Intergenerational Living – The answer for many of the challenges our communities face?

A few decades ago, it was common for families of several generations to live together under the same roof, not only for economic reasons, but also because the integrity of the family provided a safe haven of support and the ability to collectively enjoy life and face challenges together. The disintegration of this model of the family and the rise of transient individualism has created societal challenges such as isolation, loneliness, economic hardship and a higher need for support or life mentorship. Our UK Residential Director Tom Klingholz discusses whether intergenerational living can be one solution for many of the challenges faced by individuals of all age groups.

Dislocated living

Our society is constantly growing and evolving. We are struggling to keep up with the technological revolution and the ever-increasing cost of living. Looking at the development of the housing market, the picture seems gloomy, particularly in relation to how and where we will live and play in the future. It is often very difficult for people to find work and affordable places to live near where they grew up, close to the families and communities of which they were part.

Let’s take a look at the section of the population which is not part of a basic social unit, a nuclear family or a strongly bound community. According to the Office for National Statistics, 34% of the UK population are singles (aged 16 and over) who have never cohabited. This amounts to more than 16 million people, and this number is increasing by more than 10% each year. In the UK, 28% of all households are occupied by a single person, which equates to the current population of London. In addition, the population of the UK is getting older – at the moment, about 20 million people are 60 years of age or older, which is almost a third of the entire population.

In the UK, 28% of all households are occupied by a single person, which equates to the current population of London.

This means that there is an increasing number of singles, of all age groups, who like to be independent, but who have few meaningful contacts with others. Loneliness is becoming a growing challenge, and not just for the elderly. Ever-increasing house prices, comparatively high rents and the increasing cost of living also have a profound impact on people’s lives, their personal development, their health and wellbeing and their happiness.

The overlooked demographics

What does the future hold for those living in our cities who are not part of the more widely discussed single professional or double-income-no-kids demographics – those ‘normal’ people in good jobs who can’t afford to buy their own home or even rent a home near where they work? This could be practically anybody from any background and any age group.

What about the generations which have retired, however long ago – the silver surfers, hippies and baby boomers? For many of us, these are our parents’ generations – they grew up during times of fairly dramatic political, economic and cultural change and, to a large degree, they laid the foundations of how we think, feel and behave today. How will we be able to afford to care for them?

Then there are those who require assistance with the simple things in daily life – how will they be able to lead a happy life which affords them dignity and a decent standard of living? All these layers of our society create a wonderful diversity, but everybody needs to find and define themselves as individuals within a rapidly developing society.

The fast-track delivery of a vast number of homes will hopefully help in solving the housing crisis. With the government, local authorities, funders and developers, housing associations and the construction industry all working together, these urgently needed homes will hopefully provide relatively affordable roofs over our heads.

The creation of more homes, with all the challenges which come with that, will be the starting point, but will not in itself address the fundamental challenges faced by many.

For a relatively small number of people, co-housing seems to be a solution. Unlike the Build-to-Rent (BtR) model, co-housing allows people to jointly own their place and to collaboratively design and shape it according to their particular requirements – they are the developers as well as the residents. However, this is a lengthy process, and few people have contacts with likeminded people, or the necessary funds.

We need to move away from compartmentalised design and create building arrangements that provide opportunities for interaction.

Designing for a different way of life

We need to start designing and delivering places that will help us tackle isolation and loneliness while providing support and care within the community. We need to create places that people can adopt and adapt to suit their needs and those of their families and communities. In this task, flexibility in what we design is crucial.

A key point to be addressed is our perception of the model for how we live. Many prefer to draw a wall around the plot they call their own, still largely owned by mortgage providers, and this ownership mentality is a big obstacle. What happens when we suddenly realise that our needs are not being met – for example, when we have little social interaction, when we realise that we are equity-rich and cash-poor and when the welfare system is not able to provide what we really need?

Some UK housebuilders offer flexible typologies that allow grandparents to live with their children and grandchildren under the same roof. In the UK, this is what we understand as multi-generational living. However these are typologies mostly suitable for suburban locations. With the increasing trend for the ageing population to live in more lively and urban areas close to amenities, and diminishing employment opportunities outside our larger cities, we need to start looking at urban models and typologies.

To solve these challenges, we need to move away from compartmentalised design and create building arrangements that provide opportunities and spaces for interaction – spaces people can share and use to support each other, as well as to engage with the wider local community. The buildings we design for the Build-to-Rent sector provide these spaces and facilities, and we will, over time, see the positive impact these have at a communal level.

Current design and flexibility of BtR unit sizes seems to be restrictive, but this is changing gradually – occupancy data from operational sites tells a growing story of wider age ranges living within these existing developments.

We can draw inspiration from this sector for the design of residential buildings and encourage the industry to embrace intergenerational living as an opportunity to collectively manage and overcome many of the challenges we are facing, whether as homeowners, renters, elderly people, students, children or those in need of more support.

Ed Thomas, Head of Community Experience at London co-living community The Collective, explains: ‘I believe that those who live here are pushed outside their comfort zone – an experience which encourages them to apply for jobs that they wouldn’t normally get, and get them.’ Ed puts this down to the improved self-image and greater confidence of those who perceive themselves as having ‘taken the plunge’ to live there. ‘Even for those who may not use the support, knowing they have it, and the sense of belonging that provides, can equip them with the confidence to try new things.’

At a communal level, intergenerational living goes a step further by providing more social integration across generations, providing opportunities for people from different age groups and backgrounds to come together in areas of common interest where, otherwise, their different interests and needs might not cause them to cross paths.

Get inspired

We can also gain inspiration from successful initiatives on the continent or in Scandinavia, where renting is, and long has been, the norm. In the Dutch city of Deventer, for example, a nursing home scheme provides rent-free accommodation to students if they are willing to spend 30 hours per month being ‘good neighbours to the elderly’ – six students live in the same building with 160 seniors. A similar scheme is Linkages in the UK, with other schemes in Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol and elsewhere.

Why couldn’t a retired teacher or a student, living in an intergenerational community, help the children of a young family with childcare or homework, or provide the wisdom that grandparents would traditionally have contributed, if the actual grandparents don’t live nearby or have perhaps passed away? In return, the young family could include the elderly person in some of their activities, or help with things like grocery shopping.

Intergenerational living is for people who want to be involved, want to make a contribution and see the value of ‘giving and taking’ as part of living within their community. All of this should happen automatically, and the designs we are providing do not need to be dramatically different from current BtR schemes, other than including family homes and homes which are suitable for the elderly or those with special needs.

We should design flexibly to allow for diversity in the demographic profile, and operate buildings in a way that allows the residents to meet and get to know each other. Community spirit and pride will naturally follow.

For the developer and operator, this can create a more stable rental income with fewer voids because residents will be more likely to renew their tenancy – a balanced community with a strong neighbourhood spirit will be a desirable place for people to live.

A better way forward

Intergenerational housing will have benefits which extend into the wider social and political spheres – it will offer opportunities for local communities to take some of the resource strain away from our local and national health, education and social services. The long-term benefits for the public purse should be an incentive for collaboration between government departments, and for those departments to consider providing funding for such schemes (an investment which will be repaid several times over by the reduced need for public services). This will necessitate a joined-up and coherent strategy across local and national government, with potential obstacles being reviewed and, where possible, removed.

Intergenerational housing will have benefits which extend into the wider social and political spheres.

To maximise the advantages of the format, developments will need to be designed and delivered in a thoughtful way, with flexible public spaces and a well-considered range of services which cater for the needs of people of all ages and backgrounds. Realising these benefits for operators, residents and the community will require an increased wider awareness of the format and its possibilities – necessitating a concerted effort to promote intergenerational housing and explain the need it fulfils, whether in private or social developments.

The result will be a quiet social revolution which has the potential to transform how we think about modes of living and to provide the basis for sustainable and mutually supportive communities which increase the social and economic wellbeing of the people within them.

About the Author

Tom Klingholz (Dipl.-Ing. Arch ARB)

Director, London

Tom joined Chapman Taylor’s international concept design team in 2008, becoming a Director in 2015.

With over 20 years' design experience in the residential sector, he now leads our UK residential team with an overview of design on residential-led mixed-use projects and masterplans. 

Tom has led design teams on large scale residential-led masterplans and buildings in the UK, Middle East, Russia, Asia, North Africa, and Europe. The diversity of this experience provides Tom with a versatile design approach responding to a project’s context and culture to create design solutions that deliver our clients’ aspirations.    

Areas of expertise:

Residential / Mixed-use / Masterplanning / Urban regeneration 

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