Know Your House Styles: America’s Signature Types of Residential Architecture

A dizzying number and array of house styles are to be found in America, from early Colonial architecture to the ranch homes of the postwar period.

By Mary O'Neil and Bob Vila | Updated Mar 10, 2021 9:44 AM

Today, we choose from house plans that have the same basic house forms. Preservation specialist Mary O’Neil has outlined the most popular types of house styles, in chronological order, for those who wish to define their style or stylize their home.

Cape Style Architecture - House Styles


Cape Cod

Among the earliest and most common building types, the Cape Cod-style home is characterized by its one-story eaves and front five-bay central entry plan. Typically these houses are two rooms deep, sometimes with a series of smaller rooms along the back. Original Capes had massive central chimneys. Roofs are usually low to moderately pitched, beginning just above windows. Variations may include half plans (three bays wide with the door placed far left or far right) or three-quarter plans (four bays wide with the door in the third or four bay). Early Capes required significant labor and hand tooling of materials, so these homes were characteristically modest in interior space. Their low ceilings and few rooms, however, made them easier to heat. Dormers are commonly added to increase space.

Cottage Style House


Classic Cottage

Similar to the Cape Cod, the Classic Cottage has a slightly higher eaves-front wall that can accommodate small windows in the upstairs knee wall. Roofs are proportionately shallower. Chimneys may appear in the middle or at either end. Windows are usually multi-paned double-hung sash, while the main entry is centrally located. This evolution of the basic Cape came when builders learned that a minor modification brought more usable space and light to the upper floor, increasing space and utility.

Colonial - House Style



Historically this style refers to a rather broad time period architecturally, a Colonial house is regarded as a one- or two-story, rectangular, eaves-front symmetrical building with a central entrance. In a Georgian Plan, this is sometimes referred to as “five-over-four and a door,” and may have roof dormers. The entry is frequently decorated in a classical style with pediments, pilasters, fanlights, or columns. A Colonial is always two rooms deep, but variations may place the staircase in the center or to either side. Common cladding is wood clapboard or brick. Windows are usually multi-paned double-hung sash. Deviations here may also include a half-plan, with the main entry at the far right or left of a three-bay facade.

I House

Two stories high but only one room deep, these modest houses earned their name when it was determined that many of the original builders hailed from Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana. Usually built eaves-front, these gable-roofed homes made humble demands on small lots and pocketbooks.

Shotgun House - House Style



Found primarily in Southern states, Shotgun houses are one-story, one-room-wide houses maximized potential on narrow building lots by construction that maintained a front-to-back alignment, theoretically allowing a shotgun blast to go from the front door out the back. When grouped, there are no side windows, but Southern front porches are common. Two to three rooms deep, this form is believed to have descended from West African and Caribbean dwellings.

Saltbox - House Styles

Photo: Zillow Digs home in Norwich, CT


This is the shape of a Colonial or I House when a one-story lean-to addition, or linhay, is added to the rear. The name Saltbox is derived from the similarity to the shape of eighteenth-century salt containers. The sharply sloping roof was sometimes oriented to the north to act as a windbreak. In the South, this form is referred to as a “Cat’s Slide.”

Side Hall Plan

From one- to two-stories high, these gable-front houses were popular in mid-nineteenth century America. Constructed of masonry or wood frame, they were frequently ornamented in period style with wide, divided bands of trim in the gable end that gave them a temple-like appearance, or with corner pilasters, columns, porches, or sidelights.

Gable and Ell

Widely popular across the United States after the arrival of the railroad, these one- or two-story wood-frame homes featured a central, gable-front mass with an intersecting, perpendicular wing of the same height, effectively making the building “L” shaped. If a wing appears on both sides of the gable block, it becomes a Tri-Gable Ell. Porches are common where the two blocks intersect. These homes typically have wood-clapboard siding and double-hung sash windows. They may display a wide array of stylistic ornament.

The Hallmarks and History of the Foursquare House

Photo: via Steven Martin


Economical to build, these two-story square homes with hipped or gable roofs saw great popularity in the U.S. in the years after 1900. A simplistic reaction to the irregular shapes and high ornament of the Victorian era, these boxy, four-room-over-four-room homes frequently had a dormered attic and a wide front porch. The clean styling and simple design of the Foursquare met with quick favor, appearing in every small town across the country and becoming an American classic.

The Pros and Cons of Split Level Homes



Part of a modern design movement, Split Levels were intended to separate living activities within a home by removing them to different planes. Sleeping quarters are separate and raised from dining and communing areas, which are themselves separate from other levels, which might include vehicle storage. Many of these homes assumed characteristics of the Craftsman movement, with widely overhanging eaves and ribbons of windows at different living levels.

Bungalow - House Style



By definition only a one-story house, these low, yet broad dwellings typically have large porches with substantial overhanging eaves and a roof dormer set in a gable, hip, or jerkinhead (clipped gable) roof. Bungalow variations may include an additional half or full story with tapered columns, particularly associated with the signature Craftsman style.

Ranch - House Styles


Suburban Ranch

These homes are characteristically one story with a low, pitched gable or hipped roof with limited detailing. Their low-to-the-ground, horizontal appearance was a reference to homes of the Southwest; but their nascence stems from the crushing demand for affordable housing at the close of World War II. Young families settled into newly developed “suburbs,” their modest-yet-efficient homes designed with either double-hung sash or the newly engineered metal casement, awning, or slide windows. Picture windows were a popular central feature of the 1950s Suburban Ranch, as was the integral garage.

Raised Ranch

A stylistic variation of the Suburban Ranch, the elevation of the upper floor over a raised foundation gave the advantage of full-size windows and additional finished living space in the lower level. This adaptation saw its greatest popularity during the 1970s.