Let’s think beyond the nuclear family when designing our homes

Multigenerational housing can help address the housing crisis and build stronger communities

My close friend Seema is a Kitchener-Waterloo resident struggling with an all too familiar housing issue. She recently graduated from Conestoga College’s design program and is working full-time. Despite this, she can’t afford a place of her own due to the red-hot housing market in the region, so she lives with her parents in a three-bedroom single-family house. Seema’s brother also lives there, and soon her grandparents may join them too. 

Seema’s predicament is reflective of a bigger issue in this city: affordable housing is not being designed for multigenerational households. According to available Canadian census data (2021 census data has yet to be released), multigenerational homes — three or more generations of the same family under the same roof — were the fastest-growing type of household and saw an increase of 37.5 per cent between 2001 and 2016. 

Despite the increase of multigenerational households, most of our current housing stock is standardized and built for nuclear families, meaning a family group consisting only of parents and children. New and very expensive housing being built in Waterloo Region caters to singles and families of two to three people — forcing many living in non-nuclear family situations to live in housing not designed for them. 

For example, standardized houses often have the hierarchy of a master bedroom with ensuite and smaller bedrooms with no ensuite, which is not ideal if there are multiple adults living in the house. For multigenerational families who are crammed into spaces designed for nuclear households, the only private space people might have is their bedroom, which they have to use for working from home, exercising, or hosting guests. There is also little privacy for bigger families in smaller homes, as you can easily hear others through thin partition walls. 

We need to create affordable housing that is designed or adapted for people of different ages, abilities, and cultural needs. I dream of apartments where single parents can live with their siblings and share childcare responsibilities. I want there to be houses that allow for groups of friends to live together as each other’s chosen family and offer the space for them to take care of their grandparents collectively. There are so many liberating forms that housing can take, but our society has forced most of us into the most constricting and debilitating forms.

What kind of features might a house have if it is designed or adapted for multigenerational households? Think larger common spaces with amenities such as community kitchens. Shared amenities might also include bike storage, community gardens, and even a small daycare in an apartment building. Households with more adults need homes with more bedrooms and ensuite bathrooms built without a hierarchy in size. Extra privacy features, especially acoustic,  can help to ensure a peaceful co-existence, and accessibility features to ensure that all household members have the support they need. 

A quick sketch exploring different massing options for multigenerational housing. 

We need affordable multi-generational housing for three main reasons: 

  1. It creates a greater density of people, which is needed as fewer people use cars and more people want to live in downtown Kitchener. 
  2. More people being housed with their existing networks of family and friends prevents loneliness and creates a community of support, especially for people with children, the elderly and disabled. Multigenerational housing ensures that languages, cultural traditions and oral history can be passed on easily from elders to younger generations. 
  3. Housing more people within existing houses and properties in the city can help to create affordable housing if coupled with other policies. 

We know people are adapting their housing situations to better meet their household needs. Last year Kitchener had one of the highest issuing rates for building and renovation permits of any city in the province. With more family members working from home and going to school online, solutions such as backyard suites saw a sudden spurt in popularity.  

Of course, many working-class families are taking matters into their own hands. I mentioned my longtime friend, whose family is in need of multigenerational housing. Years ago, her father turned their house from a small post-war cookie-cutter house to a customized three-storey building, with a beautiful deck and garden. However, now that he is older, and their budget is limited, making something from nothing is not so easy. Enabling our community members to live in a space that meets their current needs will require community and institutional support.

For families who lack the budget for a major addition or renovation, we could provide free modular “rooms” that could be placed on a balcony or patio. These could increase people’s living space and function as a home office or study area. Existing makerspaces and workshops could be set up in neighborhoods to provide people with training, tools, and materials to build adaptable furniture, partitions, and interior design solutions.

Modular furniture could be prefabricated and provided at no cost, so that those who lack the time, funds, or ability could still adapt their housing. We can free up space within our homes by providing access to free private spaces housed within public buildings instead, such as an office or studio. These resources could be funded by mutual aid and fundraising efforts, as well as grants and government aid. Enabling our community members to live in a space that meets their current needs will require both community and institutional support. 

There are so many reasons to design, build, and support multigenerational housing in Waterloo Region. In fact, we know it’s happening. We know that multiple generations of families are living together due to the lack of affordable housing and a lack of robust public childcare and elder care services. We can either do housing badly which leaves people with no other options, or we can help our neighbors to build strong networks of family and community. We know that more housing is being built all the time, but this housing is not really rethinking how we live. I am convinced that we can do it better. 

Niara van Gaalen is a writer, artist, and activist who sees design as a tool for social and environmental justice. She is currently completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture. Niara is also the founder of designwithcolour.org, a resource for Black design students, and you can find her on Instagram @justkidstm.


This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.