By: Scott Martin, LEED AP, Associate

I love Sunday night dinners with my family; it’s a great opportunity to slow down and remember what’s important in life. But a year ago I found myself in a not-so-unique situation. After dinner one evening as my wife put our son to bed I drove across town to return my mother-in-law to her assisted living ”home.” We love that grandma is nearby to see her grandson grow up and be a part of our lives, however her need to give up driving and limited space in our home results in us having to taxi grandma back and forth to accomplish that goal. Deciding we had had enough, we made the decision to move in together, and set off looking for a “multi-generational house.”

After months of searching we became very discouraged at the lack of options available to suit our needs. My wife and I wanted to maintain our social life, and her mom values her privacy just as much as we do, so simply moving into a four- or five-bedroom house was not going to provide the independence we desired. Around the same time, we had clients coming to RRM asking for multi-generational housing plans as options in our housing projects. This combination of experiences led me to research the latest trends in multi-gen housing and see how those could be adapted for the Central Coast lifestyle we love so much.

According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 17% (or 51 million) of Americans are living under one roof with at least two adult generations. The same study points out that the decade between 2000 and 2010 brought almost a 20% increase in multi-generational households. A 2012 survey by Pulte Group (a national homebuilder) revealed that one in three adults with living parents expect to share their home with them. From experience, I can tell you that nowhere near 33% of the houses for sale on the Central Coast are designed with multiple generations in mind.

There are some very clear advantages to a multi-generational living arrangements such as pooling of economic resources which can result in larger homes, higher quality finishes, and improved location. Beyond economic advantages a multi-gen home offers opportunities to improve family stability and social interaction of old and young by means of child care and babysitting in homes where both parents work.

Developers, builders and architects have noticed the change in family dynamics and are now responding to this multi-generational shift. Twenty years ago there was a movement towards creating more flexibility in living space; dens and family rooms started to supplement living rooms, homes started to offer dual master suites (often one upstairs, one downstairs), and developers even started to offer nondescript space – the “flex room” that could be used as office, library, extra bedroom or whatever the evolving family needed. However, few of these addressed the multi-generational dynamic. The biggest movement forward was in the late ‘90s in states like California where “accessory dwelling units” became a potential answer to affordable housing and multi-generational living.

Fast forward to the 2000s and many large homebuilders are providing multi-generational plans to meet the needs of the 33% of Americans expecting to live with an older generation. In 2011, national builder Lennar introduced its first “Next Gen” house in Phoenix. Now Lennar offers more than 50 Next Gen floor plans in 120 communities across the nation. Most trends seem to provide the older generation with a completely functional living unit, including sleeping area, bathroom, living space and kitchenette. On average the accessory unit ranges from one-eighth to one-quarter of the overall square footage of the house. These units can be attached, detached, above, or carved out of the overall house.

Multi-generational living does not come without challenges – concerns over lack of personal time and space rise to the forefront, along with worries about family friction. Zoning and permitting can be a challenge from an architectural standpoint as many cities are still not sure how to handle two living units on a single site. The internal design of the home is equally important, making sure that the space can accommodate “aging in place.” Are doors wide enough for walkers and wheelchairs? Can the shower be equipped with grab bars? Are the light switches and door knobs easy to manipulate or do they require a high level of dexterity?

For my family, the answer was to buy a house that had enough space to build an addition that accommodated our needs, providing privacy for each of us, but connectivity when we wanted it. Framing is completed, and we are moving towards material selection and paint color — the entire family is getting very excited! As an architect I’ve emerged from this personal journey with creative solutions for countless families who are faced with a multi-generational future.