Friends of all ages: Life in a multigenerational community

Seniors who relish the calm of the empty nest have plenty of age-restricted housing options available. Yet many baby boomers are exploring alternative housing types where they can live in community with young families. New parents, whose own families may live out of state, often welcome the support, wisdom and relative calm that comes from having elders living nearby.

For those seniors missing the youthful energy of having kids around, two (re)emerging multigenerational forms are worth considering:

  • Cottage clusters
  • Single-family homes coupled with accessory dwelling units (ADUs)

Both are traditional forms of housing in the U.S., although many communities will find that they need to adjust zoning codes to legally build them today.

Cottage clusters

I have two kids, ages two and five. Neither my wife nor I have parents nearby, so we rarely get breaks from parenting. Our next door neighbors, who are mostly retired, recently became grandparents and now watch their two young grandkids two days a week. Not as young as they once were, they’re usually wiped out by the end of each “grandkid day.” In most settings, these scenarios can be lonely and isolating for everyone involved: parents, grandparents, kids and grandkids.

But we don’t live in a typical subdivision. Both of our families are part of Cully Grove, a 16-home multigenerational “garden community” in Portland, Oregon. Clustered around a common house, shared gardens, and two courtyards, this 2013 “farm in the city” development contains attached townhomes of about 1,500 square feet each. Residents are just about evenly split between empty nesters and young families – which turns out to be a pretty good mix. Had it been all families, chaos would likely abound. Had there been all seniors except for a couple of young families, there wouldn’t be a critical mass of kid play energy. Now, when our next door neighbors’ grandkids are visiting, they can spend some of their time playing with our toddler—and older daughter when she gets home from school—which works out great for all involved.

Cully Grove, co-developed by author Eli Spevak and development partner Zach Parrish, both of whom live there with their families, is an example of cottage cluster housing. Ross Chapin terms these developments “Pocket Neighborhoods,” which he has designed and built in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Within these communities, relatively small individual homes face onto shared internal courtyards rather than directly out to public streets. Design strategies, drawn from the cohousing movement, facilitate interaction among residents, while also providing essential privacy. One technique is to locate kitchens in the fronts of homes so adults can keep watch on kids playing outdoors while preparing or cleaning after meals. Another is to locate bedrooms upstairs or in the backs of homes where there’s more privacy. Substantial front porches provide quasi-private buffers between private homes and public common spaces. And communities often have shared common houses where residents can have larger gatherings, share meals, host neighborhood meetings, enjoy yoga classes, or host overnight guests.

It’s also important to draw from ‘universal design’ principles to ensure housing works well for kids and seniors alike. No-step paths and entries work for strollers, wagons, and kid bikes — just as they support wheelchairs and walkers. Drop-offs on the sides of paths and other trip hazards are likely to topple toddlers and octogenarians alike. Good site lighting helps people with failing vision find their way home – and makes nighttime less scary for kids. Lever handles make doors easier to open, whether you’re a 2-year-old reaching up on tippy toes or a senior with a little arthritis.

Finally, it’s helpful to provide separate sorts of outdoor areas catering to different age ranges. A wooded play zone will draw in the kids, keeping them happily occupied. A quieter retreat spot elsewhere on the property can serve as a more contemplative space appealing to older residents.

Seniors living in an intergenerational community might:

  • have neighbor kids who can be natural play-mates for visiting grandkids
  • receive a poster sized get well card from all the kids in the community after an unexpected hospital visit
  • get assistance from enthusiastic little helpers on home repair projects
  • act a little more like kids themselves (is youthful energy and silliness contagious?)

One lesson learned at Cully Grove is that if homes are pre-sold, empty nesters are able to out-compete young families with their greater equity, experience in the real estate process and patience (ability to commit, then wait for the house to be built). The fact that one-third of the homes had no ground floor bedrooms made them less appealing to seniors, effectively setting them aside for younger families. Otherwise, seniors might have bought nearly every one of them — and a multigenerational community might not have materialized.

Pairings of primary and accessory dwelling units (ADUs)

At a much smaller scale, some seniors are deciding that the best way to downsize into a multigenerational environment is to do it right where they’ve been living all along: by building an ADU in their own back yard. This approach allows seniors to:

  • stay rooted in their long-time community where they know people and their way around
  • pick a tenant family that would make a nice neighbor
  • earn rental income to improve monthly income

One example just down the street from Cully Grove is Carolyn Matthews and Bruce Nelson’s 640 square foot “Granny’s Garden Cottage.” Built to the side of their house for when they get older, the design is single level, extremely efficient, and supports privacy between the two dwellings. Since construction was finished in 2006, it has housed friends, neighbors (including a young family with a baby during a home renovation a few doors down), and short term rental guests. This and other ADU case studies have been written by Lina Menard.

There’s a reason ADUs are nicknamed “granny flats.” Young families can facilitate multigenerational community by building an ADU so one or more grandparents can live on-site. Grandparents are then able to help out by reading books to kids, making a pot of soup and just hanging out with their grandkids on a daily basis. And as grandparents get older and less active, the younger generation is nearby to return the favor.

There are many ways to create ADUs, including converting existing structures (i.e. garages), new construction, additions, or carving out an ADU from existing square footage of the primary house. Some even use the condominium legal structure to separate ownership between the house and ADU, as was done at Sabin Green, a two-house, two-ADU multigenerational community, also in Portland. Check local codes, since ADUs aren’t legal everywhere and rules for them vary widely.

Conclusion

The exuberance of childhood can be contagious. I’ve seen young senior couples laughing and giving one another rides on roll carts, taking inspiration from the under-6-year-old set. And plenty of parents swept up with day-to-day craziness might learn from their elder neighbors to mellow out a bit. In a world where multigenerational households are rare and more kid-free retirement communities are being built all the time, intergenerational communities can be a wonderful option for seniors and young people alike.

About the Author

In 2006, Eli Spevak founded a development and general contracting company, Orange Splot LLC, to playfully pioneer new models of community-oriented, affordable, green housing in Portland.  Orange Splot communities feature clusters of small homes nestled within existing neighborhoods, original local artwork, and shared interior and exterior common spaces. Before striking out on his own, Spevak had worked for more than a decade in the non-profit sector managing the finance and construction of more than 250 units of affordable housing.

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