Is multi-generational living the future of housing?

Could generational co-living help ease the effects of rising housing costs, expensive childcare and a lack of elderly social care?


  • Adam Branson

01 March 2020

Photography: David Butler

The statistic is striking: according to research by CBRE, there are now 1.8 million households in the UK that contain two or more adult generations – an increase of 38% in just 10 years.

The reasons behind the increase are many and varied, including the need to provide support for children or elderly relatives and a shortage of affordable retirement living accommodation. However, CBRE concludes that the main factor is a lack of affordable homes making it far more likely young adults will continue to live at home for longer.  

For many, the situation is at best an inconvenience. Most young people, after all, want to assert their independence and, at some point, raise a family of their own. Continuing to live with mum and dad is not a positive choice. Rather, it is a necessity born out of the desire to save for a deposit on their first home. 

However, there are also upsides to multi-generational living. A 2019 study by University College London (UCL), for instance, found that increased social contact between the ages of 50 to 70 is associated with a lower risk of developing dementia, while the University of Alaska and Anchorage identified that children who mix with older people see improvements in language development, reading and social skills. 

As a result of all this, there is currently a growing interest in different forms of multi-generational housing and how it can be best designed and managed. So, what forms of accommodation are currently out there? And how is the concept of multi-generational living evolving? 

Making do with what we’ve got

Of course, by far the most common form of multi-generational homes are existing units that are simply being made to work for their inhabitants, either by making do or making relatively small changes. According to Robert Jacobs, head of residential sales at Savills in Tunbridge Wells, the rise in multi-generational living has led to properties that have the potential to be adapted becoming increasingly attractive. 

“This could be a self-contained flat within a building, or a cottage or a lodge within the grounds,” he says. “That’s when you find that it works quite well. Properties like that are getting more attractive. These days it is rare to find somebody who doesn’t see the benefit. It really ticks a box – it’s an attractive feature. We’re no longer in a place where people are dashing off aged 21.” 

From prams to wheelchairs

In reality, few people, particularly in urban areas, have such space just sitting around and waiting to be put to better use. As a result, campaigners advocate changing building regulations to ensure that new homes are sufficiently adaptable so that they are suitable for people at every stage of their lives. For instance, hallways should be sufficiently wide to accommodate both a pram and a wheelchair. 

“Our priority goal for new housing is that we want 50% of it to meet basic accessibility standards,” explains Henry Smith, senior programme manager for homes at the Centre for Ageing Better. “At the moment, only 7% of all homes in the UK are accessible for someone who is disabled. It’s really dire what we are achieving [at the moment].” 

As a result, the charity has launched Housing Made for Everyone (HoME), a coalition including housing organisations and national housebuilders formed to lobby for change. “The aim is to change the regulatory baseline,” says Smith. “It’s been going well. There are a range of different organisations that realise this is a part of the housing crisis that hasn’t been talked about enough.” 

If successful, such work will certainly facilitate multi-generational living, although its core purpose is not about promoting the concept. Others, however, are actively taking up the cause. Perhaps most prominently, Matter Architecture recently completed a study, funded by Innovate UK and titled Rethinking inter-generational housing, the purpose of which was to understand what forms of multi-generational housing currently exist and to draw up key principles for new developments in the UK. 

Mutli-generational housing schemes

“We started looking at emerging schemes around the world,” says Roland Karthaus, co-founder of Matter Architecture. “There are some in the US and in Europe. There have been a few in the UK but some have been discontinued. We analysed those in a systematic way, which hadn’t been done before, and pulled together a network of stakeholders, including think tanks, housing associations and local authorities.” 

Ultimately, the study resulted in a concept for developments that are genuinely of mutual benefit to multiple generations. “It’s about understanding that housing has a social impact and a public health aspect to it,” says Karthaus. “That extends to mental health and wellbeing. Therefore, the way the housing is designed should be to support those good outcomes. You have to think about what those outcomes are before you start designing.” 

As a result, the design of a development should facilitate people of all ages coming together in order to share time, skills and experiences, Karthaus adds. “So, common parts and shared spaces become quite important, as well as the size and adaptability of the homes,” he says. “And then the last piece is about how the housing is operated and managed. The residents have a part to play in that and it becomes part of the sharing activity.”

Off the back of the study, Matter was commissioned to undertake work on potential developments by two London boroughs – Camden and Ealing – all of which are currently at the feasibility scoping stage. “We’ve developed a site appraisal tool kit, which considers what the opportunities for each site are,” says Karthaus. 

Plans for one of the Ealing sites are particularly advanced and of sufficient scale to make the provision of substantial shared elements financially viable. The council has yet to go out for public consultation on the project, but it is likely to include extra care facilities, as well as independent sheltered housing for older people and independent housing for younger people. 

“The cost versus scale question is quite important,” says Karthaus. “What’s different about inter-generational housing is the facilities and the way they are integrated into the scheme. Obviously, that requires a certain scale. So, below about 50 homes it is very difficult to justify. But above around 100 homes it risks starting to feel institutional. The balancing act is quite important.” 

Enter the age of austerity

In terms of what has actually been built to date, the most commonly cited example in the UK can be found at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, where architect PRP designed the first post-Olympics housing site, Chobham Manor Phase 1, on behalf of the London Legacy Development Corporation. 

“We were able to do some quite experimental housing types,” says Manisha Patel, senior partner at PRP. The multi-generational homes at Chobham Manor comprise a main house and a separate unit linked by a shared courtyard partner at PRP. “I looked at worldwide precedents on multi-generational living.” The designs were drawn up between 2010 and 2012, at which time the aftermath of the global financial crisis and the advent of the age of austerity were conspiring to make the need for inter-generational support even more acute than it had been previously. 

“It came about because of political things that were happening at the time,” recalls Patel. “There were cuts in pensions, nursery places were hard to find and the cross-subsidy for housing for the elderly had been cut back as well. There were lots of things happening in society and it dawned on me that the housing we were providing wasn’t adequate for the people’s needs. My background is regeneration, so I work with lots of communities and I was finding that there was a trend for cities being for the young rather than for all generations.” 

Patel came up with a housing typology that included a main terraced house with a separate smaller unit to the rear connected via a shared courtyard – each with their own entrance. The idea was that multiple generations could live together but apart and the properties could adapt as needs changed. 

“I thought we could bring in typologies where families were able to support each other,” says Patel. “Multi-generational housing is all about support. I bring it back to how villages developed centuries ago. So, you would have your support mechanism in your walkable neighbourhood. You’re able to get help on your own terms instead of having to pay for nannies, which are expensive. And you are able to bring in your ageing parents but they have their own front door.” 

Not all developments have to be designed so purposefully in order to work, however. Marmalade Lane in Cambridge is a good example of multi-generational housing that came about as a result of the co-housing movement. The movement aims to promote communities that are highly social and mutually supportive, but many of its most famous developments cater to the needs of specific groups, such as older women. Marmalade Lane is different in that it is genuinely multi-generational, and that it came about as a result of the local authority offering a site, rather than one being identified by an established group. 

“Multi-generational housing is all about support. I bring it back to how villages developed centuries ago” Manisha Patel, PRP

Stephen Hill MRICS, chair of UK Co-housing Network, says that the success of the project demonstrates that people of all ages will come together around a shared ideal when an opportunity presents itself, and that multi-generational co-housing will continue to gain traction. “When you see the Marmalade Lane scheme completed and occupied, people seem to be having a really nice time,” says Hill. “They share spaces and relatively small amounts of private outside space. It means that children have great safe spaces to play in, and they are in and out of each other’s houses. In one sense, it is quite an old-fashioned and sentimental view of what neighbourliness means, but it is very appealing to a lot of people.”

Mutual support

More limited examples are also being developed. Irene Craik, a director at architect Levitt Bernstein, is working on a scheme with Phoenix Community Housing in Beckenham, south London, which will provide a range of independent living units for over-55s. However, to provide a multi-generational element to the project, two shared flats for postgraduate students from Goldsmiths, University of London, will also be included.  

“There will be an arrangement where they will get reduced rent if they commit to helping in some way with residents,” says Craik. “It might be arts students holding workshops, or they might just help with shopping. There are all sorts of ways in which they could contribute to the community we’re creating, and they can all help combat loneliness.” 

"In one sense, it is quite an old-fashioned and sentimental view of what neighbourliness means, but it is very appealing to a lot of people” Stephen Hill MRICS, UK Co-housing Network

She adds: “Everyone talks about the amount of loneliness there is in older people’s communities, but actually there are quite a lot of mental health issues with students as well. So, I don’t think we should see it as young people helping out older people; it can be a real two-way thing. It can help tackle some issues that young people have at university.”

It’s clear that multi-generational living comes in very different shapes and forms. But it’s also clear that examples of genuine multi-generational developments are still rather limited. However, the issues that prompted an increased interest in the concept – housing affordability, expensive childcare and adult social care – aren’t going away any time soon.