Like the game of “I Spot” to amuse children when families are on the road, I often indulge my fascination for houses by playing my own diversion of “spotting” interesting features – a unique door, colorful shutters, Palladian windows (which I learned about not too long ago), and many more.
However, “spotting” the distinctive architectural styles of homes in a neighborhood is another story. How can you tell a Mediterranean from a California style or a country estate versus a ranch or a typical farmhouse? How can you differentiate architectural styles and distinguishing features?
From coast to coast, there are plenty of house styles that can appeal to a particular buyer. A number of styles are region-specific; others are historical, and still, more are smack in the center your community. If you’re considering buying or building a home – and still determining which style suits you best – join us on a “tour” of American architectural styles that may help you with your decision.
1. Styles Based on Shape
If you’re mesmerized by triangles, boxes, and other geometric shapes, these are a few homes that you may want to learn more about.
A typical style for contemporary vacation or second homes, the triangular A-Frame is a simple but striking design with its dramatic and steep rooflines. Ideal for snowy areas – think Swiss chalet – as well as woodsy and lake locales, the style has been around for ages.
The first modern A-Frame house was built in 1936 in Lake Arrowhead, California, by Austrian-born architect Rudolph Schindler. But it wasn’t till the 1950s that the design gained popularity across the U.S. During this time, pioneering architects like John Campbell, Walter Reemelin, George Rockrise, Henrik Bull, and Andrew Geller built their own distinctive versions of the A-Frame home.
A perfect retreat in the mountains or the woods, this 2-story, 3-bedroom, 2-bath A-frame style vacation home is beautifully landscaped. It has large glass windows – providing a lot of natural light and wonderful views of the natural surroundings – and a covered front porch, which you can glimpse on the left (Plan #146-2806).
With a number of homebuyers renovating some of the original existing A-Frames – and building new ones – the style is experiencing a resurgence in popularity. Today’s versions of the A-Frame include more bathrooms, bigger bedrooms, large closet space, and mudrooms.
Distinctive Characteristics: The A-Frame’s walls usually start near the foundation and slope upward at a slant to form a triangle. Open floor plans, high vaulted ceilings, large windows, deep eaves and gables, and loft spaces round out the charming characteristics of the A-Frame.
This 2-story, 3-bedroom, 2-bath A-Frame home features a family-dining room with a 25-ft.-high Cathedral ceiling, a master suite with a sitting area on the first level, a fireplace, and a main-floor laundry room (Plan #126-1890).
Federal (or Historic)
Also known as the Adam style, this square or rectangular-shaped design evolved from the Georgian style and dominated the American architectural landscape from 1780-1840. It was named after the Scottish architect Robert Adam and his brothers, who were furniture makers. In the U.S., one of the major proponents of the style was Samuel McIntire, an architect, and woodcarver from Salem, Massachusetts. Among the historic homes, he designed in Salem were the Cook-Oliver House, the Benjamin Hawkes House, and the Peirce-Nichols House.
Symmetry and harmony: From the glass-pane windows around the main entrance, the narrow windows flanking the front door, and the fanlight above the door to the Palladian and elliptical windows, this classic 2-story, 4-bedroom, 3.5-bath Federal/Historic style house has all the typical features of the design on display (Plan #180-1017).
Distinctive Characteristics: Typically two or three stories, the Federal/Historic style is a symmetrical structure that features simple and understated design elements. Exterior décor accents are limited to entry elements – like a decorative roof over the front door. The style typically has a hip or flat roof with a balustrade and windows arranged symmetrically around a central front door with a semi-circular fanlight – a round or oval window with fan-shaped panes of glass. Other components include a Palladian window, circular or elliptical window, shutters, and oval rooms and arches.
A stark contrast to the ornate and elaborate accents of the Victorian Era, the Craftsman style emphasized clean, simple, and elegant lines. The Craftsman hit the American scene in the early 1900s and was the dominant style for smaller houses across the country. Its name came from The Craftsman, a popular magazine founded by Gustav Stickley, the famous editor and furniture maker/designer who was a huge advocate of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
The quintessential Craftsman design has a compact rectangular floor plan, low-slung gable roofs, a front porch with stone foundations supporting columns that are usually tapered, and wide overhanging eaves. Its more practical but charming style emphasizes harmony with nature and the surrounding landscape.
Elegance, simplicity, and clean lines are exhibited in this captivating 1-story, 3-bedroom, 2-bath transitional take on a Craftsman-style home – with an attractive front yard and main entryway (Plan #142-1177).
Distinctive Characteristics: How can you spot a Craftsman? Look for these exterior features in addition to the low-pitched gable roof with deep overhanging eaves: exposed rafters and/or decorative brackets; a front porch, short – sometimes tapered – columns that support the roof and sit on stone or brick pedestals; multi-pane windows with wide trim; a partially paned front door; dormers; and natural construction materials like wood, stone, and brick.
A multi-dimensional and more innovative version of the ranch, the split-level home staggers living spaces over two levels. In a typical layout, the front door opens to a Great Room – living room, dining room, and kitchen. There are two mini-staircases: one that goes up to the bedrooms; and one that goes down to a family room. There is a basement with a laundry room in other configurations of the horizontal, rectangular, or L-shaped split-level home.
Perhaps the most famous split-level home was the one featured in the popular television classic The Brady Bunch. However, it was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Storer Mansion that influenced designers and architects to build split-level homes. Described as the “first fully developed split-level in America," the Storer house was built in 1923 on a steep hillside in the Hollywood Hills. Wright staggered floor levels to fit the house into the sloping property and connected them by half stairs.
Top: This 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath split-level home features the typical characteristics of the design. Spread out over 1.5-stories, the 1,397-sq. ft. house has the common living areas on the main level, the bedrooms on the second, and the family room on the same level as – and with access through – the garage. Center: The steps take you into the foyer and the Great Room – living, dining, kitchen areas – and a deck. A “half” staircase leads into the bedrooms. Bottom: Steps from the main level bring you to the family room, the basement, and the garage, through which one can also reach the family room (Plan #119-1130).
Distinctive Characteristics: Similar to the Craftsman style, the typical split-level design has a low-pitched roof with overhanging eaves, horizontal lines, and open floor plans. Other features: asymmetrical façade, an attached garage, windows that provide a lot of natural light, doors that open to a backyard/rear patio or garden, and minimal exterior décor accents.
2. American Classics That Are Also Region-Specific Styles
Depending on what part of the country you reside in, there are several very timeless and representative American homes.
The country’s love affair with the bungalow design goes back to the early 1900s when families were spurred by the desire for simple, affordable, cozy homes that were typically one-story or one-and-a-half-story structures.
While the term “bungalow” refers to structures built by the British in India, the bungalow as we know it in the U.S. was inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Greene Brothers who created the “ultimate bungalows” for their many clients in Southern California.
This delightful 1-story, 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath Bungalow style home exhibits some Craftsman touches, notably the matching white columns set on pedestals on the inviting front porch (Plan #142-1079).
There are bungalows across the country, but they are most predominant in California, where most of the vintage homes have been renovated and refurbished. In addition, these historic homes are known for being maintained and preserved in cities like Pasadena, with its “Bungalow Heaven”; Chicago, with its “Bungalow Belt”; Seattle, and Portland.
Distinctive Characteristics: Most bungalows are one-story to one-and-a-half stories, but there are a number of two-story styles. In keeping with the Arts and Crafts concept, they come with porches (sometimes a stoop); balconies; clapboard, shingle, stone, brick, or concrete siding; chimneys; low-pitched to medium and steeply-pitched roofs; overhanging eaves; and open floor plans.
Originally developed by British colonists in small New England towns in the 17th century, this design is perhaps the most quintessentially American of all architectural styles. Developed when the country was first cultivating an identity, the Cape Cod style, with its simple, rectangular shape and aesthetic, resonates with Americans of all generations, in all regions and walks of life.
With its twin dormers and white pillars around the spacious front porch, this cozy (1,415-sq.-ft.) 2-story, 3-bedroom, 2-bath Cape Cod is one lovely and appealing package. (Plan #131-1017).
Distinctive Characteristics:Cape Cods began as practical and mostly unadorned one-level homes with two or three rooms, a small porch, and a prominent roofline that extends across the house, a large central chimney, and a fireplace. Its symmetrical design was constructed of local materials to withstand the stormy, stark weather of New England. Part of the Cape Cod’s design was a front door flanked by multi-paned windows; the space above the first floor was often left unfinished. As the Cape Cod gained popularity over the years, the homes were expanded to one-and-a-half-story structures, with steep gable roofs and two or more small dormers.
A treasure of a design that originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with “The Chicago Group” – architects led by Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Marion Mahony Griffin – the Prairie style combines the functional with the beauty of the natural environment. Although most popular in the Midwest, with their flat prairie landscape, these homes – with their sweeping horizontal lines and open floor plans - have extended their appeal to other parts of the country.
Top: This sprawling 1-story Prairie-style home is all about low-pitched roofs, broad overhanging eaves, open floor plans, and harmony with nature. The intriguing home – with 2,560 to 5,025 sq. ft. of space, depending on whether you finish the basement or not – comes with 2 to 4 bedrooms, including a luxurious master suite, 2.5 to 3.5 baths, a fireplace, an outdoor living area, and other amenities (Plan #194-1014).
Distinctive Characteristics: The Prairie style, with its simple square design, was the first home plan to open up interior floor space to create a natural flow and one harmonious space. Other features include boxed shapes at varying heights and depths (as in the Storer House), low-pitched, usually hip roofs, overhanging eaves, rows of small windows, porches with massive square supports, brick, and clapboard siding, and in many cases, a central chimney.
If there ever were a signature American design, the rambling one-story structure would be the ranch, with the long porch, open floor plans, large windows, and sliding glass doors to a rear porch. Originally based on Spanish colonial architecture used in the Southwest, Ranch style homes were first designed in the early to the mid-19th century. A combination of modern elements with Spanish Colonial touches created the California Ranch.
However, the first modern-day ranch did not come about until the Great Depression – when Southern California architect Cliff May designed, built, and sold the O’Leary House in San Diego in 1932. With May and other California architects building ranch homes that were attractive and affordable, the style caught America’s middle class's imagination. From the late 1940s through the 1960s, the ranch-style – and its straight-forward design and flexible floor plans – enjoyed a boom as it was adapted from coast to coast.
As more elaborate styles surfaced in the 1970s, the ranch was temporarily pushed into the background – only to return with a flourish in the 1990s.
This spectacular 4-bedroom, 3-bath Ranch style home is gorgeously landscaped and features a welcoming covered front porch and glass-pane dormers. (Plan #123-1039)
Distinctive Characteristics: Single-story, long, low-pitched roof, asymmetrical, rectangular, L-shape or U-shape design, open floor plans, deep overhanging eaves, sliding glass doors that open to a patio or back porch, large glass windows, attached garage, mixed materials exteriors of stucco and brick, wood or stone, and simple and/or rustic exterior trim.
3. The Colonial Style and Its Many Variations
You can channel your love of history by going with this architectural style that dates back to the 1600s. Perhaps the most popular and timeless house design in the United States, the Colonial, results from the imagination and culture of various European settlers. Through the Colonial’s many re-inventions, it retains these definitive and charming characteristics.
Distinct Characteristics: Symmetry rules the Colonial design – from the number of dormers to the windows that flank the front door to the columns on the porch. Among its other appealing features are: a square or rectangular shape, paired chimneys, medium-pitched roof, two to 2.5-stories, covered front porch, and decorative window shutters.
Here’s a magnificent 2-story modern Colonial home with 4 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, and a wide, welcoming covered front porch adorned with white narrow columns. Typical of the design is the door located at the center of the main entryway (Plan #180-1018).
The British settlers started it all with their early rustic square homes that featured a saltbox roof, a large chimney placed at the center of the home, and diamond-pane windows.
The Buttolph-Williams House in Wethersfield, CT, is one of the oldest surviving English Colonial Homes in the country. Built between 1711 and 1720, the house is now a historical museum (photo credit: Daderot, Public Domain).
Built by the French who colonized Canada, the Louisiana Territory, and the Mississippi Delta, these homes were generally rectangular and constructed on an elevated platform to adapt to the hot and wet climate of the region. French Colonials feature hip roofs with large overhanging eaves supported by wooden columns, French doors, exterior stairs, and wraparound porches called galleries. Without interior hallways, rooms connected to each other by outside walkways around the building. To get around the house, residents would walk along the wraparound porch to reach their “destination.”
This Beachfront or Coastal home is actually a modern take on the 2-story French Colonial style, with the characteristic features of a wraparound porch, exterior stairs, French and sliding doors, and covered outdoor spaces supported by thin columns (Plan #130-1042).
The most prevalent style in the colonies throughout the 18th century, the Georgian design derived its name from the first four King Georges, who ruled England successively from 1714 to 1840. The first architect-inspired style in America, the Georgian design was greatly influenced by British architect Sir Christopher Wren.
Its defining characteristics are a gabled or hipped roof with dormers, paired chimneys, multi-paned windows symmetrically arranged to frame the front door, an extended walkway leading to the main door, short covered porch, archways, pediments, or decorative element above the central door, interior floor plans that often repeat the exterior’s focus on symmetry, and a central hall and staircase often flanked by formal rooms on each side.
Recognize some of the signature features of the design in this lovely 2-story Georgian style home with 4 bedrooms and 2.5 baths? Let’s start with the paved extended walkway leading to the main entrance. Then take a look at the symmetrical elements – from the lush shrubbery that frame the walkway, the windows with decorative shutters that flank the central door, and the gable roof with three dormers (Plan #146-1263).
4. Styles Based on European Influences
With all the European settlers that colonized the country, it’s no wonder that some architectural styles have a variety of Old World touches and influences.
As early as the 17th century, the French brought some of the architectural elements of the French Normandy style when they settled in North America – specifically in Quebec City and Montreal. By the time the French landed in New Orleans in the Louisiana Territory in the 18th century, the French Colonial style was established with its low-pitched roofs, narrow columns, porches, and living quarters above ground as a safeguard from flooding.
After World War I, the style really took off when American and Canadian soldiers came home with vivid memories of the gorgeous homes they had seen in France. Soon they were building quaint and unique homes reminiscent of French architectural styles.
Throughout the centuries, the elegance and stately charm of French-inspired homes have captivated home buyers and renovators across the country. But the French-style home is most popular in the South, especially in Georgia and Louisiana, where the French colonists first landed.
This lovely 1-story 4-bedroom, 2.5-bath French-style home spread over 1,934 sq. ft. of space has all the charming features of the design: steep roof lines at varying heights, brick exterior, stonework, and arches on doors and windows (Plan #142-1146).
Distinctive Characteristics: Although designs vary – from the symmetrical proportions of the French Provencal to other asymmetrical exteriors – you can find these features in most French-inspired homes. Usually, two-stories with high rooflines, steep roof pitches, stucco, brick or stone exteriors, large chimneys sloped at the base, curved arches, and stonework on doorways and windows, multi-paned windows, dormers, and round towers with some house styles.
The medieval architecture of Tudor England inspired its Old World charm and storybook appeal in the 16th century. The Tudor Revival in the U.S. dates back before the Great Depression as architects created their own versions – from huge stately mansions to more modest suburban homes. It soared in popularity from 1910 to 1940 with its rustic half-timbered exteriors, decorative chimneys, and romantic steeply gabled rooflines that are both practical and picturesque. These rooflines can shed snow, water, and debris quite easily and are ideal in high snow areas of the country – like the Midwest, Northwest, and along the Eastern Seaboard.
Today, the Tudor Revival is very much a part of the American architectural landscape and is loved for its versatility and fanciful flair.
Distinctive Characteristics: Ranging from one to 1.5 stories, the Tudor Revival design has the features that add to its enchanting appeal: Asymmetrical plan with unmatched gables of varying heights, stucco or brick exteriors, tall windows with small panes, arched entryways, large decorative chimneys with chimney pots, and decorative half-timber construction (or at least appearance).
Three Faces of a Tudor Revival Home: #1 (top) – Even with its sprawling dimensions, this 1.5-story luxurious manor with 3480 sq. ft. of living space, 3 bedrooms, and 3.5-baths is high on charm and appeal. The home’s exterior features decorative timbering in gable ends, a brick façade, gable and hip roofs of differing heights, and arched doorways and windows (Plan #198-1032). #2 (center) – A 2-story contemporary Tudor style home with an open floor plan, 3 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, and 2,674 sq. ft. of living space. Check out the decorative half timbers and the brick-stucco exterior (Plan #131-1082). #3 (bottom) – The fanciful flair of this 2-story, 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath Tudor home is straight from a storybook. From the spectacular landscaped front yard and the window boxes, decorative half-timbering, chimney, and arched doorway, this home oozes charm and enchantment (Plan #138-1270).
A style that emerged during the reign of Queen Victoria – between 1820 and the early 1900s – Victorian architecture is a combination of several recognized designs: Gothic Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Stick, Romanesque, and Shingle. Its diversity, signature turrets, gables, ornate trim, and decorative woodwork add to its timeless appeal and charm.
Victorian architecture continues to thrive in the 21st century as Victorian-style homes continue to be built throughout the U.S. In older American neighborhoods, art and history lovers restore and refurbish old Victorians and adapt them to modern times while retaining their defining features.
A splash of color in the turret, garage door, window shutters, chimney top, and door adds to the striking exterior façade of this 2-story Victorian-style home. The residence has 6,065 sq. ft. of living space, 5 bedrooms, 5 full baths, 3 half-baths, a patio, and many luxurious interior elements. (Plan #195-1161)
Distinctive Characteristics: Here’s what to expect in a Victorian-style home: Two to three stories, steep gable roofs, round angles, towers, turrets and dormers, shapely windows (especially bay windows), stained glass, decorative woodwork, bright colors, high ceilings, ornate staircases, and added nooks inside.
This 2-story contemporary Victorian style home with 4 bedrooms and 3.5 baths preserves all the quaint and quirky elements of the design, including decorative woodwork and corbels around the whole perimeter, gable roofs, and bay windows. Interior Nook: Walk up the beautifully crafted wood staircase, and find a cozy space for reading and unwinding (Plan #198-1021).
A design that originated in Mediterranean countries with their warm climates and soft sea breezes (think Spain, France, Greece, and Italy), the Mediterranean style homes emerged in the 1920s and ‘30s. First, it became fashionable in warmer states like California, Florida, Texas, and the Southwest. Its popularity continues to the 21st century – with designers and architects around the world and throughout the United States building Mediterranean-style homes.
Top: A throwback to the original luxurious mansions on the beach, this magnificent 1-story, 4-bedroom, 4.5-bath Mediterranean home has all the delightful features that make the style so popular. What’s not to love about the landscaped courtyard, the arched windows and doors, and the soothing pastel hues on the exterior façade (Plan #175-1251)? Bottom: Walk out the doors of this amazing 1-story, 4-bedroom, 4-bath Mediterranean home and walk onto a gorgeous landscaped central garden. Take a look at the large windows and glass doors that allow natural light and soft breezes to filter into the home (Plan #193-1048).
Distinctive Characteristics: Usually a one or two-story home, the Mediterranean (Spanish) style’s most recognizable element is a low-pitched roof with terra-cotta red tiles that keep the house cool during the hot weather. Some exterior features that make Mediterranean homes so attractive are stucco walls in white or pastels, exposed wood beams, arched doors and windows, columns, extensive outdoor living spaces, wrought-iron gates, large windows, landscaping, covered entryways, courtyards, balconies, decks, verandas, and patios. Inside the home, you can find more archways and columns, high ceilings, open floor plans that enhance the breezy feel, and interiors finished in warm hues of yellows, oranges, pale brown, and light blue.
5. Styles Based on Layout of Rooms
In some instances, a single-family home may not appeal to some buyers in any of its architectural designs and adaptations. Only a multi-family home will do. But don’t despair. There are a few styles on the market. Let’s take a look at them.
Often overlooked by today’s buyers, the duplex is fast becoming a hot choice because of its affordability and potential as an investment option. By definition, a duplex house plan is a multi-family home with two separate units and two separate entrances within the same structure. The units can be built side-by-side – separated by a wall – or they may be stacked, like apartments on two floors.
Many plans come in a variety of styles – Ranch, Craftsman, Contemporary – and feature mirror-image living spaces and equal square footage. In some duplexes, one unit may be bigger than the other to allow room for a growing family.
Here’s a Contemporary style duplex plan with 2 bedrooms and 2 baths in each unit. It has attractive brick columns, a hip roof, and a small porch. Inside are a Great Room with a large kitchen, a main-level laundry, and a rear patio. The Contemporary duplex floor plan shows the same layout of rooms in both units – starting from the front porch, Great Room, bedrooms, and rear patio (Plan #153-1591).
The best way to describe a multi-unit plan is separate living spaces within one building or several buildings within one complex. These designs include apartment buildings, duplexes, triplexes, or multi-plexes. Like the duplex, they also come in many architectural styles and floor plan layouts.
What sets multi-unit homes apart is that each building comprises stand-alone residences separated by walls or floors. For example, there is one shared entrance in an apartment building that leads to separate floors and doors for each unit. In other instances, all doors are on the home's exterior for a greater degree of separation and privacy.
This striking Multi-Unit house plan comprises 4 2-story, 980-sq.-ft. units – each with 4 bedrooms, 2.5-baths, a covered front porch, an eat-in kitchen, and a main-floor laundry room. Each unit features its own front door (Plan #153-1243).
As you consider building or buying a home, remember that the design of a home is just as important as its size and price. Be sure to choose an architectural style that you love and one that fits your needs and lifestyle.
Footnote: The lead image in this article is a 2-story, 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath Contemporary style home. For more details, click here (Plan #132-1594).