8 ways architects design multigenerational homes to keep all the family happy

Multigenerational homes, where three generations all live together, aren't uncommon, but how do you design them for a harmonious life?

an open plan space in a multigenerational home
(Image credit: Derek Swalwell. Design: Kitayama K Architects)

For many people, a multigenerational home is just the home they already live in. At some point or another, many families across three (or even more) generations choose to live together for any number of reasons. And, in many parts of the world, it's incredibly common to do so. 

This often takes place in a separate dwelling on the same house plot - sometimes called secondary suites, in-law apartments, casitas or affectionately-nicknamed granny annexes. Yet, a single house can function perfectly with multiple generations living under one roof. 

If the thought of living with both children and older relatives brings you out in hives, all you might need is the help of a good architect. With the right design interventions, both in layout and interior design, you can circumvent the potential stresses that come with multigenerational homes, and ensure everyone has the space they need to live harmoniously. In fact, it might even be the best arrangement for everyone. 

Whether you're curious if your house fits the bill, or you're planning a house build or renovation to house extended family, here, architects tell us their main considerations for making multigenerational living a success. 

How to design a multigenerational home

This advice for designing a multigenerational home won't work for every property, and in fact hangs on both the size and versatility of your property. 'In general, when looking for a new house, which is suitable for multigenerational living (or indeed in converting an existing house), the key is finding the right overall size of property – not just the house but the garden also,' says Catherine Finkernagel, director of architecture and design studio Finkernagel Ross. 

'Multi-generational living is about having enough space to meet the privacy needs of each generation,' she adds, 'but also space enough to come together and enjoy each other’s company.'

1. Creating spaces for retreat

The real challenge of multigenerational living isn't just in the number of people inhabiting a household, but how different their rituals are, given the different points of life they are in. The keep the peace, architects look to plan in distinct spaces for each member - retreats that allow for privacy from the other members of the family. 

'It does not work when you are on top of each other so the key to success is usually found in spaces of retreat,' says Catherine. 'This can be in the form of multiple primary suites that are large enough to contain an ensuite, wardrobe or dressing area and ideally a small living space.' 

'Multiple reception areas are great too for reading, listening to music, watching television or conversing with guests.'

a large bedroom with curtains

(Image credit: Anna Stathaki. Design: Finkernagel Ross)

2. Choose the right locations for rooms 

Whatever your location of retreat, whether that be a bedroom or a separate living quarters, you also need to consider its position in the house. 'Ideally these should be as far away from each other as possible with the shared, communal spaces in the middle,' architect Catherine Finkernagel tells us. 'If you can, locate one primary suite in the loft and one in the garden studio or basement perhaps.'

That's one thing to bear in mind - all of these spaces don’t necessarily have to be under the same roof as such. 'If you have a large enough garden then an entire suite could be kept separate from the house,' Catherine continues. And a separate annex or studio, given you have the right building permit, can be positioned to maximize its privacy, too. 'By turning the garden room 90° away from the main house you can create separate secret courtyards to privately enjoy and relax in which also helps to avoid the fish bowl effect of garden studios and houses facing each other,' Catherine explains. 

3. Structure shared spaces 

Yet, the beauty of multigenerational living isn't just in living divided lives, but how you can come together, too. 'It's all about striking a balance between private and shared spaces,' says architect Robert Hirschfield

Open concept spaces can be given structure through design and architecture to ensure that while you can appreciate the sense of space and of togetherness, members of the family can use it simultaneously without chaos ensuing. Introducing elements of a broken plan layout, whether that's level changes, transparent (yet soundproofing) room dividers, and more can help an open concept function better. 

'Pocket sliding partitions are particularly useful,' says Robert. 'These can connect various rooms in the home, so that the interiors can grow with the different generations.'

There are other elements of everyday life you need to consider, too. 'Typically responsibilities fall to one family, however, in multi-family settings rules about the use of shared spaces are critical to stress-free living,' says Catherine Finkernagel. 'When to run the dishwasher, who does the shopping, who does the cleaning and when, how is maintenance of the property dealt with.' 

4. Creating flex spaces

Flex spaces are rooms that don't have a strictly defined purpose, but that can be adapted for use by whoever needs it. This might be the best approach for spare rooms in your home, where it can fulfill the wants and needs of every generation. A room that can multi-task as a play space, a relaxing reading nook, a hobby room, a yoga studio and an occasional home office

'The key to designing a flex room is designated storage for everyone in one area,' says interior designer Regan Baker, 'but flexible, adaptable and convertible storage,' she adds.

a bathroom with a sink in front of a window

(Image credit: Aaron Leitz. Design: Lisa Staton)

5. Provide enough bathrooms

If you've ever lived as a family in a home with one bathroom, you'll know that this room is the most important in the house. Adding in another generation will only increase the strain, so making bathrooms a priority is crucial for a happy, harmonious home. 

Modern bathrooms are about more than just practicality, too. 'Bathrooms can sometimes be utilitarian spaces but given the opportunity they can also be a sanctuary that reflects the different generation's individuality,' explains architect Robert Hirschfield, 'while meeting their personal needs and greatly enhancing their experience of everyday living.'

6. Get the storage right

As with almost all design conundrums, a successful multigenerational home comes down to good storage ideas, conceived to work for every member of the family. 

'Where possible, seek to incorporate built-in furniture and storage within the home which can provide functional and at times playful ideas,' suggests Robert. 'Offer colorful, interesting and innovative solutions in which the simplest and fewest elements are used to create the maximum effect.'

an outdoor space with a small pool

(Image credit: Timothy Kaye. Design: Manna Made)

7. Take your ideas to outdoor spaces, too

These same principles for designing a multigenerational home can be applied to your backyard, too. 'Create convergence points where family members enjoy the outdoors together,' says Robert Hirschfield. This also extends your living space, allowing your family to spill outside if it's starts feeling a little cramped indoors. 

8. Keep hallways and entryways in mind 

While designing a modern living room and kitchen might be your biggest concern for a multigenerational home, you shouldn't ignore the smaller, transitional spaces. Adapting these for a home that's destined for a large family will give your space a sense of comfort. 

In this Australian property designed by Kitayama K Architects, for example, an extra wide staircase adds an effortless flow that extends to a mezzanine level retreat, ensuring no traffic jams for the three generations who live in this house. 

If possible, consider multiple entryways, too. 'One of the easiest ways to ensure privacy for all is to provide more entrances,' recommends Robert Hirschfield. 'With multiple generations living under the same roof, it is likely everyone will live on multiple schedules.'

a wide stairwell in a multigenerational home

(Image credit: Derek Swalwell. Design: Kitayama K Architects)

What are the benefits of a multigenerational home? 

Three generations living under the same roof may sound stressful, but it certainly has its upsides. It can provide a financial benefit for all members of the family, increasing the size and upgrading the location of the property. It can also be useful for families looking to share responsibilities, whether that's childcare or looking after elderly parents or relatives. 

Hugh Metcalf
Deputy Editor

Hugh is the Deputy Editor of Livingetc.com. From working on a number of home, design and property publications and websites, including Grand Designs, ICON and specialist kitchen and bathroom magazines, Hugh has developed a passion for modern architecture, impactful interiors and green homes. Whether moonlighting as an interior decorator for private clients or renovating the Victorian terrace in Essex where he lives (DIYing as much of the work as possible), you’ll find that Hugh has an overarching fondness for luxurious minimalism, abstract shapes and all things beige. He’s just finished a kitchen and garden renovation, and has eyes set on a bathroom makeover for 2023.