All-in-the-family homes (© Image Source)Click to enlarge picture

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Households made up of several generations are on the rise, and it's not just about grandma and grandpa needing more assistance in their sunset years. The numbers speak for themselves: In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 3.9 million American households consisting of three or more generations living together, a jump of about 60% over the bureau's 1990 findings.

In response, some homebuilders are offering multigenerational configurations among their design options.

Developer Jim Greenup, who is building two projects in Spokane, Wash., that will include multigenerational options, says he got his ideas from his own family's living arrangements. Thirty years ago, Greenup says, his widowed mother and his grandmother moved into attached units in a duplex.

When his grandmother died, his uncle moved into the apartment Greenup's grandma vacated.

"Both were care-giving situations for my mom," he says. "Twenty (percent) to 25% of families in America are caring for an aging relative, and duplexes aren't designed right for the concept of joined housing.


There are problems, because the bathrooms don't work right for aging in place and the stairways and other circulators do not function well.

"I am making bathrooms that are wheelchair-accessible, with showers with roll-in capability."

One of Greenup's housing options revives a traditional form of multigenerational living: accessory dwelling units, more informally known as mother-in-law apartments, built on the same lot as the main dwelling. He plans smaller, secondary residences attached to the back of the main house, each fronting different streets, with a courtyard between them.

Building code concerns
Some local building codes don't allow for accessory units in single-family-home neighborhoods on the grounds that they could be used as rentals. In Spokane, Greenup says, such developments can be approved by the municipality's planned-unit development process.

Other Greenup homes are to include two master bedrooms and two master bathrooms. Some are designed with primary and secondary suites on the same level; others will be on separate levels.
They will range in size from 2,500 to 3,500 square feet, Greenup says, and are priced from the mid-$200,000s to the upper $500,000s.

Quail Construction in Vancouver, Wash., has built 40 to 50 homes for extended and nontraditional families, says president Jon L. Girod. He says there's no standard template; each home is custom designed. Prices range from $400,000 to $600,000.

"We had an 82-year-old client buy a fairly large home with one level on top and one with full services in the basement below that included a complete kitchen and laundry room," Girod said. "His idea was he could have a live-in caretaker."

The arrangement also works well for families that prefer to take care of an aging parent at home rather than put them in a skilled-nursing facility, he says.

Some Quail clients have adult children with special needs, Girod says, "who will be with them for the long haul." Others have children going to college who may be living at home or coming back to stay from time to time.

"There are a lot of different dynamics. I had one situation where a couple of divorced nurses at a hospital wanted to live together," he says. "Each had three children. One worked days and the other worked nights. They figured child care would be easier if they teamed up and bought a house together."
Girod says he has also designed two-story homes with double master suites and homes with two kitchens.

"Privacy is a big issue," Girod says. "So is accessibility." He says he uses "universal design" products, built for maximum usability by people of all ages and abilities, to increase accessibility in multigenerational homes.

While there's definitely a growing market for multigenerational housing, he says, the concept only works on lots of at least 6,000 square feet — not easy to find, especially in urban areas.

Home in the dome
In the Arizona desert, five related families occupy a mammoth bubble-shaped compound called Yumadome. Built by the Monolithic Dome Institute of Italy, Texas, the three-story structure has eight separate but interconnected apartments, says David South, Monolithic's owner and president.

"They're all members of the same family, but different generations," he says. "They say it's been an extremely positive experience. They have a big, huge common living room for lots of interaction, and yet have private space, too."

While the Monolithic Dome, a heavily insulated structure made with steel-reinforced concrete, has been used for many single-family homes, South says Yumadome is the first multigenerational application, but he expects it will catch on. The compound dome idea is particularly good for caring for aging relatives, he says, "much better than a room over the garage."


South says the dome shape has several advantages over traditional home design. "In conventional construction, the closer to square you build, the less heat loss you have, but with a monolithic dome, heat loss is close to zero."

The cost to build a dome, South says, is "within pennies per square foot" of building a conventional dwelling.

Affordability a consideration
While the cost of a house custom designed for multigenerational living is the same as any home of equal square footage, its proponents point out that with several generations paying one mortgage, the financial burden may actually be less.

"Caring for aging parents is a huge issue, and a design that allows aging in place is a lot less expensive than paying for retirement housing or professional care-giving environments," Greenup says.

By Marilyn Bowden,