Nita’s retro ranch “mini martini” house exterior design dilemma

mini martini ranch before and after

In this week’s Retro Design Dilemma, reader Nita tells us that she must add exterior insulation to her 1952 flat-roof ranch house in Alaska — and she wants ideas from us for siding. What to suggest? And as usual this week, Pam and I hosted a Live Google Hangout to reveal ideas for Nita’s room. Continue on for Nita’s story and our ideas –>

mid-century-modest-house-alaskaNita writes:

First, a little about me. My name is Nita, and I live in Alaska. My house was built in 1952 and is concrete block construction. It has survived temperatures as low as -70 and as high as 100, and even a big flood. While our average temperatures aren’t quite that extreme we do regularly see temps ranging from 45 below to 85 above. For me, this means that when I renovate parts of my house it has to be efficient and functional as well as beautiful and vintage-inspired, which is why I need some help.

Second, some history:
In 2010, I went on a mission to find a house. The recession was finally starting to hit us up here in Alaska and the local housing market was getting peppered with foreclosures and inexpensive properties. Being the frugal person that I am, I went about trying to find the perfect house while getting the most bang for my buck. In August 2010, my search ended when I stumbled across a foreclosed 1952 fixer-upper in the middle of the perfect residential neighborhood.

retro-ranch-exterior-alaskaSure, the front yard was tiny and the last owners appear to have half-bleeped every repair they attempted, but it felt like home. I knew it was right for me as soon as I stepped inside for the first time. Original hardwood floors, brick fireplace with quirky concrete base, plaster walls, arched (swoon) doorway into the hall, cedar lined closets….. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the gist.

Since buying it I have put in countless hours repairing and restoring it. The basement has transformed from the scene of a bad slasher movie to a usable living room with an attached guest bed and bath. I have repainted every single wall in the house. I’ve repiped the entire Hydronic heating system. Currently, I’m working on stripping and refinishing my Homart steel cabinets and planning on renovating the main floor bathroom.

cinder-block-ranch-exteriorThe biggest change I’ve made (aside from the basement) has been the windows. With temperatures in interior Alaska reaching lows of -50 and highs of 90, the original single paned, wood frame windows couldn’t stay. As you’ll see in the pictures I’ve had them replaced with new, high efficiency windows with interior grilles that mimic the look of the originals. I cannot tell you how much these have saved me in heating costs so far this winter.

On to my plea for help…
Anyway, my next big project is going to be the exterior, which is what I’m writing you guys about today. You see, I just can’t seem to decide on a suitable option when it comes to siding. I want something that gives the look and feel of being midcentury while also being functional at extreme temperatures. So I’m asking for advice and suggestions from everyone in the Retro Renovation community.

Here are the things I want the siding to accent:
-The flat roof. I have the only flat roof house on the block and I want something that will complement that shape.
-The brick porch. I love my brick porch and have plans to build a second tier of brick planters that will hide the concrete block portion of the porch.
-The brick accents below the windows.
-The red walkway. The original owners stained the concrete walkway to match the red bricks and I love it.

I’ve included pictures taken today (at -35 degrees) and a picture from when I first bought it in the fall of 2010. Now, some people may be wondering about the visible insulation around that front window… The concrete block construction, while being extremely sturdy and virtually impenetrable, isn’t a very good insulator. Before I put up siding I will be firring out all of the exterior walls in order to add 2” of rigid insulation.

Finally, thank you so much for even taking the time to go over this. I’m at a loss as to how to proceed and appreciate any help you guys and the readers can suggest.


exterior mid century ranchReaders, what do you suggest for new siding for this house, after Nita adds more insulation?

When Nita wrote and asked for our help to choose a siding for her house, Pam and I reminded her that we are not experts in insulation or exterior siding/materials in any climate — especially in one so diverse as Alaska. As always, we suggest that Nita check with properly licensed professionals to determine which siding will work best with the insulation that she is adding in her climate.

exterior mid century ranch

When it came to the “exterior decorating” portion of Nita’s questions, Pam and I felt more able to help. To begin the transformation of Nita’s exterior, Pam recommended that Nita continue the brick knee wall from the porch planter all the way along the front of the house. This interesting detail will help make the house feel grounded and continue the horizontal line from the flat roof along the base of the house. It looks as though Nita’s brick may be roman brick, which may be hard to match since it is out of production to my knowledge. In that case, she may want to replace all the brick with a similarly colored standard brick.

exterior mid century ranchPam suggested that Nita use stucco for the rest of the house’s siding — of course she’ll need to check with a professional to make sure this is a viable option first. I would then paint the stucco a deep olive green (such as Sherwin Williams Houseplant), which will work well with the brick and provide color in the snowy winter months in Alaska. To warm up the white trim, Nita could paint the rooflines, window frames, door frame and carport supports a warm cream (such as Sherwin Williams Morning Sun). Then to add some pizazz to the entry, a new door from Crestview Doors — the Delwood — would reinforce the mid century style. Painting the door a deep red (such as Sherwin Williams Red Tomato) will help the entry door be the showcase of the front of the house.

exterior mid century ranchDepending on what hardiness zone Nita lives in, she may be able to plant several of these Red Twig Dogwood shrubs from Fast Growing Trees — that are leafy and green in the summer and in winter, the stems turn a bright red — which contrasts nicely with the snow, compliments the house color and coordinates with the red door. Having a few shrubs near the corners of Nita’s house will also help anchor the house, provide winter color and hide the utility box that is on the front corner of the house near the carport.

exterior mid century ranchSince Nita lives in a snowy climate, she may want to look into adding a railing to her front steps. Of course she would need to check local building codes to see if railings are recommended and what specifications they would have to meet. If Nita does decide to add a railing, we suggest a black iron railing that would be placed on the right side of the stairs — so as not to obstruct access to the planter under the front window.

exterior of retro ranch house with board and batten sidingWe also discussed board and batten siding — as an alternative to stucco — which would add vertical lines to contrast the horizontals of the roofline and brick knee wall. Either the board and batten siding or the stucco would look lovely on Nita’s mid century “mini martini” house.

Want to watch our complete Google hangout — we know it’s long but we really discuss the topic in full:

Come back soon — and we’ll have an edited version.

Hopefully we’ve given you a few good ideas Nita — best of luck with your exterior remodel — please let us know how it turns out.


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  1. Anya says

    Just wanted to make sure you are aware of this awesome program in AK:

    It is paying for a new door as well as extra insulation for my home in Alaska. I am not sure if it would cover a wood door (it tends to only cover the most energy efficient options) but it does cover insulation.

    Also, you are in Alaska, so don’t rule out vinyl siding. I think it often gets a bad rap, but there are some great brands out there that look like real wood and have many styles and colors. Our house is on the coast and our cedar shingle look-a-like siding holds up perfectly in cold temps, extreme rain, and 100 mph winds.

    As another homeowner in AK with a project house, good luck and may your projects only cost twice as much as they do in the lower 48, not 3 or 4 times the amount!

    • says

      It’s nice to know that there’s another Alaskan out there in the retro renovation community with a project house. lol Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one up here.

    • Donna says

      I have a 50’s flat roof in the Central Coast California town of Ventura. Of course, no insulation and wood windows. I love the windows, but they are so drafty, and being close to the beach beefs up the heating bill. My house is stucco, but someone applied wood siding on the front, but I am thinking of replacing with siding. Anya, can you give a few names of siding companies? Anyone have any thoughts on applying beadboard in the bathroom? It does have a beachy feel.

      • pam kueber says

        Get combination storms and screens for the windows — that would likely be a good step to help with the draftiness.

      • Jay-Are Garcia says

        So do I. To bad my house was built in 1978. Fixing it up slowly to my desired period of time on the inside. Soon to be replacing the cheap snap together laminate wood floor in the kitchen and the carpeted adjoining dining area with some VCT and maybe redoing the fireplace with roman brick. Love this site. Glad I could help.

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