It’s a phone call I had become accustomed to. The sound of my anguished best friend on the other line, discussing a marital challenge known to many: how to tackle caring for a mother-in-law and a toddler at the same time.
The crux of the problem, she said, was not her situation. It was her house. Her roomy, suburban San Diego dream was not a haven, but a hindrance.
Despite its abundant space and ample price tag, it wasn’t configured in a way that allowed her and her husband to live into their sandwich generation status with any grace—or privacy. Without delineation between the adult bedrooms (originally constructed to accommodate young children), it became multigenerational housing by accident, not intention.
And according to her, it sucked.
My friend is far from alone. The number of people in the U.S. living in multigenerational family households quadrupled between 1971 and 2021, according to the Pew Research Center. That amounts to nearly 60 million people sharing space with grandparents, parents, or adult children, mostly due to caregiving duties or living costs. Yet during that period American construction, fed by a culture and an economy that are highly individualistic, continued to be hyper-focused on a narrower vision: building for the nuclear family.
“When you think about our architecture, [because of] the ways in which we literally box ourselves into single-family homes, we do not have the architectural options available to us in order to live in these wider networks of care and support,” said Kristen Ghodsee, an American ethnographer and author of “Everyday Utopia: What 2,000 Years of Wild Experiments Can Teach Us About the Good Life.” On an episode of The Ezra Klein Show, she shared her take on how embracing communal living could strengthen our communities. “Some cities actually don’t allow for non-blood-related people to share single-family homes. There are ordinances and zoning regulations and sort of NIMBYism around our houses.”
It's not only a problem for families, it’s a missed opportunity for the building industry. The need for housing that can afford some peace and flexibility to homeowners is a major gap in new construction and renovation and remodeling. There’s a real chance to take the lead in dreaming up new ways to tackle what could accurately be described as pent-up demand.
Architects and designers around the world are addressing this need in new ways, albeit it for now at budget points outside what the average American might be able to afford. In Amsterdam, Dutch firm BETA designed the “Three-Generation House” in three floors, accommodating a couple, their young children, and one set of grandparents. This "mini apartment building” is stacked so that the elderly pair occupy the top floor while the growing family has free reign over the bottom two floors. In Seoul, Sosu Architects stacked separate housing vertically in much the same way, with the parents’ quarters containing some larger spaces where everyone in the building could gather. (Their children occupy the other floors in completely self-sufficient units.) These single family/multi-family hybrids become an asset that generations can pass through and pass on (conceivably selling or renting superfluous units in the future).
In the United States, homeowners are turning to ADUs, or accessory dwelling units, to retrofit their spaces to accommodate parents or devise creative new roommate arrangements. Families invest in building a small home on their property for their retired or aging moms and dads, who might contribute to childcare or enjoy living with their family without sacrificing privacy and agency. ADUs aren’t cheap—the units described in this AARP article cost between $70,000 and $200,000—and they require space many Americans lack. But they point to how people are trying to meet an existing need.
These more ambitious (and expensive) examples do lend us a model for something that could work across budgets: thinking of our housing purchase as a more communal exercise. With limited space and inventory, housing costs in the U.S. are growing out of reach for the average consumer. Sharing space and pooling resources—dependable and time-honored methods for stretching existing incomes—could not only help bring housing back within our grasp, it could also help us more sanely meet our caregiving obligations in the process.
And there are concerns beyond the economical: our growing isolation, embedded in the design of our housing, impacts our ability to thrive. More than one third of adults aged 45 and older reported feeling lonely, according to a 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). “Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University (JCHS) shared a study of a 2009 project in Germany which aimed to create housing that addressed isolation and loneliness in communities. Over six years, the national government provided grants for 30 multigenerational housing projects. In their report, “Bridging Health, Housing, and Generations: What the United States Might Learn from Germany’s Intentional Multigenerational Housing Demonstrations,” JCHS shared the insights from this effort to combine affordable housing with apartments for rent or ownership that accommodated multiple generations on one site.
One of the key findings? Physical design matters. There were social benefits to shared spaces among a community of people, and intentionally creating those spaces had powerful effects on people’s wellbeing. Living in proximity to the ones we love, it seems, is a standard we must meet for good health.
What I’d like to see, as an American multihyphenate (an individualist-collectivist), are methods for achieving this harmony that allow people to retain some of the privacy they need while preserving the connectedness they deserve. It’s why I admire the projects I’ve shared here—they go to lengths to ensure that people can live into both needs, to be individuals and to dwell in a community. There is massive, untapped potential in the construction industry for meeting the demand for multigenerational housing in the United States. It will be interesting to see how this social need intersects with sustainability concerns in the future, and which companies will be smart enough to take up the charge first.
Perhaps it is not only that we sometimes have to live together, but that we’re better off doing so. We just need to design spaces that don’t cost us the privileges of privacy, too.