Whether you want to vacation with three or four generations of your family, take care of your elderly parents or nurture a relationship among members of your extended family, you may want to consider having a home designed specifically for multiple generations to live together.
One of the essential elements to a successful melding of generations in one home, ironically, is creating space for everyone to be occasionally apart.
For Diane and Roger Feeley, retired grandparents, this meant hiring Michael Winn, founder of Winn Design + Build in Falls Church, Virginia, to design a separate house connected to their daughter and son-in-law’s home outside Washington, D.C. The motivation for the couple, both in their mid-60s, is to live close to their two grandsons, who are 2 and 4.
“I didn’t know any of my grandparents and I wanted my grandchildren to have the experience that I didn’t have,” she said.
Like many families, the Feeleys prize togetherness with their grandchildren but also appreciate their privacy. Their three-level house includes a porch that overlooks the swimming pool, a loft level home office and a 1,300-square-foot woodworking shop in the basement for Mr. Feeley.
“I watch the boys during the week, but most evenings and weekends we hardly see each other,” Mrs. Feeley said.
The Feeleys living situation is not so unique. Approximately 20% of Americans live in a household with three or more generations, according to the Pew Research Center.
Embracing Multiple Generations Takes Architectural Creativity
Just as each family is different, so are their design preferences.
“When we meet with buyers, they often fall in love with the site and tell us how many bedrooms they need, but we dig deeper to get to know them and understand their family dynamics,” said Ricardo Santa Cruz, chief business development officer for Mandarina, a resort with private residences north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. “For example, for a family with college students who want to bring their friends to visit, we can design the house so that the entertainment space is far from the grandparents’ and parents’ suites. But families with young children often want the kids’ rooms close to their parents but farther from the grandparents.”
One buyer built an eight-bedroom house with first-floor bedrooms for grandparents and two swimming pools— an infinity-edge pool for adults and a waist-deep pool for the children that was placed at the back of the house, Mr. Santa Cruz said.
“Some families want to entertain with everyone cooking and talking in the open kitchen, but others prefer a more closed-off kitchen for staff to cook while the family and friends gather in another space,” he said.
Other residences at Mandarina, where homes are marketed to international buyers, prices range from US$4.95 million to US$10 million, have been designed with a separate bungalow for grandparents or a suite with an elevator for accessibility.
“In every case, we build outdoor space around the house and work around the trees and topography of the land,” Mr. Santa Cruz said. “We create small destination points with private terraces facing the ocean, the jungle or the trees where people can walk a short distance from the house to escape into their own nook.”
Sometimes, a multigenerational home is designed for caretaking rather than relaxation. In the Chicago area, Fred Wilson, a founding partner with Morgante-Wilson Architects in Evanston, Illinois, designed a US$1.5 million renovation on a home that had been in one family for generations.
“We created a suite for the owner’s mother on the first floor that includes a big open bedroom and living area with French doors to a private terrace,” Mr. Wilson said. “She can walk down the hall to be with the rest of the family in the kitchen and family room whenever she wants.”
Meanwhile, several multigenerational homes have been built on Crane Island, a custom home community adjacent to Amelia Island in Florida. One recently retired couple built a US$1.5 million property to accommodate three children and their partners as well as extended visits from the wife’s parents from Poland, said John Hillman, vice president of sales and marketing at Crane Island.
“That house includes double-front porches and a screened porch in the back so there’s plenty of space to be outside in separate areas if they want privacy,” he said.
The family also built an apartment with a separate staircase above the garage with a living room, a kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom so that the visiting parents have complete privacy when they want it, he said.
Another property on Crane Island, a US$3 million custom home, includes a garage apartment connected by an air-conditioned breezeway to the main house designed for the owner’s father, who is in his 90s. A third multigenerational property on the island has two wings to the house with a common entrance, so that the daughter and her family are on one side of the house and her father lives on the opposite side, Mr. Hillman said.
As for the Feeleys, they planned to build a separate house on their daughter’s property but were prevented by zoning issues, Mr. Winn said.
“The breezeway that connects the houses was built so they could be considered attached, but it’s practical, too, so the families can go back and forth under protection in inclement weather,” Mr. Winn said. “Otherwise, it’s a completely autonomous structure with almost 1,000 square feet on the main level that includes their living and dining area, kitchen, laundry, bedroom and bathroom.”
Designing for the Future
While most families who build or remodel a home to accommodate multiple generations plan to live in it for many years, that doesn’t mean many homeowners want visible aging-in-place features. Adding a first-floor bedroom and reducing the need to climb stairs are among the many elements that can make it easier for elderly people to stay in their home rather than move to senior housing.
“It’s important to design spaces, especially the bathroom, that avoid that nursing home look, even if you need to include a bathtub with a door and a no-threshold shower,” Mr. Wilson said.
The Feeleys’ home has aging-in-place features such as lever door handles, wide doorways, a front-loading washer-and-dryer and a walk-in shower with slip-resistant flooring and a seat, Mr. Winn said.
“We designed the space around a spiral staircase to the upper and lower levels so an elevator can easily be added in the future if they want one,” Mr. Winn said. A basic residential elevator costs about US$35,000 to install if the space is already configured for one, he said.
Since the Feeleys’ daughter’s home is an 1860s farmhouse, Mr. Winn was careful to design the new home to complement the historic home and to work as a pool house or future guest house if the family ever sells the property.
“If you design a multigenerational house appropriately and not as if it’s an afterthought, the additional space is an asset for resale value,” Mr. Wilson said. “The space can be repurposed for guests, for an au pair, for an office or just another hangout space in your home.”
Legal, Financial and Psychological Preparation
Every adult member of the multigenerational household should be part of deep discussions well before an architect is hired, Mr. Winn said, to clarify who will finance and own the property and who will make the design decisions. The Feeleys spent about US$600,000 to US$700,000 to build their house on their daughter’s land.
“We had numerous conversations with our attorney and financial planner about how to address every financial and legal issue with building on our daughter’s property,” Mr. Feeley said. “The gift tax would have been crazy if we gave them the money to build the house. Instead, we’re the mortgage holders and our daughter and son-in-law have an interest-free loan with us that we forgive each year since they’re going to inherit our money one day anyway. We also have paperwork in place that’s essentially an escape clause that dials down any potential apprehension about the future.”
The agreement spells out what will happen if the Feeleys or their daughter want to move and sell.
“My biggest recommendation is to do a trial run before you move in together,” Mrs. Feeley said. “We visited a few times for four-to-six weeks to see if we were going to get on each other’s nerves.”
In addition, the Feeleys and their daughter planned upfront how they would split costs such as property taxes and utility bills, which Mrs. Feeley said is important for family harmony.
Designing From the Ground Up
Creating a comprehensive checklist of why you’re buying or remodeling a home and including a list of all the habits and ways each family member will use the space makes it easier for an architect to develop a design that meets your priorities, said Mr. Santa Cruz. A custom architect should be willing to come up with creative solutions for your property that works now and in the future.
“You’re only as happy as the least happy member of your family when you’re living or vacationing together,” said Mr. Santa Cruz. “You want to design the home so that every generation’s needs are met. You want the kids to be able to play even while grandpa is taking a nap and mom is working.”
*Originally posted on Mansion Global