Pulling Together a Split Level Home

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Words by Scott Sowers, The Washington Post

Leanne MacDougall and Jeremy Strauss transform a three-bedroom, three-bath split level home into a family paradise with an incredible kitchen space.

“We were overseas for a long time,” says MacDougall, 47, who works as a communications specialist for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

“We moved to Washington in January 2015 and stayed in a nearby apartment while we were doing the house-hunt. We didn’t want our kids to switch schools again; we wanted them to stay at Somerset.”

In spring 2015, MacDougall spotted a listing for a split-level home in the neighborhood that was in their price range and arranged a walk-through that did not initially pan out.


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All the interior walls on the kitchen level were removed, along with mismatched doors and windows on the back wall. Sliding-glass doors took their place.


The layout was quirky, even by split-level standards, as the house appears to be a ranch but is actually divided horizontally, front to back. The front door opens directly into the living room, where you are greeted by two half-staircases – one goes up to the bedrooms, and the other goes down to the kitchen level.

The possibilities offered by a transformative renovation danced through the couple’s heads. Their real estate agent recommended a consult with Lou Balodemas of Balodemas Architects, based in Washington.

The family contemplated adding a cathedral ceiling in the living room or adding a foyer, and the idea of an open-plan kitchen, dining room, mud room and laundry room helped allay their concerns about the house.

Split-levels, also sometimes called “tri-levels,” are an architectural dead end that were built in abundance from the 1930s to the 1970s. Balodemas said real estate developers saw them as a way to make more money on less house, and promoted subdivisions full of them.

“A regular house is a basement and two levels,” Balodemas said. “By doing a split-level, you eliminate the basement, take the other two floors and split them, and now you have a four-level house that’s two-thirds the square footage of what they would have been building. I think, on a square-footage basis, it was probably cheaper to build.”


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Darker cabinets below white cabinets offer a dramatic effect and tie into the backsplash.


All the interior walls on the kitchen level were removed along with mismatched doors and windows on the back wall. Sliding-glass doors took their place. Although the existing kitchen appeared to be in pretty good shape, moisture damage and termites had made it unsalvageable.

Originally, there were two half-staircases leading down from the kitchen level to the basement of the home. The design team sealed off one staircase and used the captured space for the new full bath.

The design scheme called for a kitchen island with a generous overhang in the front that would turn the space into a casual dining area. The couple had seen encaustic tiles during their travels in France and spotted more examples on Houzz that they wanted to emulate on the front of the island and the backsplash.

The project lasted six months and cost a little more than $150,000, but the downstairs level flows, feels and functions in a completely different way. The original flooring was replaced by a combination of engineered oak in the kitchen bordered by glazed porcelain tile colored “Brazil Black.”

Kitchen cabinetry came from Kitchen Craft and is faced in “Prosecco” and gloss white-colored thermafoil, an inexpensive and easy-to-clean surface choice. The sought-after patterned tiles for the island face and backsplash are handmade Moroccan cement tiles in a Barcelona pattern from Cle’.


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Leanne MacDougall and Jeremy Strauss bought the 2,600-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bath split-level ranch in Somerset in July 2016, but they knew it needed a lot of work.


For lighting in the kitchen, the team selected long-lasting LED strip lights from RAB Lighting. The Jenn Air refrigerator came with the house. The new cooktop, oven and dishwasher are all from Bosch.

Just past the kitchen are a few more surprises waiting, as the back corner of the space hosts a laundry center, complete with an ironing board hidden in a cabinet. More storage was supplied, including a space custom designed for Strauss’ bike, which he rides to work.

Speaking of the newly configured kitchen level, MacDougall said, “I love the whole vibe, the light, the windows, and I think there’s warmth to the room. I love entertaining in there.”

Images: Katherine Frey, Washington Post