How To Design For Multi-generational Living

  • August 14th, 2018
Modular Homes in Victoria - Yackandandah

What will your house look like in 10, 20 and 50 years? Who lives with you now? And who will live with you tomorrow, next year and next decade? The concept of the multi-generational house is nothing new – it has been the most common living arrangement for most of human history. But the flexibility of modern design and construction, and the technology now capable of being incorporated in homes, is dramatically changing what we can expect from the family home.

The quest for the ideal multifunctional space It wasn’t so long ago that the world was in the grip of a dramatic shift; the average number of inhabitants per household was shrinking, while houses continued to grow in size. But with an ageing population in the West, a focus on sustainability, and the recent financial instability, many have begun to reassess the merits of a society focussed so heavily on the ‘individual’.   Indeed, when it comes to raising children, caring for family members or blending families, multi-generational living offers many answers. It allows grandparents to care for their grandchildren, children to care for their parents and family relationships to become richer and deeper as more and more members are added. Seemingly, the modern yearning for a greater sense of connectedness and community can all begin at home.

In response, architects, designers and builders began to offer houses with more living areas and separate dwellings. But purchasing a bigger house, building an extra unit or even modifying a home, often did not create the harmonious and multi-functional space that suited each family. Instead, it seemed as if a number of half-measures had materialised with the nuances of larger family life often ignored.

A modular solution

With the rise of modular construction versus traditional homes, multi-generational housing began to be re-imagined with phased building programs, portability, seamless expansion and inexpensive reconfigurations becoming part of the conversation.  It has given families, architects and designers a host of new options when planning a house’s lifecycle – paving the way to radically change the way we view the built environment.

Planning a multi-generational home

Reflecting the saying ‘The more things change, the more things stay the same’, it seems to go without saying that to plan a multi-generational home properly you must first consult with your larger family on what they might like and need – and even this will change over time!

As children become teenagers and then adults, and active grandparents become less mobile and less independent with age, everything needs to be recalibrated and refitted for purpose.

With many voices and multiple needs – not to mention advances in methods and materials – one of the best ways to plan for multi-generational living is to engage an architect and brief them on the requirements of your family. Through the process of a thorough design brief, the architect will be able to understand your families’ needs, read between the lines when discussing sensitive matters, offer a multitude of suggestions and lead discussions to agreed outcomes.

As a third party, the architect or designer becomes a facilitator and explorer of ideas, and someone who can respond intimately and accurately to each need presented. Such a role is becoming all the more important when we begin to understand that multi-generational living is as much a process of psychological change as it is a physical one.

Design considerations for multi-generational living

Once the brief has been taken, an architect or designer can then develop a unified vision that seeks to address the needs of all family members while adding financial and personal value to the house. The key here being balance; allowing for unison and diversity, openness and privacy, flow and restriction.  In effect, every space must be given more thought, as more is required from every space in terms of function and efficiency. Here are six considerations to take into account when designing your family’s dream home and get the most out of it for generations:

1.     Flexibility

The most critical component of a multi-generational home is its ability to offer spaces that can be used for multiple functions, and spaces that allow multiple preferences within any one space.

When planning for multiple functions, the trick is not to design or customise an area to the point where it can’t be modified. A bedroom should be able to become a study, then a play-room, then a media room and respond to the families’ needs over time.  Forward planning of utilities such as plumbing and electrical wiring, even internal framing, is therefore crucial, and can potentially save costly renovations in the future.

Additionally, rooms need to be designed so family members can respect each other’s preferences and leave them unchanged. For instance, a large open kitchen, with ample preparation and storage space, allows family members to prepare and consume their meals at any time of day while not affecting other family members. Working together can also be helped in this way – so that while children might be having an early dinner, adults can be preparing another meal and grandparents could be making lunches for the next day.

2.     Diversity

With lots of people under the one roof, space is essential. However, simply resorting to an open plan design runs the risk of the family conforming to the house, rather than the house suiting the family. Semi-open-plan designs can be a great solution, providing a sense of space while allowing different activities, different experiences and different moods to be experienced.  Little things like changing ceiling heights, incorporating different floor and wall materials and altering designs cues such as lighting, can do wonders when giving spaces different expressions.

 3.     Privacy

While privacy is important in any household, the need for private spaces in a multi-generational household is paramount and usually starts with having common living spaces, but separate sleeping quarters. However, rather than a complete segregation of rooms and members, many families are now aiming to intersperse specific areas for tasks that require quiet time, amongst larger communal areas. To achieve this, spaces often rely on arrangements of task-specific furnishings, sliding partitions or even angles that shield the activities from broader sight. And while most of us think it will be the adults that require this sort of privacy, kids and teenagers often need to separate themselves from the family unit in order to develop a separate sense of self or a feeling of independence.

4.     Accessibility

We often began to think of mobility and accessibility within our homes as we age or see our parents age. But rather than an afterthought, a focus on universal design helps create a home that can be used by people of all ages, abilities and mobility levels, without the need for adaptation or specialised interventions. For many, this will include the removal of steps and split levels, the provision of wide corridors and open spaces as well as the use of sliding doors and non-slip surfaces. Bathrooms and toilets in particular must be cleverly thought through, to ensure comfort and safety, while still managing to be aesthetically pleasing.

5.     Technology

With the advent of smart homes, technology has further enabled multi-generational living that can monitor and adapt to the changing needs of inhabitants. Heating may be different in different parts of the house, benches can raise or lower depending on who is home, and screens can open or close to provide privacy or create a sense of shared space. Information technology, in particular, is evolving so rapidly that it won’t be long before many jobs can be completely done from home. The need for multiple family members having a dedicated work space is becoming more and more common, and the need for these spaces to be closed off from day to day living, becoming equally important.

6.     Sustainability

Although building to high-efficiency specifications can increase upfront costs, over the medium and long term, rewards can be considerable both in savings in energy expenses and overall property value if you decide to sell. Making smart choices on construction methods, materials, structure and positioning, as well as incorporating renewable technologies – such as solar panels and heat pumps – can not only lead to a home being more efficient, more comfortable and healthier to live in, but can also ‘future-proof’ your home.

To discuss how a modular solution can work for your multi-generational home, please feel free to contact us