Filling the generational pad

Mary G. Pepitone
Universal Uclick

Forget going over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house – for some families, it’s as easy as traveling over the foyer and through the rooms. An intergenerational living arrangement may not be for everyone, but some families are living with the benefits of built-in babysitters and the ability to age in place surrounded by loved ones.

The American Community Survey (ACS) defines multigenerational households as families with three or more generations living under the same roof. Data from a 2009–2011 survey conducted by ACS reports that 4.3 million households are multigenerational, or 5.6 percent of the total of 76.4 million family households surveyed.

“Throughout history, a family living together multigenerationally was the norm,” says Stephen Melman, a National Association of Home Builders spokesperson, based in Washington, D.C. “Single family homes are a fairly recent construct from the mid-20th century, when people started to become more mobile, leave home and settle somewhere else, far from extended family.”

But Melman says – especially with trying financial times due to the recession starting in 2008 – there was a rise in extended families pooling resources and living together under the same roof again out of necessity. “What research shows is that people could retrofit existing homes to make a suite or what’s called a mother-in-law apartment to accommodate other family members,” he says. “You know this ancient concept of multigenerational living is becoming a modern concept when builders start constructing homes with this intent.”

Meet the McConkie family, who started living as four generations – ages 1 to 91 – under one roof in October 2011, in their newly constructed 9,500 square-foot home in Millcreek, Utah.

Architect Jack Hammond, one of the principals at Architectural Nexus in Salt Lake City, designed the six-bedroom, five-bathroom house to share a common area in the middle where family members can freely meet. Three generations currently live in the home: The elder generation and grandparents are Jim and Judi McConkie; the middle generation is son Bryant and his wife, Aimee McConkie; and the youngest generation is comprised of four girls. Jim’s mother, Gwendolyn Wirthlin McConkie Cannon, lived in a garden apartment on the elder’s side of the home until her passing in 2013. Jim and Judi’s daughter, Kelly McConkie Stewart, lives in a separate home next door with her husband, Brian, and their four children.

Affectionately called the “McCompound,” credit for the new multigenerational home construction goes to daughter-in-law Aimee, says Jim McConkie. “None of this would have happened, had Aimee not pushed for it,” he says. “We call this our happy experiment: The space has a wonderful synergism and we are all closely connected, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Hammond says a home with many generations only works if people respect each other’s privacy. “When designing this house, I made it so there are two distinct entrances: one for the grandparents’ and one for the parents’ portion of the home,” he says. “Bedrooms and bathrooms are on opposite ends of the house to afford each family the greatest privacy.”

Connecting the separate living spaces on either side of the home is a common area in the middle, which can be opened or closed off to each family’s side of the house, based on the use of semitransparent glass arts-and-craft-style doors.

“The common space has a large media room on the lower level, and, above that, a library and space to host large dinners and recitals,” Hammond says. “Flanked by kitchens on either side, the common area is prime for entertaining and socialization.” The shared space between homes also has a common laundry and storage spaces throughout the lower level.

Hammond was mindful of creating a home with universal design, where family members are able to age in place. “Simple things like making doorways wider to accommodate wheelchairs and one-level living with ramps leading into the home provide the greatest accessibility,” he says. “Grab bars and roll-in, barrier-free showers are accommodations that are easily made in the bathroom, while a stair-climbing chair makes navigating multiple levels of the house easier.”

But it’s the interaction between generations that makes this house a home, Jim McConkie says. “The kids go back and forth from our home to theirs to Kelly’s house seamlessly,” he says. “When my mother was alive, she would read to her great-grandchildren every night. Bryant and Aimee would get a break and it was my mother’s delight to read to the children.”

Hammond says the McConkie family is progressive in that they choose to live multigenerationally together and built a home to accommodate their lifestyle. Other families might be forced to do so, due to financial or health reasons, but the need to honor each other’s space is paramount. “If you’re in a situation where you need to move into an intergenerational housing setup, the same rules still apply,” he says. “You need to carve out a place for privacy and a common area open to family members.”

The final stage of the McConkie home construction will be the addition of a pool in the back of the home – extending the common indoor spaces to the outside.

“There’s so much learning that takes place between the generations – Judi and I may be able to impart some wisdom, but the kids certainly keep us young,” Jim McConkie says. “We feel blessed to be able to be part of such a loving family, as we support each other in every way possible.”