Redesigning the American home for extended families
All images courtesy the contributors
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about 5.1 million multigenerational households in the United States. This is not a new phenomenon. But that number is likely to grow significantly in the future, due to a shrinking middle class, more young people living at home longer, retiring Baby Boomers who want to age in place, and longer life expectancies. The multigenerational home is clearly a housing type in serious need of rethinking, so we approached four design firms and asked them to create their vision for the twenty-first-century multigenerational home. —Martin C. Pedersen
Towards a New Pro Forma
Welcome to the Jumble
A Movable Feast
The Civilizing Space
Towards a New Pro Forma
Making the case for a new urban prototype where multigenerational living is the natural buy-in.
Rising toward Grange Avenue, the stepped section reaches the maximum height permitted by city zoning. This rising form reinforces the existing urban fabric on the corner of Grange and Huron Avenues, while the resulting double-height section of the uppermost bedroom suite is topped by an operable skylight that promotes strong, natural ventilation from the lower levels via a linear, double-run stair. Windows on the ground floor can be opened to allow fresh air to flow up the staircase and out the uppermost skylight—tying in all the spaces across three levels.
A corner lot in Toronto’s gritty Chinatown neighborhood is the site for a multiunit, multigenerational house: the Grange Triple Double. Stacking a series of rental units—along with a grandparents’ suite and living spaces for a young family—on a double-wide lot allows us to explore one of our recurring themes: Incremental Urbanism.
This project begins with the blending of two households. A professional couple with a young son sells its small, one-bedroom condominium; the grandparents sell their suburban home as a way to downsize after becoming empty nesters. Together, the two families create a new living arrangement that allows for autonomy, while still taking advantage of the benefits of proximity: The grandparents can look after their grandson, yet embrace the security of being looked after as they age. The professional couple, in exchange, is presented an opportunity for a ground-up home in the city, which might otherwise be unaffordable.
The Domestic Pro Forma
To live multigenerationally strongly suggests an early “buy-in” and a commitment to forecast the cost and commensurate usage of the home over time. The Grange Triple Double is a prototype for three- or even four-generational living, easily reconfigurable to allow for the home’s evolving living arrangements, including rental options. Across even one projected lifetime, the house becomes a legitimate tool that balances changing spatial requirements with projected costs.
The ground-floor and basement rental units, typical for this neighborhood given its location near the university, allow the newly extended family to optimize its living space with a careful but fluid nod to the future. The rental units provide the growing family necessary cash flow in the early years, while paving the way for an array of different spatial options in the later years. The current configuration of units is one of many possible arrangements. Openings between main spaces can be easily changed and detailed with minimal construction. Future scenarios could see the child growing up and moving into the basement rental unit, the parents taking the ground-floor apartment while their child is in university, and the freed-up unit rented to others—with the original family perhaps coming together again in the future, as the couple ages and its child, in turn, has his own family.
Left: Good neighbor
Resisting the typical fragmentation of multiunit dwellings, the massing of the house pulls all four units into a single gesture that holds the urban corner.
Center: To each their own
The extended family shares an at-grade private courtyard, which allows the cooking and living spaces to spill out into the garden while the grandparents and young couple each have private and protected terraces.
Right: Even Split
With naturally separate entrance points, the site—once housing a dilapidated duplex—now provides an array of unit configurations. A corner lot, then, presents the perfect location.
The cross section of the building culminates with a large, almost out-of-scale, window on the top floor—a product of the democratic brick facade distributing the same amount of natural light and views to each component unit. Windows on the ground floor can be opened to allow fresh air to flow up the staircase and out the uppermost skylight.
Williamson Chong is an architectural firm based in Toronto. The principals are Donald Chong, Betsy Williamson, and Shane Williamson.
Welcome to the Jumble
A Boston apartment house is organized around a mix of uses—where one generation’s strengths serve another’s needs.
The building is programmed to take into account the multiple needs and abilities of the residents, across several generations.
The make-up of our society is evolving. An aging population is not only living longer but also working longer, and electing to preserve its independence later into life as well. This signals the need for a change in how to treat the different segments of our population. Indeed, the concept of segmentation is probably no longer appropriate. We should instead think of people existing along multiple spectrums—of ages, cognitive abilities, work capacities, requirements for care, even free time.
Our cities, however, are becoming increasingly segmented along socioeconomic, generational, and cognitive lines. This dynamic shift in metropolitan centers—some cities are experiencing a rapid repopulation of both commercial and residential activities, while others are facing near total depopulation—demands a more surgical approach to intervening in urban contexts (which tend to be complicated and highly regulated). It’s in this jumbled difference and noise that an incredible amount of urban real estate finds itself underutilized, passed over, or left for dead.
We see these demographic and metropolitan shifts as an exciting design opportunity—a critical challenge we must engage for the health of our cities and their citizens. Our expertise in human interactions has pointed toward numerous insights about the skills, abilities, and needs of our shifting population and how we might create a more inclusive multigenerational model of living—one that not only makes all members of the community feel empowered through participation, but also fosters deep empathy between people and potentially reduces energy consumption as well. We imagine a future where, in order for anyone to thrive, we all must contribute and work together.
Such a systems-based approach could be applied to a variety of urban and suburban conditions. Presented here is a vision for how this could be deployed in downtown Boston. In the adjacent image, we break down a new urban typology for adaptive reuse through the interactions and relationships it engenders. Communal kitchens, locally hopped bars, and garden-to-table restaurants in the sky facilitate a way of living that socializes wellness and tastes great, too. Elsewhere, there are opportunities for residents to help watch out for one another in multigenerational daycare: teens and grandparents, literal or otherwise, can look after the kids (and other seniors). Parents save money on caring for their dependents and all residents maintain a stake in each other’s well-being. Additionally, we can tap into the intellectual capital of this diverse community by introducing teaching and learning spaces such as shops, painting studios, classrooms, and greenhouses. By honing skills and transferring knowledge, people of all ages and abilities can make meaningful contributions, maintain a sense of purpose, and foster a deeper sense of connection and community.
Continuum is a global innovation and design consultancy. The project team here included Buck Sleeper, Lee Moreau, and Jason Lee from the Newton, Massachusetts, office.
A Movable Feast
A recipe for a flexible eating environment that fosters both interaction and privacy.
The scheme uses a movable partition to divide the dining and kitchen areas, giving both families the choice to eat separately or together.
What are the biggest problems with the multigenerational home? There are privacy issues: A baby cries while Grandfather is trying to sleep. There are resource issues: Dad is making eggs but Grandmother wants to pan-fry salmon. There are space issues: Daughter is having a birthday party and the entire extended family is invited.
The majority of these problems stem from the inevitable loss of privacy that comes with sharing resources and space. These arrangements, however, are the most financially and spatially efficient method of dealing with the numerous family members inhabiting a single space. So the question becomes: How do we provide a flexible living environment for multiple generations that offers economical use of resources while still providing inhabitants the choice of interaction, privacy, and everything in between?
As we are a design firm with extensive experience in restaurant design, the choice to tackle the multigenerational eating space was a simple one. Our design process here is like a residential interior; both require us to consider various seating types, workflow, and shared space. Our point of departure was to study the elements of the home and, from there, determine what should be kept private and what could be shared—at what point does sharing become invasive and how do we ease that tension while maintaining communal space and resources?
We begin by assuming two living spaces, separate but adjacent, each with all the resources required of independent living. By replacing the party wall with a double-sided, programmable partition, we give the two spaces access to the same resources while providing them a buffer. In this case, we program the wall with what we consider the most shared and shareable resource: the kitchen.
Our final consideration involves flexibility. How do you provide both interaction and separation, when needed? For this, we create a movable partition that acts to completely separate the two spaces but also divide both the dining table and the kitchen island. This wall, separating the two spaces while bisecting elements that are common to both, acts to create a simultaneous link between the two homes. Should one side need a large table, it’s taken from the other side. Should the two parties decide they would like to dine together, they have the option to move the partition entirely.
With each element of the eating environment being operationally double-sided, each opening of a pantry, oven, or refrigerator reinforces the idea that elements and resources of the two homes are shared. Additionally, the partition offers the ability to curate a collection of shared artifacts between the generations’ lives. Whether for books, photo albums, or artwork, the partition becomes a physical space for shared memories.
Crème, a collaborative design studio based in Brooklyn, New York, was founded by Jun Aizaki. The project team includes Aizaki, Cristophe Richard, Valeria Mirachi, Mauro Solmi, and Keisuke Nibe.
The Civilizing Space
The rituals performed around the kitchen table form the very foundation of family culture.
In an era when there is a plethora of social interaction but meaningful relations are often sporadic, virtual, or displaced, the multigenerational kitchen offers a foun-dation for physical, social, and historical connection. Cultural exchange happens here.
The stage is set with a kitchen adjacent to the dining table. Natural light is abundant. Rooms are furnished by the middle generation with plenty of space for keeping important objects. The older generation brings those important things that carry stories, traditions, and culture.
The table is large enough for everyone to gather at, but casual enough to be used for children’s homework. A handful of people can comfortably have breakfast or a late-night snack. During a holiday, the table is set with family linen, candlesticks, and crystal. Extended family members gather in the multigenerational home.
This heavy cast-aluminum soup pot belonged to my mother. My grandmother used it to make Swedish rye bread and yeast rolls. She put the dough in it, placed it aside, and waited for the bread to rise. My parents used it as the “glogg pot” (glogg is Swedish mulled wine). Fifteen years ago, when we took over Christmas, the pot came to our house. I have used it for bread dough and for glogg. This winter, during the subzero days, we filled it with water and put it on the wood stove to add humidity to the air.—Sioux Finney
This typical Dutch kitchen towel is one that my grandmother always used. My mom, my brother, and I all use the same ones. Using it reminds me of doing the dishes in my grandmother’s house on summer vacations in Holland. One person would always be the dryer and talk to the person doing the washing. My grandmother was a very economical woman and had a special technique to wash all dinner dishes using just two basins of water.—Lisa Yoneno
Casola de Fang
We use this traditional ceramic pot to cook suquet, a Catalan fish stew. The recipes require time, so we associate this pot with special occasions. My father and uncle are known as good suquet makers and I inherited the skill for future generations (maybe because of the lack of young males in the family). It’s very important to keep the same pot as long as possible because, somehow, the more one uses it the better the suquet tastes. There is no exact recipe for the stew—it’s based on what’s available at the fish market, which is part of the ritual of making it.—Cristina Noguer
Every day, the table is the nexus of activity, a place where coffee is sipped, news is read from digital tablets and paper, music videos are shared, and software is taught to the elders. It is a place of daily encounter, with old and new things converging.
The dining table is an incubator. It is where manners are cultivated and people connect. It is where children learn to socialize, where stories are shared, where histories are told. It is where values are transferred and understanding evolves. Family traditions are practiced as new ones are born.
This pot belonged to my great-grandmother. She spent almost every day of her life in the kitchen. When family came to visit, the coffee pot filled their cups. Everyone would sit at her kitchen table talking for hours, while she listened quietly in the background. When, at age 65, my grandmother moved out of their shared house and into a small apartment in Manhattan, she took her mothers coffee pot with her. She treasured it, even though she didn't drink coffee. I took it to our house when she was gone. Now people sit around our table when I make coffee in this pot.—Jonsara Ruth
Memories and associations are created here. The scent of fish stew is inhaled to become a future memory. The preparation of bourbon-soaked sugar cubes for the special Christmas drink occurs center stage, once a year. The ritual of setting a table is taught, and repeated. Stories of water conservation are discussed while doing the dishes. The comforts of steeped tea or brewed coffee or cold milk are enjoyed. In the multigenerational kitchen, objects brought from one generation provide for the next. Children learn from these things: the coffeepot, the dish, the heirloom linen dishcloth. They are the things of life—of culture—and each one comes with a story.
This is my mother’s. It’s the one she got when she married my father. When my mom’s family came to Canada, there was nothing to scola la pasta (strain the pasta). The holes were too small here. My grandfather had to make one for my grandmother. By the time my mother got married, scolapastas could be found in the Italian grocers, imported from Italy. This is the one she bought when she was 25. It’s the one we grew up using and she never bought another one. She used it until her Alzheimer’s kicked in and I have it now. When we had to clear her house, I brought it to mine.
—Lorella Di Cintio
These plates belonged to my grandmother. We used them for dessert at Thanks- giving when everyone went “home” to her house for our annual reunion. Since I was small, she let me set the table with her, following her strict guidance. I was always excited to take this stack off the high shelf, remove the felt pad from between each plate, and place them on the table. Every year, the family ate her special ice cream cake with meringue from these plates.—Sara Frank
Jonsara Ruth is a designer, artist, and founding director of the MFA Interior Design program at Parsons The New School for Design.