Designing for Multigenerational Households: Here’s What You Need to Know

When designer Lisa M. Cini started her business 22 years ago, she asked her mom to move in and help her look after her daughter, who had health issues at the time. Soon enough, dad moved in too, followed by grandma and grandpa. For years, four generations lived under the same roof. Cini went on to grow her firm, Mosaic Design Studio, and author three books on senior and multigenerational living, including Hive: The Simple Guide to Multigenerational Living, where she recounts her experience.

Multigenerational households were on the rise even before COVID-19, but as remote work became the norm, college campuses closed, and the pandemic brought cities to a standstill, younger people moved back in with their families en masse, reviving a tradition as old as time. (As of last July, 52% of young adults lived with one or both of their parents, according to an analysis done by the Pew Research Center.) As families determine how to coexist in the same space on a long-term basis, designers have to navigate the unique set of challenges that ensue around privacy, congregation, and mobility limitations of older residents.

One of the biggest concerns in sharing a house with other generations is how to strike a balance between private and shared spaces. “Multigenerational living has been done, and still is done in many parts of the world, but it’s very different in America,” says Cini. “Part of that is because of the voracious independence the younger people crave.” For her, a successful, mixed-age household is built on spatial boundaries—what are the common areas and what rooms are out of bounds?—and social boundaries.

The key to successful multigenerational living lies in designing for that independence while fostering congregation. When Mary Maydan, principal and founder of Maydan Architects, moved to Palo Alto in 2004, she started planning her own house for her and her parents. “Back then no one was thinking of a guest house,” says Maydan, who first opted for a detached unit, then eventually moved and designed another house with an attached guest house. “Even when it’s attached, the trick is to have an exterior door so [those residents] can feel more independent,” she says.

A San Francisco project by Maydan Architects.

A San Francisco project by Maydan Architects.

Photo: John Sutton

When planning a multigenerational home, many things can’t be an afterthought. Maydan suggests planning ahead and opting for different HVAC systems to accommodate different age groups’ preferences. Very wide openings will help with mobility issues that may emerge later on. And elevator shafts should be planned from the start and used for storage, in case the need for an elevator arises.

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