Friday, January 09, 2015

Multigenerational Housing in an Expensive Locale Part 3

Brandon Baunach is an architect 
with 17 years of experience in designing
multi-family projects.
This post appears courtesy of Brandon Baunach, an architect with 17 years of experience.

When I started posting here in August, 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.)

Since that post, I explored solutions for multigen housing in dense urban environments.

My second post explored some broad design considerations such as a family’s privacy, willingness to share and responsibility – all of which help guide successful projects when building multigen housing. (Read that post here.)

Now, I’m going to explore some other design considerations: Life Stages, Ethnicity and Economic Status.

Life Stages

Designing for the interaction between life stages is very important. 

The most common life stage interactions in multigen households are empty-nesters whose kids finish college and move home, young families who have young kids and share a household with a young grandparent or grandparents, and older families with older and possibly frailer parents.

If you know that a multigen housing development is for a specific demographic, then designing for a particular group can be much easier. 

For instance, a newly graduated adult child would most likely prefer as much separation as allowable which might mean better sound ratings in walls or separate bathrooms and kitchens. 

Older adults with elderly parents, however, might prefer less separation to keep tabs on each other or because an elderly generation household member needs help with domestic chores.

If a demographic isn’t clear in the design of a multigen project, then a baseline of options should be developed that incorporate a range of generational needs that go above standard apartment construction. 

Take, for example, accessibility of bathrooms. Code requirements in most dwelling units require that only one bathroom be accessible to persons with disabilities. 

In a multigen unit, the baseline should clearly make all the restrooms accessible to accommodate multiple parties that may not share restrooms in the same household.


Living in multigenerational households is common in almost every country in the world except the United States. 

Because it is less common here, and because there are so many varied cultures in the US, knowledge of multigenerational lifestyles is lacking. Thoughtful research by the designer will be required for a housing project that is expected to have a diverse multi-cultural population.

This research is best provided by a skilled ethnographer studying the design problem. Common techniques involve surveys on family dynamics. 

Advanced techniques involve videography to record how they actually use a multigenerational space. The results from ethnic lifestyle analysis can then be a framework or set of trends that will help designers better focus what is a successful space for a project.

Economic Status

Economic status does not necessarily change any particular desire to live in a specific way, but it may change the layout of a particular project to meet more difficult household budgets. 

There are many ways that a designer could approach this constraint. I will discuss two: Ways to design for a tight construction budget and ways to design for a household’s tight budget.

In terms of minimizing cost of construction for a project, serious consideration should be made to consolidate kitchens and dining to be shared by two adult generations.

Removing a kitchenette from every unit is a huge cost savings. If possible, having a central shared living space can also help drive down the gross area of a project. 

On a project-wide basis, having building-wide-shared laundry also dramatically reduces costs.

In terms of maximizing multigenerational household value, there are a number of innovative design solutions that can really help families excel.

Here are some ways families with lower income levels might benefit by living in a larger scale multigen building:

  • Reasonably priced and consistent childcare. In a multigenerational building, there is a great opportunity to design a grandparent childcare cooperative, which shares these services to make for a fairly low stress obligation.
  • Reasonably priced and consistent transportation. Families also occasionally need emergency transportation. That’s why car sharing integrated into a building’s cost could be an essential tool to stabilizing families’ income streams.
  • Access to a healthy lifestyle. In all of the larger scale affordable projects I’ve worked on, we’ve been able to include a gym in that project, which has always been adjacent to the laundry services. We’ve also been able to include community gardens in many projects, which give the older generations a strong sense of purpose and give the younger generations an area of pride that produces a consistent variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
With so many different variations for how you might design a multigenerational household, the simple combination of forces between generations is the real key to economic stability.

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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