The single-family home is under tremendous pressure these days. Tight credit makes any home hard to buy, and the uncertain economy makes purchasing a house unattractive for anything other than a long-term investment. With traditional floor plans failing to lure sidelined buyers, Builder asked architect Barry Berkus of B3 Architects | Berkus Design Studio, based in Santa Barbara, Calif., to forge new ground by brainstorming ideas that might lead us out of the recession. One thing is clear: With a residential sector rocked by economic, cultural, and demographic changes, the time is ripe for reinvention.
Specifically, the economic upheaval is reviving interest in multigenerational housing as Americans of all ages contemplate more efficient and constructive ways of living. Aging parents, many facing smaller nest eggs, are seeking alternatives to expensive assisted-living facilities. Add to that job uncertainty for household heads and unemployed college graduates boomeranging back home. According to Census Bureau data, 50 million Americans lived in multigenerational homes in 2009—11 percent more than in 2007.
“What is the most important thing you can do now to restart the building industry? In my mind it’s to change the relationships in a house so it fits a family that’s getting more mature,” Berkus says. “It’s hard to find new houses that live comfortably for a nuclear family but can also accommodate extended family and even the unrelated.”
A multitasking floor plan lets buyers set up houses any way they please.
Multigenerational living has long-term appeal beyond the current economy. It’s common practice among minorities, which, according to the Pew Research Center, accounted for 74 percent of U.S. net household growth between 2003 and 2009. What minorities have long known is that there’s strength in numbers: Shared housing functions as daycare for older adults, live-in help for children, and housing support for the unemployed or underemployed. More than an austerity mindset, generationally mixed habitats have potential emotional benefits: Families discover richness in authenticity, story-telling, and creativity.
The following schemes are not all that different from how our great-grandparents lived. Yet they’re far more appealing to modern families who value independence and privacy. How do you overcome people’s reluctance to live together? As these two prototypes show, it’s by offering clever floor plans that commingle common gathering spaces with living suites and separate entrances. More important, both prototypes can start as one thing and morph into another.
Berkus’ first scheme is compact, stacked, and easy to build on an urban or suburban lot. The first floor has a central gathering space containing living, dining, and cooking functions. An adjacent bedroom suite—with a sitting area, kitchenette, and separate entrance—could be used by parents, grandparents, or, if zoning allows, an unrelated renter.
Upstairs are three bedrooms and a family room that works equally well as a traditional home office. “A second living room would give the people upstairs a place to relax if someone was using the lower-floor living room,” Berkus says. Additionally, the detachable garage/carriage house welcomes the bounce-back kid—or a paying tenant. Call it the entrepreneurial approach to homeownership. This model taps into a massive audience interested in making their house the piggy bank it once was, and will be again.
Berkus estimates a cost-to-build of $80 to $100 per square foot using the roof form, louvers, and curtain wall glazing systems shown in the large renderings—add more for steel or flyash concrete framing and solar panels. Simple wood framing, shed roofs, and smaller windows would bring costs down to roughly $60 per square foot, depending on the geographic region.
Grounds for Change
Land plans rethink the suburban layout of houses lined up along the street. At left are five units and their detached garages with an apartment or studio above, organized around gardens, walkways, and an orchard. This configuration works as a family compound, for buyers with common interests, or for seniors wishing to rent out parts of their house. The scheme also scales up into entire neighborhoods.