Why Every House Should Be Designed for Multigenerational Living

Old flexible house plans can go through all kinds of changes, like these have. That's my house is in the middle. (Photo: Fred Kasper)

In many cultures, multi-generational households are pretty standard; your parents took care of you, and now you take care of them. In China, almost every apartment sold has three bedrooms: one for the parents, one for the kid, and one for grandma.

But in the United States, Canada and many European countries, the natural progression has been to get a job or get married and move out to set up your own household. And from the end of World War II to the low point around 1980, that was pretty much what happened.

Pew on living with mom
Pew says more of us are living with mom. (Photo: Pew)

However as of late, particularly since the Great Recession, the number of multigenerational households has increased dramatically. According to Pew Research in a recently updated study, the numbers are way up — 20 percent of the population, 64 million Americans.

One reason is growing ethnic and racial diversity; this is a common path among Asian and Hispanic populations. Another is that good, well-paying jobs are hard to find. That’s probably why education makes such a difference, according to Pew. "Young adults without a college degree now are more likely to live with parents than to be married or cohabiting in their own homes, but those with a college degree are more likely to be living with a spouse or partner in their own homes."

But the real problem is money. Housing takes too much of it, and young people have too little of it. So they not only survive because of the bank of mom and dad, but often live under the same roof. Mom and dad also have a problem; they have space but they're aging fast.

Over on Builder, an industry trade magazine, John McManus reads the Pew study and how one in five Americans live in a multigenerational household. He has also studied the issue and found that the overwhelming consideration was financial.

The most important reason primary homeowners say they seek multigenerational features and functionality in their homes is for financial assistance, meaning having more than one generation living under one roof makes a difference in the attainability of the home. A fairly close second ranked reason (42%) is physical health, which ties to the first insight, given that aging parents frequently have current or future health issues to deal with. We're guessing that the underlying financial factors that motivate families to want to stay in near proximity to one another are only strengthening as challenges surface around automation, robotics, data, and the future of work.
money is the driver
It's mainly because of the money. (Photo: Builder Magazine)

So it's a growing trend; boomers are only going to get older, and young people are only going to face more challenges. But then McManus asks his builder audience:

"Is one of every five new homes you plan, design, develop, and build capable of accommodating a multigenerational household?"

That’s the wrong question. The right one is: "Is every home you build capable of accommodating a multigenerational household?"

The traditional Victorian plan with the stair along a side wall was always a snap to subdivide; you could do it with a single wall. When we converted our house to multigenerational, it was a matter of closing up a door opening to make it work. (Other required fixes made it not so cheap and simple, but that's another story).

House designed for adaptability
Single? Duplex? Triplex? Yes. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Where I live, Portuguese and Italian immigrants built an absolutely standard plan in the '50s and '60s that could work as a single family, duplex or triplex house. There are thousands of them all over the city. Now, 50 years later, they are almost all multifamily, often intergenerational.

When I was little, my dad — broke after business reverses — moved us back from Chicago where I was born to Toronto, into my grandmother’s house, which a few years later they duplexed very nicely. Grandma took care of us, and later, my mom took care of her.

When I wanted to sell our house, which desperately needed fixes that I couldn’t afford, my wife and I decided to duplex it and rent the upstairs to our daughter and her friends; now she lives there with her husband. They got a great place at a reasonable rent; we are taking care of them, and it's likely at some point, they will be taking care of us.

It doesn’t work for everyone all the time; my grandmother was a very tough woman and my mother was often miserable living under the same roof. In winter, our privacy diminishes when my daughter brings her dogs through our apartment to get to the backyard.

But everyone should have this option. Developers and architects should plan homes so they can be easily divided as a matter of course. If houses have basements, they should have the ground floor raised enough so there can be decent windows for basement apartments. Even apartments can be designed to be flexible and adaptable, so that it's easy to rent out rooms.

It’s not rocket science; it’s just good planning.