Meeting the housing needs of multi-generational households

BRANZ (the Building Research Association) research has highlighted a sharp rise in multi-generational households, where more than one generation of related adults live together.

Dr Penny Lysnar (at Auckland University at the time of the study) & Associate Professor Ann Dupuis (Massey University, Albany), authors of the paper, Meeting the housing needs of multi-generational households, said: “While attention has focused on trends to smaller households & housing intensification (apartments, terraced houses & the like), the number of people living together in extended families has largely gone unnoticed.

“From 1996-2013, the number of people in multi-generational households grew by 49% to 496,383. In comparison, during the same time period single-occupant households grew by 38%. More recent growth of multi-generational households has been even faster: since 2001, the number rose by an astonishing 57%.”

The researchers examined census data and followed this up with in-depth interviews with people living in 53 separate households: “The interview findings highlighted reasons for multi-generational-household living. We are seeing drivers related to the cultural preferences of Maori, Pacifika & Asian families, as well as a growth in multi-generational living in pakeha families, something that was a norm in traditional western societies.’’

Ms Dupuis said only 3 of the interviewed research participants lived in homes purpose-built for multi-generational living.

Reasons behind the rise in multi-generational living included:

  • migration from countries where multi-generational living is a cultural norm
  • family members pooling resources to own or rent a home together, people marrying or living together later and staying with parents in the meantime, and individuals & couples staying with their parents to save for a house deposit
  • young adults returning to their parents’ home from overseas or after a change of circumstances like a relationship breakdown (the ‘boomerang generation’)
  • longer & more expensive study, leaving young adults dependent on their parents for longer
  • young people who can’t find work, living with their parents, and
  • more elderly people living with their adult children.

However, the researchers found no typical multi-generational household size. Some had only 3-4 members, others 15 or more. Some were overcrowded while others had plenty of space. Most of the households in the study included children.

Daily living difficulties included noise, lack of privacy and the challenge of finding space for visitors who came to stay, which was more common among larger Maori, Pacifika & Asian households.

Some common practical needs for larger multi-generational households included:

  • at least 2 toilets, separate from bathrooms
  • bedrooms large enough for 2 or more children or 2 adults, including a study space
  • more than one living area
  • provision for people wanting independence or privacy
  • living spaces that can accommodate up to 20 household members & visitors;
  • good natural ventilation – large families create more moisture in kitchen, laundry & bathrooms
  • easy indoor/outdoor access to relieve pressure on indoor space
  • outdoor areas for food growing, recreation or ceremonies, and
  • layouts adaptable to changing needs & occupancies.

Some households had specific needs:

  • extended families who entertain at home require useable outdoor space or a large garage/carport area
  • Maori & Pasifika households prefer wide & welcoming main entrance areas to receive guests and provide a sensitive reception for a coffin during a tangi or funeral, and for Maori, food-related areas (which are tapu) should be separated from laundry, toilet & bathroom areas.

An internet search on new building work, alterations & additions revealed confusion around the rules & regulations about what requires building consent, resource consent or both for multi-generational living requirements such as second kitchens & second dwellings.

The report’s authors have recommended:

  • greater clarity in local & central government rules, regulations, policy & planning to support multi-generational living, and
  • the need for financial & legal organisations to provide awareness about financial & ownership options for multi-generational family members.

Ms Dupuis said architects & designers interested in meeting the needs of multi-generational households should immerse themselves in the occupants’ daily activities, routines & family life, and design homes with these in mind: “It isn’t just about sleeping arrangements, but social needs too. How can people in multi-generational households enjoy living together but also have spaces that afford them privacy?

“For example, think about the specific needs of different cultures. Many Chinese families told us they entertain at restaurants, but Maori & Pasifika families tend to entertain at home and so need a bigger kitchen.”
The researchers frequently saw inefficient use of space. In one case a family member gave up space in the house for a smaller (but private) converted shed.

The research was funded by the BRANZ building research levy