How Builders Are Catering To Multigenerational Households by [email protected]

f you want proof that the economy isn’t quite back to the “normal” we knew before the Great Recession, all you have to do is look at the number of young adults moving back home with their parents. At the other end of the spectrum — and perhaps on a more positive note — with people living longer, we’re also seeing a growing number of elderly parents moving in with their grown kids.

Both of those trends are powering a rising demand for builders to supply houses that meet the modern needs of that old-fashioned household style – several generations under one roof. To talk about what all of this means for builders, home buyers and family dynamics, the [email protected] show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 recently welcomed guests James Timberlake, a partner in the architecture firm of KieranTimberlake and an associate faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, and Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and senior fellow at the Counsel on Contemporary Families in Austin, Texas.

You can listen to the interview using the player above. An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

[email protected]: Give us a little bit of background about this shift toward multigenerational households, which are really starting to pop up.

James Timberlake: Well, this phenomenon has been around for a long time. It waxes and wanes with the economy in some ways, and it’s certainly more of a regional phenomenon that we’re seeing. But the fact of the matter is that with the combination of the economy and the aging population, and with millennials and others who go off to school, but are then taking their time to move ahead in their professional lives — families disperse and then they come back together. Particularly with aging parents, greater and greater choices are being made about, do our aging parents live alone? Do they get assisted care or do they come to the house and live with the family? Which is better for them and better for the family and the kids and everybody else. So space needs to be made for that.

[email protected]: And now, homebuilders are recognizing this change, which has been more common in certain communities — the Asian and Latino communities, for example — for quite some time. But now they’re trying to build properties, both in suburbs and in cities, that are specifically suited to these types of families.

Timberlake: Correct. I think we see it in the African-American community, as well, and I think this phenomenon has quietly happened in the suburbs for almost three decades with larger and larger houses. An extra bedroom was not a big deal when there was already a family room and a very large kitchen, and lots of room for the kids to be out and about, and for friends to be over, and for guests.

“Even if everybody is living on the same property, having a place of refuge or privacy as things heat up — as they inevitably do in family life — is actually a really good idea.” –Joshua Coleman

In urban situations, where space is more precious, decisions have to be made about the value of the lot, and what you can build, and how many units you can build in that particular area, and whether or not there’s a market for that kind of multigenerational experience. I think what you’re seeing is that developers see this niche, and it’s a niche that more and more people desire — particularly those who want to live in cities. We saw it in Chinatown 20 years ago here in Philadelphia.

[email protected]: In terms of the structure of the family, this is an interesting dynamic that’s been gaining ground for a while, and seemingly is now being boosted — as James alluded to — by the state of the economy as much as anything else.

Joshua Coleman: It is indeed being boosted by the economy. Over the past 10 years or more, it’s become more the norm that a young adult will leave home and come back. But the other thing that’s boosting this trend, which is of interest to me as a psychologist and somebody who specializes in parent/adult child relationships, is that parents and adult children are closer than they used to be.

So part of what’s fueling this transition is that it works for both parties. Because of the ways that parents have become more invested in child well-being, and their own communication, and developing the children’s communication, and being more sensitive, psychological, emotional — all of those things, for the most part, have resulted in both parents and adult children feeling closer than they have in prior generations. So that becomes its own engine that speeds this along.

[email protected]: Another thing we’re seeing with these multigenerational families is that the family wants to come together, but the elder member of that family still wants to have a level of freedom, of disconnection at times from the family. So some of these houses are being built with one entrance for the majority of the family, and another for the parent.

Coleman: That’s right and I actually think that’s a good idea. I think even if everybody is living on the same property, having a place of refuge or privacy as things heat up — as they inevitably do in family life — is actually a really good idea.

Timberlake: Post-Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward, the nonprofit rebuilding group Make it Right, proposed exactly that model — a separate entrance at the front for the whole family, a separate entrance on the side or the back for the elderly family members. There was a conjoining way of not having to go outside to come back in, so that you could have the family get together. But certainly, gaining that level of separation but also the ability to bring everyone together under one roof certainly is a design challenge.

[email protected]: What are the design challenges? Because when you’re talking about that type of dynamic within a family, realistically, you probably want to have the parent, the grandparent, on the first floor of the house. And if you are going to have that separation, aren’t you basically building a wall from the back end of the house to the front, or side to side to basically separate the bottom floor of the house?

Timberlake: Well, in tight, urban lots, there’s going to be a choice about how you make those separations, and whether or not there’s a passage door to be able to make the connection.

Where there’s landscape, where there’s more space, or even on an urban lot where you could create a conjoined arrangement, you could build an L-shaped arrangement, or an H arrangement around a courtyard — that style goes back thousands of years. It goes back to Italian and Greek homes, where those kinds of conjoined families all lived together. So there are lots of different spatial arrangements that can solve that problem.

[email protected]: Do you see it as a trend that will continue, even with the millennial generation coming up and the baby boomers starting to head into retirement now?

Coleman: I suspect that it will. Right now, we’ve got one out

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