Kevin Atkinson: We need houses for several generations now

Three generations of a family can coexist happily under a single roof. Photo / 123RF
Three generations of a family can coexist happily under a single roof. Photo / 123RF

It's hard to imagine now, but the great Kiwi tradition of the kids moving out and going flatting as soon as they got a job or went off to university, and later progressing into their own homes, has only dominated our culture for the past 60 years or so.

Prior to that multi-generational living in the same home was commonplace in this country.

The culture of multi-generational homes never completely died away during the baby boomer generation's quest for independence and its focus on individualism, writes Kevin Atkinson.

Many Maori, Pasifika and immigrant families, in particular, kept the tradition alive. Now, the pendulum is very much swinging back toward extended family living as the norm.

Multi-generational living is defined as a household that includes two or more adult generations - or one that includes grandparents and grandchildren.

Overall, there has been an increase of 50 per cent (33,426) in multi-generation households nationwide from 1996 to 2013. In Auckland that increase over the same period was 98 per cent and in Christchurch 80 per cent.

Contrary to the urban myth that this demand is driven only by Maori, Pasifika and Asian families, recent New Zealand research shows this demand is across the board, culturally and ethnically, and involves a wide range of socio-economic groups.

This is not just a New Zealand phenomenon. Worldwide, in countries where multi-generational living has not been the norm in the past 50 to 75 years or so, the demand for homes specifically designed to house two or more generations of adults is growing rapidly.

Demand is not driven by economics alone, though undoubtedly the soaring house prices in our major centres has had a role; other factors are at play.

The research notes that the drivers of the increased demand for multi-generation homes include: cultural expectations, the trend toward a later age of first marriage/cohabitation, the longer time many people now spend in tertiary education and the increasing cost of that education, the return of adults to their parents' home after travelling or working overseas, an increase in grandparent families, an increase in elderly people living with their adult children, and the demands of such things as high housing costs, unemployment and tighter lending rules.

This presents New Zealand regulators, planners and those of us in the building industry with challenges and opportunities.

Again, research in New Zealand shows that while the majority of people living in extended family households say the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, one of the real challenges is finding a home that caters well for higher numbers of residents with differing generational needs.

Put simply, too few homes in New Zealand are being built specifically to cater for this demand, not helped by the fact that regional and local authority planning requirements can mean that homes designed for multi-generational living often have to jump through more bureaucratic hoops to get consent.

Multi-generation homes require a different mindset. More toilets and bathrooms is an obvious one, but perhaps not quite so obvious is the need for larger and/or separate living spaces.

People living in extended family homes enjoy the communal aspect of large living areas, but everyone also needs to have retreat space and bedrooms, unless extended, are not necessarily suitable for this.

If there are more than one generation of adults in the home, there is usually a need for more than one master bedroom; granny flats or semi-detached units might be an option. Perhaps even a second kitchen or kitchenette, or a sleepout for older teens.

If elderly folk are moving in, a home might need to have access ramps, wide doors for mobility aids to fit through, and quiet areas away from the hubbub of the household.

Just as important is the indoor-outdoor flow. Outdoor areas are very important in large households and provide more options for socialising, receiving guests and separate family activities at the same time. Sections, generally, will need to be bigger than in the standard modern subdivision.

As the demand for existing, renovated or new multi-generational dwellings increases, the building industry is looking to maximise resulting opportunities.

But local and regional authorities need to play their part. Planning and development regulations should allow for the fact that a growing proportion of housing demand is coming from people who want multi-generation living options.

Given they can be an answer to dealing with overcrowded homes, help meet the need for greater housing intensification in cities such as Auckland, and can offer a way to strengthen families in our communities, regulators should be ensuring the requirements of extended family living are specifically catered for.

Many of our city planners are focusing on growing demand for single occupant housing, not realising that demand for multi-generational housing is even greater.

It's time to look at different options to help first-home buyers get into the property market and multi-generational living is a good option that needs more attention from local and regional authorities.

• Kevin Atkinson is chief executive of Generation Homes

- NZ Herald

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