Sharing Spaces: Designs That Set Boundaries

The right layout, flexibility, and agreed-on rules can bring family members of multiple generations, or even outsiders, together under one roof.

April 1, 2010

Shared living is on the rise, and for many reasons. In some cases, multiple-family generations come back together as boomerang kids return home due to job loss and financial hits. Some families decide to reside among several generations for familial or cultural tradition. Older parents may require greater care and companionship. Or, nonfamily might share space to defray mortgage payments and other expenses.

You can help this growing segment of buyers understand how a home might fit their special situations. After all, a single-family home built for a nuclear family with a few children may not fit their needs, since they likely require spaces to share and ones that encourage privacy and a sense of independence.

The more a home can build in flexibility, the better, says Cynthia Cohen, president of Strategic Mindshare, a strategy consulting firm based in Miami. Then, the home can be adapted as the family's needs change.

Finding the Right Space

Chicagoans Susan Yount and husband Michael Pichowsky have mastered well the lessons of successful multiple-generation living. Three years ago the couple became concerned about Michel’s 90-something grandmother and 70-something mother living in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Because residing with relatives was part of both family cultures, the younger generation encouraged “the grandmas,” as they collectively call them, to move into a three-story, two-flat they had purchased and which Michael was remodeling.

The older women took the two-bedroom, two-bathroom garden apartment with separate kitchen and entrance, so they could maintain some independence. Meanwhile, the young couple and their now 3-year-old son Dirac settled into a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment upstairs, also giving them privacy, plus room to gather everyone together.

Builder Fernando Pages learned these lessons a much harder way. He used to design and build single-family, affordable houses in suburban Los Angeles, but he quickly discovered that many of the Mexican-American buyers who would move in would remodel the homes.

“I studied how they used them and recognized that many Americans may want open floor plans and large master suites, but other ethnic groups want bedrooms of a uniform size and to share bathrooms," says Pages. "Some also wanted outdoor kitchens long before they became a trend; they used their garages too.”

When he relocated to Omaha, Neb., he knew to understand his buyers’ cultural preferences from the get-go, and adapt the floorplans to fit his buyers' lifestyles.

Making the Space Work

No single model satisfies all needs. Iliana Abella, a real estate saleswoman with Greater Miami Investments Inc. in Coral Gables, Fla., receives several buyer requests for home options that build in flexibility. Some young couples seek homes with a cottage in back they can rent to subsidize their mortgage.

“They’re being much more responsible due to the economy,” she says.

Other buyers with bigger budgets favor the area’s larger, older Spanish-style homes with garage apartments, she says.

Creighton Gibson, president of a Home Instead Senior Care franchise in Statesville, N.C., which provides nonmedical in-home care for the older adults, was happy he was able to convert a space to fit his family's flexible needs. His wife's mother lives with them and resides in a spare bedroom. The couple was also able to convert an adjacent bedroom to a sitting room so she would have space to invite friends over to socialize.

Affordable Shared Options

Increased demand has generated affordable, green options too. The Center for Sustainable Development at the University of Texas in Austin has worked with city and community leaders to build green, infill “alley flats” in impoverished city neighborhoods.

“Most represent some sort of intergenerational housing with a separate kitchen, bathroom, living space, and shared garden area, all designed to allow those living together to retain their dignity,” says Barbara Wilson, assistant director. The Center is also working to develop a pattern book of designs that buyers can purchase.

Designer Marianne Cusato, who helped develop the compact, affordable Katrina Cottage after the 2005 hurricane along the Gulf Coast, has designed another small-scale house that offers the option of separate quarters.

Dubbed The New Economy Home, it measures 1,770 square feet, has four bedrooms, three and one-half bathrooms, and offers flexibility to age in place or adjust to economic changes. A first floor bedroom and bathroom have a separate entry to the outdoors and a closet can be fitted with a kitchenette to work for an adult child, older parent, or renter, says Cusato.  

Setting Boundaries

While physical separation is essential, clearly defined, articulated rules are also keys to meet expectations and minimize inevitable conflicts that can arise from shared spaces—which can run the gamut from who’s not paying their share to who’s not pitching in enough, says Dr. Scott Haltzman, clinical assistant professor in psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.

“It’s best if everyone discusses their core values together—what defines them and is most important, such as what makes them feel comfortable at home, rather than just focusing first on how many square feet they need,” says Haltzman.

Learn More

Books from the following experts have more information on this topic:

  • Marianne Cusato, Get Your House Right (Sterling, 2008)
  • Dr. Scott Haltzman, The Secrets of Happy Families: Eight keys to building a lifetime of connection and contentment (Jossey-Bass, 2009)
  • Fernando Pages, Affordable Remodeling (The Taunton Press, 2007)
Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


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