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. Olga says

    Adorable home! After reading all through the posts now i want to see a blog to follow the progress. Its like finding a good book and i need to know what happens! So link here when you get that up and going! My experience has only been with redoing a Victorian home in VA. But i love the Frank L Wright – ness of your home and the small horizontal bricks are divine. I think vertical lines would expand the look of it and add to the whole line-gorgeousness of your home. Whatever you do i am sure you will have thought it out!

  2. Suzy says

    My mid-mod house in the PNW was “panabode” construction, basically cedar planks placed vertically, with a steel ribbon holding them together. We added insulation to the outside by installing 4×8 sheeted foam insulation (looks like particle board plywood, and has a 1/2 layer of foam inside) covered by Hardie siding in full sheets, which looks like smooth stucco, but won’t crack as easily in an earthquake. We trimmed it with aluminum. Hard to imagine, I know. But a beautiful nod to mid-mod with a 21st century edge.

  3. MbS says

    Nita, I encourage you to think about color! I grew up in Montana, and during the grey days, well, color is so cheerful and hopeful against the white of snow and charcoal greige of dirty snow days. Lots of options and you have great lines for color contrast, based on the existing red….happy for you. :)

  4. Libbyontheprairie says

    Can we see pictures of the inside of your house! I’m particularly interested in the Sears Homart cabinets! Thanks!

  5. Todd A says

    If you re-side this home make sure to box in that electrical pipe and panel, just have a round opening so the electric meter can be read, Hinge the area around the panel so repairs can be done. This was taken out in the “new” picture but is a major distraction that is curable.

    This home screams for mid century wood decorative panels on the carport sides, and to the right of the front door to give added depth and grounding to the large roof overhang. A design like the one on the bottom right side of this page would be era correct :

  6. Stacia says

    Hardie board is a wonderful product. If you get it in one of their standard colors, and there are many to choose from, you don’t have to paint it and it is guaranteed for like 25 years.

  7. tammyCA says

    Nita’s house is older than the state!
    I guess I never thought about older houses in Alaska before…maybe, I thought everyone lived in a cabin…the flat roof did surprise me, too.
    I can’t contribute anything about siding…I live in a ’54 wood structure/stucco exterior with some brick & vertical wood siding house in desert climate…our AC bill is terrible in summer. Almost all the houses here are made of the same (brick buildings are deadly in earthquake country).
    I do like the mood board with the vertical batten board & color to the house. And, definitely adding some bushes/plants would brighten it up.
    Looking forward to seeing what Nita does & maybe some interior photos, too.

  8. oh Holland says

    The board-and-batten treatment looks like a great solution. Unless the house is level in every direction, horizontal siding or planks might not lay parallel with the prominent roofline, in which case the effect would be wonky. And I agree with others that stucco seems out of place for Alaska, and doesn’t jive well with mini-martini-ness.

    Darling home. Please send more photos of your remodel, inside and out.

  9. says

    Kate! Can you paint the satellite dish red, too? I’d like to see that in red.

    I would also like to see what it looks like with the green and cream colors reversed.

  10. JKM says

    This is a really cute house. I amazed anyone would build a house in Alaska with a flat roof (snow!) but I like the way the heights are staggered between the main portion and carport and really like the extended portion over the front porch. I may be a little late to the game but I think siding of some type would look better than stucco. It would be more interesting and provide texture. I’ve seen houses that have both vertical and horizontal siding (one pattern under the porch and another on the main portion), which could be interesting and would set the porch portion off from the rest of the face since it’s all flat. Something that bugs me a little (just a tiny bit) is the small window floating all by itself. I’m wondering if something could be done to anchor it somehow – perhaps a siding treatment under and above it so it ends up being in a vertical “stripe”? For example, if horizontal siding was used on the main part of the house, then vertical could be used over and under the window with vertical also on the porch. Thinking outloud here! I think landscaping is probably the most logical and easiest way to screen the electric meter, too. Also, I LOVE the green/cream color scheme and tomato red door!

  11. Joe Felice says

    I was surprised to see a flat-roofed house in an area that gets so much snow. And the front overhang is even unsupported. I would solve that problem and add some interest by adding a front porch, the same size as the overhang, with supporting beams at the front corners angling back towards the house at the bottom. (This was a popular design element back then,) I like the idea of the stone knee wall, so I would wrap the bottom of the porch with that and continue it on along the entire front of the house. Is there any way that satellite dish can be relocated? Also, the meter needs to be moved around the corner, so it is not visible from the front. Rather than the red-twig dogwoods, I would plant some low-growing (spreading) evergreens along the foundation. (Evergreens were all the rage back then.) My ideas for colors would be buttercup yellow for the body, and a light aqua for the trim and roof edge. The front door would be turquoise. I know these colors are a bit bold, but I am a “color” person, and I don’t tend to like most greens.

    • says

      It’s hard to see from the angle, but there is actually a porch there the same size of the overhang. And the edges of the porch where the brick is actually have built-in planters all the way around the edges.

      The satellite dish will be coming down all together, as I down even use it. It just came with the house.

      As for the meter, I spoke with the electric company and got the guidelines for how I’m allowed to cover it up so it is still serviceable without mucking up the look of the house. I’m thinking about basically building in some sort of decorative column or box around it. That way if they need to service it, they can, but it’s covered for the most part. (most of the meters up here have been replaced with new wireless meters. All they have to do is drive by to get the reading)

  12. 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.

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