Monday, October 13, 2014

Multigenerational Housing in an Expensive Locale Part 2 - Solutions

This post appears courtesy of Brandon Baunach, an architect with 17 years of experience.

In my previous post, I shared the challenges of finding affordable multigenerational (multigen) housing when my wife and I decided to buy a house with my mother. (You can read about it here.)

Over the next several posts, I’ll explore solutions for multigen housing in dense urban environments – like New York and San Francisco – concerning unit and project design, project finance, and project planning issues. 

I’ll start by exploring broad design considerations – a family’s privacy, willingness to share and responsibility – that help guide successful projects when building multigen housing.


Apartments in dense urban settings are generally smaller than those in suburban communities. Because of this, creating higher levels of privacy both inside and outside of a unit become challenging.

Here are some questions to understand about the end user: what level of privacy is preferred? What level is acceptable? and What level is unacceptable?

For instance, through local market research, one may find that users of different generations feel comfortable around their family in public areas such as a living room, but require absolute isolation and separation in their use of a bathroom or a kitchen. Other groups may like to share kitchens and not living rooms.

Privacy between a multigen household and other households should also be understood.

Do families prefer to know their neighbors? At what degree do they interact? What level of interaction is acceptable to the different generations?

End users, for example, may find that, although they have deep integration within their own family, they may want to stay private outside of the household.

These issues would certainly inform how public space is designed, if the property is a cooperative or a condominium, how units get individual private spaces or only public spaces or both, and how certain domestic activities are encouraged to be more public such as shared laundry or cooking facilities.

Willingness to Share

Willingness to share is related to, but distinctly different from, privacy. On the surface, a member of a household may not want to share a bathroom. Is this because they are deeply embarrassed to potentially be seen in a compromising position? Or is it because they see their space as the space they, and no one else, owns?

What’s interesting is, once a household member feels like they have a significant sense of ownership, they may be willing to share more than they originally thought. In effect, what a designer might have originally suspected as a need for privacy was actually a need for ownership.

A concrete design example may be a kitchen.

Let’s say a grandparent has to have their own kitchen that is separate from their child’s family’s kitchen.

Why? Is it that the grandparent wants to keep food separate? They don’t like certain smells? They don’t like to be crowded when they cook? Or they cook at odd hours?

What designers may find when digging deeper is that one kitchen will work for two adult generations if an additional refrigerator is added or that the kitchen has a bit more counter space to allow for separation.


Understanding the baseline of family responsibility will be critical in designing a harmonious multigenerational household.

Ultimately, for legal reasons, responsibility of mortgages, rents, and bills, and a household’s relationships with their neighbors has to be settled with one or all parties within a household.

Because of this, multigen developments should create further contractual obligations that provide a clear path for financial and social responsibilities.

In terms of design of a household unit, it’s best to assume that people would prefer to be responsible for as little as possible and will begrudgingly accept responsibility with resentment in return. 

Although this is quite cynical, this allows multigen housing designers the opportunity to provide interesting amenity options that would benefit a household of multiple adult generations.

For instance, imagine a cleaning service that provides periodic cleaning only in shared spaces such as kitchens and laundries. So bedrooms, baths, and living spaces are to the user's discretion, but common spaces always remain clean. Because of the scale and specificity of spaces cleaned, the cost could be quite reasonable.

As you can see, there are many variations and considerations for how you might design a multigenerational household. In my next post, I’ll continue with solutions for multigen housing in dense urban environments, exploring factors like life stages, race and culture, and economic status. 

The design aspects I discussed mostly help with the social stability of a multigenerational household. 

And although economic necessity can dictate the choice of adult generations living together, it does not necessarily have to dictate their sense of individuality and purpose given thoughtful design.

Brandon Baunach is an architect at BAR Architects in San Francisco, CA. He lives in Berkeley, CA, with his wife, mother, and two sons.

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