Multi-generational living is a growing trend in the UK - increasing as a proportion of housing since the millennium and particularly since 2010 from 1.3m to 1.8m households between 2009-14 alone.
Much has been written about the subject: in academic papers (https://www.cchpr.landecon.cam.ac.uk), industry reports (NHBC), newspaper articles (Daily Mail, Guardian, The Telegraph, ) and even estate agent websites/ magazines.
There is not much we can add to the research or statistics but it is interesting to reflect upon our own experiences as a small practice in responding to our client’s needs to accommodate several generations within a single household as well thinking about how the need could be met on a larger scale.
The increase in multi-generational households has been driven by a number of factors including:
cost of properties encouraging/ forcing young adults to stay longer with their parents as unable to buy or rent their own place
cost of childcare encouraging/ meaning parents are keen to take advantage of grandparents living with them to help with care for younger children
Different generations pooling resources to buy a larger/ better property than they might otherwise afford on their own
Having elderly relatives stay in the house so they can be cared for rather than moving them to a nursing home or other care facility. An ageing society with higher levels of dementia and conditions requiring full-time care is a factor. Austerity and a reduction of state care provision may well also be a factor here.
Choosing to live together because of the positive benefits of daily interaction and co-habitation. This can sometimes be part of a cultural tradition for many families from ethnic minority backgrounds.
We’ve experienced all of these motivations from clients and it is very often a combination of factors rather than one alone that is driving the decision to live together. We have also found it quite common to be asked to consider potential future scenarios for multi-generational living. In this instance clients are anticipating future situations where children have become adults and are returning or staying in the family home and sometimes preparing for their own parents to need to come and live with them so they can be cared for.
Thus, we have often had to consider quite complex and bespoke briefs which have to take account of current and future scenarios of the family living/ caring/ interacting together within the same dwelling
The industry reports mentioned above often focus on how developers can respond to this growing need for multi-generational homes. They include typical plans like this:
and brochure images like this:
Much of the UK research focuses on potential industry and housebuilder-led solutions. This means a focus on generic solutions for off-the-shelf properties and they reference the US market (where multi-generational living is much more common and Market-led in terms of solutions) and Singapore (where it is also popular but more state-led in terms of provision). By their nature (at least for now) these solutions tend towards a one-size-fits-all approach lacking in flexibility and individuality.
Emerging technologies that give the option for mass customisation of new housing developments provide a potential solution in the future for giving families the flexibility in terms of layout for their own specific needs but this technology is still untested and a long way from entering the mainstream market.
What is interesting is that the dynamics and complexities of multi-generational living mean that off-the-shelf solutions are often unsatisfactory for households and would inevitably lead to unhappiness and friction between family members over use of space etc.
Some of the reports include interviews with members multi-generational households and in many of these, co-habitors discuss how the existing home either supports the co-habitation in a positive way or creates friction and tension.
This is certainly our own experience when dealing with families who are already living together or planning to live together. Each will have incredibly unique requirements and expectations for how they will share the space. There will be different dynamics within the family and each group will consider the amount of separation/ shared spaces very differently. Added to this is the complexity of planning for future changes in circumstance/ mobility/ care requirements.
Multi-generational households vary significantly in terms of their expectations and unique requirements. The particularly sensitive dynamics of the family interactions can make deficiencies in layout and design even more pronounced than in more conventional households. It could be argued therefore that off-plan solutions are even more unsuitable for multi-generational homes than they are in general. Even if we take the example provided above - the separate annexe for an elderly relative or young adult is in the loft on the 2nd floor. Clearly this would be a problem if the elderly relative had any mobility problems. Our own experience with designing for grown-up children would also suggest that having to travel through the whole of the rest of the house to get to their own space would severely limit feelings of independence and autonomy.
The NHBC and CCHPR reports focus on market solutions. However, in Europe (and Germany in particular), the co-housing movement is providing an interesting route for multi-generational households to obtain bespoke designs that suit their individual requirements in a more thoughtful way. In this model, groups of households come together to procure a place for all of them to live. Purchase or lease of the land is often assisted by the state and the group will be matched with or find their own architect to help them with the design.
This approach empowers households with unusual or unique requirements to collectively procure homes that meet their needs. The result is that groups with very specific requirements - such as the need to care for disabled adult children - or particular cultural traditions around living together can work with the architects to design a home that is suited to how they want to live and their specific needs.
The co-housing model generally requires quite significant input and support from the state to procure the land ahead of the private sector and to assist with putting together the construction team on behalf of what is likely to be a client group inexperienced with procuring and delivering a large and complex building. This kind of state assistance appears unlikely to happen in the UK in the near future (although some examples do exist - it is still very small in number). Thus many multi-generational households will end up looking to adapt existing properties and this is where we have often come in.
Case studies -
The clients were a family of South Asian heritage with grandmother already living in the house in a converted loft space and two children on the cusp of starting at senior school. The brief was to create a new family space (preferably at the rear overlooking the garden) that allowed the whole family to inhabit a single space in the evenings and weekends. We also had to ensure that an independent space could be created at ground level for the grandmother once mobility was reduced such that accessing the loft was no longer possible. The brief meant considering both current and future scenarios to ensure the layout could meet the requirements of both successfully without either feeling compromised by current or future adaptability.
The solution was a new garden at the rear of the house rotated in plan to connect the new kitchen and a flexible space that would be informal living/ homework space initially but that could be converted in the future to a bedroom with access to a wetroom. The rotated garden room was conceived as a kind of internal courtyard that would be shared in the future by both the grandmother and the other family members. The solution ensured the family would continue to have use of a combined kitchen/ dining after the conversion to bedroom and also that the grandmother would have her own view of and access to the garden. Elsewhere, we were asked to consider the future where both children were older wanting private spaces of equal size so the upstairs layout was adjusted to ensure two equal sized bedrooms and separate bathrooms for the parents and children.
The briefing process was key here as there were several voices to consider as well as future requirements that could not really be expressed at the time and had to therefore be imagined or predicted (such as the demand for private space for two teenage girls).
The result was a very unusual and successful plan that resolved two different multi-generational family structures as well as fixing some of the issues the family had with the existing house.
Case studies - B House.
The clients here was an older couple with grown up children - one of whom needed to move back into the family home with his partner.
The challenge here was that the son was not able to take part in the briefing process therefore we had to project what we perceived might be his and his partners needs. In this circumstance, it is sometimes necessary to draw on personal experience and our team reflected that we’d appreciate a level of independence and separation if moving back into our parent’s house.
The house was an end-of-terrace 1960s townhouse that allowed us to create an almost entirely separate annexe at ground floor with only a single door to the shared entrance hall and independent access via the garden. By bringing the rear extension away from the shared boundary, we could keep access from the ‘main/family’ part of the house so the annexe could remain largely separate.
Case studies - D House.
The brief for this mid-terrace Victorian house was to create an almost entirely separate flat for the grown-up daughter with her mother living downstairs. The clients did not want to formally split the flat but did want a feeling of separation to give both a sense of independence. The key challenge was how to deal with the intermediate spaces between each ‘unit’. We also wanted to give each dwelling its own identity and spirit whilst retaining a material and spatial coherence for the entire house so that it did not feel like two completely independent homes.
The reflection upon our own experience is that the range and diversity of multi-generational homes is almost limitless. Each case will have its own unique set of relationships, differences in perception of privacy and desire for independence - attitudes to shared space or facilities. There will often be consideration required for future scenarios and changing requirements over time. This is before even discussing attitudes towards materials, style, architectural expression which will also vary within a single household.
Given this complexity, our reflection is that it makes the briefing/ consultation process even more critical in determining a successful strategy moving forward. The multiple voices - some of which are harder (or impossible) to hear must all be considered and addressed at the briefing and concept phase if any proposal is to be successful.
An expanded/ enhanced consultation process is something we already undertake with all of our clients and is a key part of our practice’s process. We use discussion, feedback and games to extract a detailed sense of client expectation and ambition at the start of the process. This exercise becomes even more critical with a multi-generational household where the requirements and relationships are even more complex and subject to change.
The process also gives a voice to members of the household who might otherwise struggle to be heard - allowing them to have an input into the eventual outcome and therefore feeling more invested/ satisfied with their situation.
The reality of multi-generational living is that it can often be something that is a necessity rather than a choice - especially for some members of the household. our experience is that the consultation process and discussions that emerge from it helps to create a consensus around the decision to live together. It can bring a sense of positivity and adventure to the new arrangement through the act of discussing and making collective decisions about how the new spaces should be imagined and created.