• Wednesday , 8 April 2020

Design Clinic: Split Level Homes

Kilcruig Split Level 11

Design Clinic with MRIAI Ailish Drake

Q. Dear designclinic,

We are looking at a house to buy that has seven steps down to a large open plan kitchen/dining/sun room/garden from the hall/living room. My query is a general one on experience with split level. Does seven steps seem a lot dividing the main living are?

Looking forward the hearing from you. 

Yours sincerely,


A. Dear Margaret

Split level homes can be wonderful places to live, with changes in level creating both design interest and often solving problems with sloping sites, allowing buildings to sit comfortably into their surroundings. Level changes can create interest in large open plan spaces by separating living spaces from kitchen spaces, for example. The project above, sited on a steeply sloping site, shows the home-office/library area overlooking the dining room, which in turn steps down into the kitchen. A low dividing wall hides the clutter of the desk and the three steps mark it out as a different zone. Stepping down the floor level can also create higher, brighter spaces, where the ceiling levels are carried through, such as the second example, where an existing farmhouse with low ceiling steps down to new bright kitchen/dining room.

You have mentioned a seven-step change in level in the house you viewed. This is an excessive change in level, almost half a storey in height. As one gets older, there may be more difficulty navigating a spit level space.  Friends and relatives may have access needs such as wheelchair use and visual impairment. However many dwellings including two storey houses and many historic properties have the same issues. You haven’t mentioned if there is a toilet at the entry level. This might also be a consideration for you. Although existing homes do not need to comply with the building regulations (Part M), new homes are required to be visitable by persons with disabilities, with a habitable room (living room/kitchen) and a WC at entry level.

Aherina Split Level 1

The design challenge is in achieving a balance between the change in level and the amount of floor space used to create it. To do this successfully, only two or three steps should be used in any one level change. The steps need to be wide, with a shallow rise and a generous going, the optimum being 150mm (6inch) rise and 300mm (12inch) going. Ramps and lifts are not suitable options for the interior of dwellings as the space requirements are more than often too onerous for the rooms. My advice to you is to way up the pros and cons. Has the change in level created better living areas or does it actually detract from the design. Can the change in level be modified to make shorter flights of two or three steps? Does a split-level home fit with your vision of how you might live in and use your home or will it negatively impact on how accessible your home is to your family and friends?

Ailish Drake is a partner in Drake|Hourigan, a Limerick based architectural practice that provides architectural, building conservation and landscape design services across Ireland; drakehourigan.com.

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