depend on a lot of natural light. Because the interiors are open (these were the first "open-concept" homes), window glass are needs to be as large as possible to distribute lots of light into the interior. These homes often have long, overhanging eaves, which means that windows need to be large to let in enough diffused natural light.
  • Ranch homes use man-made materials. In the original ranch hoes, steel and aluminum were popular choices. These were regarded as very modern homes at the time, and wood windows were seen as archaic—a thing of the past.

5 Window Types for Ranch-Style Homes

  • Fixed windows: No window has cleaner lines than a fixed window, and they were a mid-century modern favorite. Ranch style homes were where the large "picture window" first became popular. Most ranch-style homes will have at least one large fixed window—and often several. Large sliding patio doors are also a common feature in ranch-style homes, serving the same purpose as picture windows—to let in a lot of light.
  • Casement windows: Casement windows—windows that crank open along hinges mounted on one side—have always been popular for ranch-style homes, thanks in part to the smooth, uncomplicated lines that offer large expanses of glass. Today's casement windows are vastly superior to the casement windows of yore, both in terms of energy efficiency and durability.
  • Jalousie windows: Jalousie (louver) windows feature narrow panes of horizontal glass that crank open and shut in unison. They are commonly found on ranch-style and other mid-century modern home styles, especially on porches and sunrooms. However, they do not work for all climates. Even when closed, they badly leak air. But if you live in a favorable climate such as South Florida, Southern California, or the Southwest U.S., jalousie windows are a perfect representation of windows that were widely used in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • Awning windows: Like casements, awning windows that open by pivoting upward along top-mounted hinges can be a good choice for ranch-style homes. They can also be a good choice for wet climates, since they can be partially opened for ventilation without letting in rain. Like casements, awning windows offer the appearance of fixed windows when closed.
  • Horizontal grilles: Sometimes it is impossible to avoid grilles. Horizontal grilles can actually enhance the look of a ranch-style home. For example, large picture windows can be divided by long horizontal grilles that emphasize the horizontal lines of the house.

Modern Materials

Steel and aluminum frames are still possible choices when replacing windows in a ranch-style home, but today the emphasis on modern materials can be achieved by opting for windows with fiberglass, vinyl or composite frames. These materials will say "modern" in a way that wood simply can't. Wood has the advantage of being paintable, but fiberglass and vinyl windows are available in a variety of baked-in colors, and they will be much more durable than wood over the long run.

Window Features To Avoid

To keep your ranch-style mid-century modern home looking authentic and energy-efficient, avoid these pitfalls:

  • Authentic period windows. In the effort to look truly authentic, some homeowners work mightily to keep original windows operating, or might even look for reclaimed windows to install. Mid-Century homes often had windows with major problems. Even Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright's most iconic house and considered one progenitor of the Ranch style, has been reduced to begging for money to replace the glass of its failing metal-framed windows. It is much better to install new windows with modern materials that perform better while remaining consistent with the spirit of mid-century modern. Aluminum and steel-framed windows were notoriously cold and leaky—modern fiberglass will be far more comfortable and will still have the "modern-materials" vibe.
  • Double- or single-hung windows. These are just not in the spirit of the original ranch-style homes. Unfortunately, they were installed in many second-generation ranch-ramblers in suburban housing tracts. If you are facing window replacement in one of these homes, returning to casement or awning-type windows will do much to restore your home to a more authentic look.
  • Novelty shapes, such as triangle, chords, circles or semi-circles. Ranch-style home were all about simplicity, and odd-shaped windows always look out of place.
  • Bay and bow windows. These were all the rage for a time, and on the right house style, they work perfectly. But ranch style is not the right style for bay or bow windows. A large picture window, on the other hand, is a true vintage feature.
  • Ornamental glass. Ranch style homes typically use clear or slightly tinted glass. Leaded glass, stained glass, and other such treatments don't work in an authentic ranch-style home.
  • Grilles with vertical lines. Horizontal window grills can work in ranch-style homes, but vertical grilles clash with the overall horizontal, ground-hugging lines of a ranch-style home.