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A Beautiful Backyard Cottage for Mom and Dad

Cool multigenerational options from developers and architects


Editor’s note: This article is part of a year-long project about aging well, planning for the changes aging brings and shaping how society thinks about aging. 

First there were in-law apartments. Then came “Granny pods” — backyard structures tricked out with medical devices for frail elders who might otherwise be in a nursing home. Now, boomers have more attractive living options for sharing households, whether it’s to provide housing for their parents or to move in with their grown children and grandkids.

The idea of multigenerational housing is as old as humanity. But mostly that has entailed sharing the same living space. According to W. Andrew Achenbaum, professor of social work at University of Houston and a historian of aging, one of the earliest examples of families living in separate spaces on the same property is the “dowager house” in England, where the widow of the estate owner would move into a smaller abode on the grounds.

(MORE: Transforming Life as We Age)

“In the U.S., I think the Amish deserve the credit on a more modest scale,” Achenbaum said in an email. Amish elders typically pass the family farm on to the next generation and move from the main house to the adjacent “grandfather house.”

“This allows for independence without sacrificing intergenerational family involvement,” wrote John A. Hostetler in his book Amish Society.

 

The Gallants built this 1,200-square-foot, energy-efficient house adjacent to their son’s existing home. Photo courtesy of Frank Gallant

Under One Roof

A similar impulse, along with Western cultural preferences for privacy, led many families in the 20th century to add an in-law apartment or “granny flat” (usually in the basement or atop the garage) or to share a duplex. That trend continues.

According to a 2010 Pew Research report, 20 percent of people 65 and older live in a multigenerational household, and the numbers are growing.

Valerie Dolenga, spokesperson for the Atlanta-based Pulte Group homebuilder, says a company survey of adults with living parents found that 15 percent already have an aging family member living with them and 32 percent expect to eventually share a home with a parent.

In response, major developers are getting into the multigenerational act.

Adaptable Spaces Change As Family Changes

Pulte is building homes with more flexible spaces that can be converted as family needs change. “In Florida, we offer the Grand Retreat option — a living room/bedroom addition above the garage,” said Dolenga in an email. “In the Greater Chicago area, we offer a first floor in-law suite option that converts the den into a bedroom with a full bath.” Lennar, a Miami-based developer, offers a line of homes with “NextGen” suites that include a private entrance, living room, eat-in kitchenette, bedroom and bath.

A new generation of architects is also designing backyard cottages that are aesthetically pleasing and environmentally friendly — although often pricey.

In Mountain View, Calif., Rosan Gomperts and Kim Gaumer invited Gomperts’ parents to move in with them when the elder Gomperts were unable to continue living on their own in their large home in Richmond, Va. Noting that her parents had lived near Mountain View before, Gomperts says, “It made sense for them to come here. They’re very familiar with it and they had a lot of friends.” Had they not come, the choice would have been assisted living, which her mother “flatly refused” to consider.

(MORE: Home Away From Home: Relocating Your Parents)

Kim Gaumer, Robert Gomperts and Rosan Gomperts in front of the elder Gomperts’ cottage. “We didn’t want to live with a bunch of old people,” Robert said. Photo courtesy Ross Wells

With two teenagers and three dogs, though, Gomperts and Gaumer didn’t have room in their house. The solution: build a cottage in the backyard, custom designed for the parents.

“I’m very happy with the space,” says Robert Gomperts, 92, “in part when considering the alternative, which is living with a bunch of old people. We find it very engaging to live among younger people, including our grandchildren.” The move also allowed them to keep their large dog.

The cottage was designed by Carrie Shores, principal in Larson Shores, an architectural firm in Oakland, Calif. Shores says she and her business partner initially began looking into multigenerational housing as a way for young families to break into the exorbitant real estate market in the Bay Area.

“That led us to look at senior housing,” she says. “What we came across was just so horrifying, no wonder people don’t take the initiative to plan for this. A lot of the senior homes were designed by people who were doing more institutional hospital facilities. We thought we could do better than that. Why couldn’t we make an environment as we would for any of our clients, whether they had a disability or if they were just trying to maintain their independence?”

Built-In Beauty and Safety

She came up with a design that is attractive, safe and environmentally friendly. The 500-square-foot cottage includes a living-dining area with an induction cooktop and an in-drawer microwave; a bath with a zero-threshold, wheelchair-accessible shower and one bedroom. The cottage is energy efficient with lots of natural light. Windows overlook the flower garden and private patio.

(MORE: The Benefits of Living in a Teeny House)

Shores even factored in the dimensions of the couple’s favorite artwork and planned the wall space accordingly. “When you’re downsizing, you want to keep things that are meaningful to you,” she says.

For now, with some paid help, the living situation works. “If we get to a place where they need full-time caregiving, it’s unclear what that would look like,” says Rosan, since the cottage is too small for a live-in caregiver. “It’s one day at a time.”

The architects who designed the Gomperts’ cottage intended to break from the institutional feel of many senior homes. Photo courtesy Ross Wells

Cottage Comes At A Cost

The cost of the cottage, which the senior Gomperts bore, was $175,000.

Although the price tag is high considering the structure’s tiny size, Emory Baldwin, principal architect with Seattle-based FabCab, says if, like the Gomperts, the alternative is assisted living at $6,000 a month, then the cost of such dwellings isn’t so bad. It also adds long-term value to the home. FabCab has a new line of $200,000 ModCabs, as small as 800-square-feet, designed to be backyard living structures.

“We’re thinking of all ages,” says Baldwin, including boomers who want to share a household with either aging parents or adult children. A cottage could also be used as separate space for grandparents whose home is elsewhere but who enjoy coming for long visits. “Others could use them as rental units for extra income. Some people are doing it just as a way to have a starter house, and as family size increases they can take over the main house,” he adds.

So far, FabCab’s products have only been bought as vacation cottages — not as “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs) for multigenerational living. But Baldwin is confident that ADUs will be in demand, based on the aging population.

Although some jurisdictions, such as Portland, Ore., welcome ADUs as a way to increase the affordable housing stock, many local zoning laws prohibit them. When they are allowed, the size and style of ADUs are typically strictly regulated.

Side-By-Side

Families are coming up with other creative ways to be close — but not under the same roof.

For instance, two generations of the Gallant family bought a two-acre plot of land and small house in Soquel, Calif. The senior Gallants, Frank and Karen, in their 60s, built a new, small energy-efficient home for themselves, adjacent to the existing house, where their son, daughter-in-law and grandson live. With the adult children in busy careers and another baby on the way, the senior Gallants devote considerable time to babysitting, gardening and other chores.

“Just this afternoon I rolled two heavy waste containers down our steep hill to the neighborhood collection point,” says Frank Gallant. “I know there will come a time when I’ll ask my son or grandson to take over that weekly chore.”

“We’re hopeful for a long-range living situation here,” adds his wife. “As we age, we hope to stay healthy and vital, but we know our children are there to help us out if we need it.”

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