An increase in urbanization over the past few decades has led to a housing and development crisis nation-wide: as cities grow, rents skyrocket, and people are priced out of their apartments. One option for affordable housing? Move in with your family—or have your family move in with you.
Say, for example, you are a young family putting down roots and buying a house. Will your adult kids live with you in 20 years? How about your aging parents in 30? If a shortage of affordable housing leads to multigenerational living by necessity, the way we build and retrofit houses will have to change as well.
That’s the idea behind the Charles House, a large, flexibly designed family home located in a wealthy suburb of Melbourne, Australia. The Melbourne-based firm Austin Maynard Architects built the house for clients who wanted a place they could live comfortably for upwards of 25 years, accommodating their young children as they enter adulthood and, eventually, their aging parents. “We welcome a more complex understanding of what family means and recognize modern urban isolation, longer work days, child care difficulties, increases in retirement costs and the inaccessibility to quality affordable housing—for not only our young, but increasingly the elderly,” a press release on the project states..
Notably, the Charles House is not what many of us would consider affordable housing. At a sprawling 3,700 square feet, the house resides in a neighborhood of Melbourne McMansions and upmarket townhouses. But the fact that it is designed to adapt and grow in response to shifting family structures does offer a compelling housing model at a time when multigenerational living may become a necessity for many. According to a Census Bureau report, there were 24.1 million “shared households” (19% of all households) in 2016, which it defines as a household with at least one additional adult. Seven million young adults ages 25 to 34 (16%) lived with their parents last year.
The house is built with rooms that can be closed off for privacy, or extend into common living areas. There’s a “student den” that also doubles as a granny apartment when the time comes. Upstairs, bedrooms and common spaces can be opened up or isolated, depending on need. The house is visibly divided into parts, but it all connects together, offering flexibility as kids grow up or as grandparents move in.
Multi-generational living can particularly benefit the elderly, for whom cities not only become unaffordable but also untenable. Studies show that living independently and at home can increase health and well-being for older people. It’s also economical on a societal level: If fewer people move to assisted living facilities, it also means fewer people will have to go on Medicaid to afford the move. The warehouse model of moving our elderly into nursing homes is not going to be sustainable for baby boomers, and nice care facilities aren’t affordable to most.
When I spoke to Susan Wright, a principal architect at New York-based firm Gruzen Samton and a member of the New York American Institute of Architects about what an increase in aging population means for cities, she emphasized that care facilities were by and large for the one percenters. “They’re for people who can afford to move into a beautiful elderly community with resources and expensive one-bedroom apartments,” she said. “Aging in place means a solution for people of all income levels and that makes it a better city as well.”
The Charles house offers a look at what multi-generational living might look like in an affluent suburb. Other architects, like the New York City-based firm HWKN, are exploring adapting luxury apartment complexes to accommodate all ages. Even if multiple generations are not a part of one family, spaces designed for older people generally create a more diverse, socially engaging community for all ages. Spaces that are calibrated for different stages in life can be beneficial for younger people as well as the elderly; for example, a multigenerational building could offer a built-in support system, with an in-resident care facility for kids manned by aging adults.
These are just a few examples that experiment with the ways design can support large families and multiple generations in one space—and for now, many of these examples are only accessible to people with means. Poor and working class families have long experienced multigenerational living in cities, often in cramped apartment buildings that are not designed for housing that many people. Designing for multigenerational homes gives architects a model and a framework for what works and what doesn’t, hopefully inspiring its adaptation on a larger and more meaningful scale in the future.