Your Bi-Level House


In the late 1970’s, when middle class homeowners couldn’t afford the big colonial because of the 1970’s sky-high mortgage interest rates and soaring energy prices, developers found that the bi-level, which could be made to look like a colonial, and offered as much square footage as a split level at lower cost, could capitalize on the popularity of the Colonial style home with its image of solidity and heritage in New England.

Somewhere between a ranch and a split level in design, the bi-level looks like its basement is being squeezed out of the ground.  The front door is usually halfway between the two floors with two short flights of stairs – one up, one down just inside the door.

Boxy by nature, the bi-level benefits from careful landscaping and use of color to bring out the windows and entry door.  The front steps are often poured concrete with wrought iron ironwork railings.

Many of these homes were built in developments on ¼ to ½ acre lots, big enough to be comfortable, but close enough to neighbors to create a sense of community.  You could walk down your street to find someone who owned the tool you needed to borrow. Kids could run or bike to play with friends.  People stopped by for barbeque.

From a heating and cooling point of view, a well-built and properly insulated bi-level had only a few unique issues.  The biggest source of wasted heat and air conditioning was the overhang between the first and second story.  Often this detail was not well sealed against infiltration of outdoor air. The air circulated in the joist cavities between the floor, making the downstairs ceiling and upstairs floor cold, robbing heat from the house. Fortunately this is a very fixable problem.

Another issue is the ceiling of the “tucked under” garage, which very often was not well insulated and which therefore made the room above (usually a child’s bedroom) cold in winter and too warm in summer.  Again, a fixable problem using the “drill and fill” technique to pump cellulose insulation to fill the joist cavity. This will block air flow and add insulating value, dramatically improving the comfort of the room above.