HEALTHY HOME DESIGN: A Multigenerational Home Could Be Your Best Retirement Plan

Updated: Jun 11


The trend of families living in multigenerational homes is not new but is increasing and evolving. The idea of a multigenerational home has obvious financial benefits, but older couples planning their legacy home are typically downsizing from an empty nest to reduce their household burden. A modest legacy house seems incompatible with a multigenerational home, but I will explain how multigenerational living can be designed to foster a happy and productive home life without needing a mansion.


A multigenerational house offers many advantages but the household must be designed appropriately to overcome the inherent challenges of two or more families living in the same house. Living on your own may mean you rarely get to see your grandchildren or children. Perhaps you've been feeling unwell lately, and in your mid-80's you're worried about not having someone who'd be able to get you to medical care if needed. On the other hand, if your children and possibly grandchildren live under the same roof, you spend your day in quiet retirement relaxation, the grandkids come by after school until suppertime, and you join your children for supper with their family before heading back to your quiet home within the house.

A mixed-generation family shares supper at an outdoor dinner table

Multigenerational Homes Are An Increasing Trend in Housing

Multigenerational households are nothing new, nor are they unusual, statistically speaking. Canada's 2016 Federal Census illustrated that multi-generational households were at that time the fastest-growing household category, and the number of homes that housed at least three generations under the same roof had increased by more than 37% in the previous 15 years. Multi-generation housing has returned to become one of the fastest growing trends among Canadians' homes, reaching a level not seen since the late 1940s but now shows up in a slightly different form than it took in the past. Instead of living in a dark, makeshift basement suite, the extended family lives in a more independent, fully functional space which may be a ground floor suite or a separate laneway house.

Eight per cent of seniors in British Columbia live in multigenerational households

There are a multitude of reasons for and a range of circumstances that result in making multigenerational living arrangements. The most common multi-generational household configuration - roughly 40% - is one where adult children are still living at home with their parents. In many cases - primarily the greater Vancouver and Toronto areas where the proportions of immigrants are higher - living with extended family is the cultural norm especially if the family is new to the country.


The next most common situation is adult children who are studying at post-secondary schooling or have returned after (aka 'boomerang kids').


However, a currently popular topic in the housing crisis is the adult children who move back home after working and living on their own for a while - often due to the high cost of housing in urban centres. Without affordable housing, moving back in with mom and dad is the only option left for many. Some older Milliennials may also be in significant debt and move back.


Baby boomers - generally now reaching their sixties and seventies - are facing dwindling earning power, deteriorating health, or both, a considerable number of them are moving in with their children. While older parents moving into their kids' home is generally the most common reason millennials live at home, living with extended family members has become increasingly popular for young adults too.


The multi-generational arrangements may also be more voluntary and part of your retirement plan, or maybe a couple's parents move in to help with raising grandchildren. You may also decide to move in with a sibling's family to pool resources or take advantage of the variety of benefits.


Key Benefits

Efficiency Advantage

Living in a multi-generational home is more financially efficient and time-efficient than living in a single-family home. The obvious financial benefits are split utility and insurance costs and one mortgage instead of two. This opens the possibility of living in a larger and/or more luxurious house. You're also eliminating daycare and babysitting costs for your children if you watch your grandchildren while their parents work. As you age, a multi-generational home can be an excellent alternative to an assisted living facility and save you the cost of residency.

These homes can also save time. You get back the time traveling to see your kids and grandkids and can make that quality time instead. Sharing chores can make housework - especially labour-intensive work - easier and more time efficient.

Safety

Multi-generational homes help keep your family safe and give peace of mind to everyone. Multigenerational living can be an ideal option for you in your older years if you want to remain independent and don't need 24/7 care. If your children need you, you're close by. Likewise, if a health emergency arises - for example if you fall and are injured - there will be other family members around to help.

More people living in the house reduces the likelihood of a burglary of an unoccupied home. For burglars who target vulnerable seniors, having your children living in the same house provides a deterrent or provides on-site assistance in the event of a break-in.

Family Bonding

Living together bolsters family ties. A multigenerational home provides a comfortable environment, and living under one roof can be an excellent way for families to stay connected and to help each other.

A young girl and her grandmother cook together in the kitchen

You will be able to spend more quality time with other family members without having to travel to see each other. Your grandchildren will make lifelong memories, and you will cherish the time you get to spend watching your grandchildren grow up. When grown children return home after living away from their families, the multi-generational living arrangement gives them an opportunity to rebuild their relationship as adults. When siblings, cousins, grandparents, uncles, and aunts live together in multigenerational households and spend time together on a regular basis through daily interactions, they are able to build stronger relationships.



Aging In Place

If you plan your legacy home to accommodate your children and potential grandchildren living with you again in the future, you won't need to move out of your home. You may choose to rent the extra suite in the meantime to cover the cost of the additional space.

Social Adaptations

With so many reasons for adopting multigenerational living, why isn't it more popular?

Cultural Stigma

Even in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia - home to large East Asian and South Asian communities - there is a stigma associated with living with one's parents. Multigenerational families are growing in number, but the home concept is generally still very Westernized. Multigenerational living isn't necessarily for everyone. Immigrant families in Canada tend to have a culture that is more steeped in the concept of multi-generational households since the extended family is a cultural norm. Western culture's nuclear family must establish a balance between its focus on independence and the value of close community.

Domestic Harmony

Communication

Many typical household social issues can be chalked up to minor conflicts. Other issues such as co-parenting, social boundaries, and personal space can be trickier to work out effectively than people think. Regardless of the living arrangement, the greatest chance a family has for being successful relies on everyone being open with one another to be able to talk frankly about anything that isn't working. Using clear, compassionate language to talk to your relatives helps you remember that they deserve respect as much as anyone else. Treat them and communicate with them as you would friends.

House Rules

First, establish how the entire arrangement will look beforehand. Determine roles, responsibilities, and authority for decision-making. Discuss how to respect complex family boundaries, and establish house rules and family responsibilities. Agree on expectations on housework and on noise levels. Depending on the strain or tension in the relationship, you may need a formal contract that outlines everyone's financial obligations.

Boundaries

Agree on boundaries before you or your children move in. Not having geographical separation, it's natural to feel as though you could just drop in and visit your relatives. Family though they may be, respect that you're visiting someone else's home and check first as you would with any friend or acquaintance.

A three-generation family shares supper in the dining room


Co-parenting

Where children are being raised some of the time by either grandparents or by adult siblings, different perspectives, opinions, and upbringing will highlight the need to establish a consistent direction.

"In an inter-generational household, where there are parents and grandparents (and sometimes even great-grandparents), raising kids can become complicated. That's why it's important for everyone in the house to understand their roles. The children need to know who the parents are and who is in charge of their behaviour and setting the rules. The grandparents need to understand that they are not parenting the grandkids; they are grandparenting their grandkids, and that is very different,” - Deena Chochinov, registered clinical counsellor in Vancouver.

Design Considerations and Technical Requirements

What does a multi-generational home look like? House plans for multi-generational living are increasingly available from local builders, but working with an architect will likely produce a result that fits your needs better.

Build - Renovate

If you decide that a multigenerational home will work for your family, you have essentially three options:

  1. Renovate your existing house. If you are very fond of your neighbourhood or have strong sentimental attachment to your existing house, look into the feasibility of renovation. The first and most important topic to investigate is the rules that your city has about creating additional suites, about creating an addition to the house if you plan to expand, and about a laneway house / accessory dwelling unit on your property if you want to go that route. Regulations have been changing in several cities in BC to accommodate additional households on the same property. The zoning bylaw in your city could permit the additional dwelling unit outright, allow it in some conditions, or still expressly prohibit it. If your city's bylaws allow one or more additional suites, the building code has rules about creating fire-rated walls and separating the ventilation and plumbing systems.

  2. Buy a house that is already designed to house two or more families. The configuration of the house might not be perfect, but you'll save months or maybe years compared to renovating or building from scratch. Check if the additional suites that are in the house are legal. A house might have two extra suites even though the city permits only one - or none at all. Even if the previous owner built the suites and sold you the house, the city can force you to remove them. Next, if the additional suites are permitted, ensure that they're constructed to meet building code requirements. You as the owner are responsible for correcting any deficiencies or illegal installation.

  3. Design and build a new house. Creating a new building is a serious task but affords you the option of total customization and optimization. As with renovation, you'll need to ensure that the zoning bylaw allows a secondary suite for the lot you buy. When you work with your architect, ensure that he/she understands what situation you're planning to accommodate in the future. Develop with your family a clear picture of the living arrangement as described above. The house's design can serve present and future needs intrinsically, and neither situation will feel like a compromise. If you're sharing the construction cost with your relatives, consult a family lawyer to ensure that the financial arrangements are clear and sound.

Aging in place

You're planning a replacement for your empty nest, but it needs to suit your needs in your later years as well.

Generally speaking, plan for adaptive re-use. Minor adjustments can be made in the future to convert spaces into a different uses. Plan to occupy in the future spaces as close as possible to the ground floor. This avoids the increasing risk in climbing stairs and the need for mechanical chair lifts (basically scaled-down elevators), which are expensive, require maintenance, and may feel undignified or awkward. If you want to plan for a lift, it's relatively simple to use a space for a future elevator as a closet until the need arises.

Wide, open-concept layouts that allow for ease of mobility are a must. Bathrooms, bedroom, and hallways must be big enough to allow for the passage and manoeuvring of walkers and wheelchairs. Bathrooms should also be built to accommodate grab bars. A large shower with no curb will also let you roll in if you need a wheelchair in the future, and a bench should be part of the original design.

In addition to the extra spaces and clearance for yourself, you may consider whether or not a future caregiver might need an extra bedroom or bathroom.

Multiple Suites

The two major layout aspects to consider in a multigeneration house are privacy and autonomy.

A multigenerational house is really a multifamily house, and it needs to be thought of as a building containing multiple suites for multiple family units - even if it's only two families. I have considerable experience in multifamily buildings and in seniors' semi-independent residential facilities. In these buildings, numerous families have their own homes but share a common environment. I incorporate the technical requirements of a multifamily building into the smaller package of a house.


One form of multi-generational housing gaining popularity is the custom-built ground-level home within a home. It begins with separate entrances that provide freedom to come and go. In addition to a separate entrance, the extra suite is self-contained but still under the same roof. Each suite should be essentially independent - functionally - and create an independent environment.


Optimized for You

If your family is interested in a multigenerational home, and you want to explore the option of a house optimized for you but also designed to provide a safe and comfortable home for your whole family, please use the button below to discuss your options with me.