Multigenerational households, which combine generations of a single family under a single roof, are increasingly common in today’s economy.
By Bruce H. Wolk
The Pew Research Center released a study in October 2011 confirming a trend architects have noted for years: Generations are combining households. The study, aptly titled “Fighting Poverty in a Bad Economy, Americans Move in with Relatives,” showed this country had its largest leap in multigenerational homes in decades. Between 2007 and 2009, these homes grew by nearly 5 million, going from 46.5 million to 51.4 million in only two years.
Nationwide, the economy has been a strong factor accounting for the multigenerational home. However, that doesn’t fully explain the multigenerational trend in Boulder County, where the economic recovery has been stronger than in other parts of the country. Locally, some baby boomers are welcoming aging parents into their households rather than see them off to elder care facilities. It’s also common for young newlyweds and single college grads to return home until they can afford their own housing.
“Multigenerational architecture is a concept I began hearing as the first boomers hit 60,” says architect Anne Postle of Osmosis Art and Architecture in Niwot. “All of a sudden you had aging parents moving in with their kids, and kids moving back in with their parents.”
Sharon King of Boulder can attest to that. Her sons—Joe, a recent college graduate, and Nick, who attends the University of Colorado—both live at home with King and her husband Dan. “We have the space, and in this economy it just makes sense for the boys to live with us until they can get well-paying jobs and enough money to move into their own places,” she says.
In addition to housing their two sons, the Kings also adopted a 6-month-old puppy that’s “full of energy.” King’s boys urged her to get the dog, telling her, “There are two more adults at home now to help you take care of him!” she says.
Architect Tom Cattany of Melton Construction in Boulder doesn’t see the multigenerational housing trend slowing down any time soon. Indeed, he says, “it’s gaining momentum as the baby-boomer generation hits retirement age.” Many fit locals never think of themselves as growing old, yet as some take aging parents into their homes they concede the accommodations made for them may come into play for themselves in the not-too-distant future, he notes.
The most important accommodations in the multigenerational home can be summed up in a word: accessibility, says Mark Quéripel, AIA of MQ Architecture & Design in Boulder.
With that in mind, architects strive to eliminate stairs and place inclines at entrances, Quéripel says. As an alternative, a main floor walkout can enable a wheelchair-bound person to gain easy access.
Postle’s designs include wider doorways, especially for main-floor access, and if possible, a widening of the hallways. Wider hallways are especially desirable if a family member is wheelchair-bound. There must be room for maneuverability to avoid “dead-ends” in the hallways, she explains.
Cattany recalls a project where a young couple and their children wanted to move to Boulder to be close to the woman’s newly widowed father, but they couldn’t afford a home. The woman’s father lived alone, so he decided to modify his home to enable both generations to live side by side. Many multigenerational homes include two complete master bedroom suites, or a master suite on the upper level and a junior master on the main level, each with its own bath.
Cattany recently converted an existing residence into a multigenerational structure by popping the top on a ranch home to create four bedrooms for a young couple and their children. He then remodeled the main floor to create a bedroom for an elderly parent. Dual master suites often have dual laundry facilities, too.
Postle designed a home for parents who invited their single-mom daughter back home. She was strapped with huge child-care bills that threatened to ruin her career. The solution was to redesign the home’s interior to allow three generations to live together under one roof.
“There are lots of different reasons for designing multigenerational homes,” Postle says, “and many different cultures have embraced the multigen-erational approach for centuries.”
Architect Scott Rodwin of Rodwin Architecture in Boulder believes in the multigenerational approach. “I like the concept of being able to cre-ate community,” he says. “I’ve found that a valuable characteristic of a good neighborhood is to have people of all different ages living together. Multigenerational housing creates neighborhoods, and it also allows residents to age in place.”
Making Memories and Meals
In an age where many of us are overwhelmed by the demands of a digital world, the multigenerational home offers the opportunity to share real, not virtual, memories. And many are formed around shared meals. Considering that, Rodwin designed a project where four suites were built around a common kitchen so the generations in the family could enjoy each other’s company at mealtimes, but sill have privacy before and afterward.
To accommodate the elderly or wheelchair-bound, the kitchen must honor the desire of everyone in the household to contribute to mealtimes, Quéripel says. Thus, his designs allow for knee space at cooktops, sinks and prep counters, and ample clearance between counters for a wheelchair turnaround. “Depending on the handicap, lower counter heights really matter,” he says. Controls on cooktops, ovens and faucets should also be easily accessible and visible.
Cattany notes that cabinetry and drawers should be within easy reach, and several types of cabinet doors and kitchen drawers are wheelchair friendly. Quéripel favors drawers that automatically roll back into place.
Switches in the true multigenerational kitchen should also be within easy reach. “Motion switches can really help in certain cases,” Quéripel says.
In some of Rodwin’s multigenerational designs, he’s specified a second separate kitchenette with an expanded wet-bar area that can serve as an adjunct kitchen to the larger family kitchen. The kitchenette may be modified for elderly parents, or it can serve younger family members who simply wish to hang out with friends without disturbing the rest of the household.
Bathrooms have design concerns as well, including grab bars in the toilet and shower areas, and a hand-held spray attachment in the shower stall for elderly and wheelchair-bound residents. Certain showers are designed to accommodate wheelchairs and are fitted with pull-down benches. Sinks should be skirt-less so wheelchairs aren’t obstructed. Bathroom floors and shower areas should have nonslip surfaces and be fitted with handles, rather than knobs, for arthritis sufferers.
Hooks for towels and clothing are usually set at lower levels, and mirrors should be suitable for both seated and standing persons, accomplished through low-hanging, full-length or downward-tilted mirrors.
Rodwin has seen more home-office requests as aging parents move in with their children. “A lot of people never really retire,” he says. “Many aging parents, especially in Boulder County, are accomplished professionals. They want to have a purpose, and work is important to them. We’re seeing a lot more situations where people don’t want to stop doing what they like to do.”
Multigenerational households may seem odd to some, “but that’s the way it used to be,” Rodwin says. “I grew up in a family where my grandparents lived with us and it was pretty nice.”
King agrees: “It’s been wonderful to have the boys here. I feel pretty lucky, like I got some extra time with them.”