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Housing multi-generational families

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Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

An unrecognized household type, the multi-generational household (MGH), where more than one generation of related adults live together, has been rising sharply in New Zealand.

While attention has focused on trends to smaller households and housing intensification (apartments, terraced houses and the like), the number of people living together in extended families has largely gone unnoticed.

From 1996 to 2013, the number of people in MGHs grew by 49%, to 496,383. In comparison, during the same time period single-occupant households grew by 38%. More recent growth of MGHs has been even faster: since 2001, the number rose by an astonishing 57%.

The findings from a BRANZ-funded study of MGHs are contained in a recently released BRANZ research report, Meeting the housing needs of multi-generational households, authored by Dr Penny Lysnar and Associate Professor Ann Dupuis. The researchers examined census data and followed this up with in-depth interviews with people living in 53 separate MGHs.

‘’The interview findings highlighted reasons for MGH living. We are seeing drivers related to the cultural preferences of Māori, Pacifica and Asian families, as well as a growth in multi-generational living in Pakeha families; something that was a norm in traditional western societies,’’ says Ann Dupuis.

Ann says of the 53 MGH research participants who were interviewed, only three lived in homes purpose-built for multi-generational living.

Reasons behind the rise in multi-generational living include: 

- migration from countries where multi-generational living is a cultural norm;

- family members pooling resources to own or rent a home together, people marrying or living together later and staying with parents in the meantime, and individuals and couples staying with their parents to save for a house deposit;

- young adults returning to their parents’ home from overseas or after a change of circumstances like a relationship breakdown (the ‘boomerang generation’);

- longer and more expensive study, leading young adults dependent on their parents for longer;

- young people who can’t find work, living with their parents;

- more elderly people living with their adult children.

However, the researchers found no typical multi-generational household size. Some had only 3 or 4 members, others 15 or more. Some were overcrowded while others had plenty of space. Most of the households in the study included children.

Daily living difficulties included noise, lack of privacy, and the challenge of finding space for visitors who came to stay; the latter more common amongst larger Māori, Pacifica and Asian households

Some common practical needs for larger MGHs include: at least two toilets, separate from bathrooms: 

- bedrooms large enough for two or more children or two adults, including a study space;

- more than one living area;

- provision for people wanting independence or privacy;

- living spaces that can accommodate up to 20 household members and visitors;

- good natural ventilation - large families create more moisture in kitchen, laundry and bathrooms;

- easy indoor/outdoor access to relieve pressure on indoor space;

- outdoor areas for food growing, recreation or ceremonies;

- layouts adaptable to changing needs and occupancies.

Some households had specific needs: extended families who entertain at home require useable outdoor space or a large garage/carport area;

Māori and Pasifika households prefer wide and welcoming main entrance areas to receive guests and provide a sensitive reception for a coffin during a tangi or funeral;

for Māori, food-related areas (which are tapu) should be separated from laundry, toilet and bathroom areas (noa).

An internet search on new building work, alterations or additions revealed confusion around the rules and regulations about what requires building consent, resource consent or both for multi-generational living requirements such as second kitchens and second dwellings.

The report recommends: support for multi-generational living by greater clarity around local and central government rules, regulations, policy and planning;

the need for financial and legal organizations to provide awareness about financial and ownership options for multi-generational family members.

Ann Dupuis says that architects and designers interested in meeting the needs of MGHs should immerse themselves in the occupants’ daily activities, routines and family life, and design homes with these in mind. "It isn’t just about sleeping arrangements, but social needs too. How can people in MGHs enjoy living together but also have spaces that afford them privacy?"

"For example, think about the specific needs of different cultures. Many Chinese families told us they entertain at restaurants, but Maori and Pasifika families tend to entertain at home and so need a bigger kitchen."

The researchers frequently saw inefficient use of space. In one case a family member gave up space in the house for a smaller (but private) converted shed.

BRANZ could play a role in advising planners and policy makers to give greater consideration to understanding the experiences of current MGHers to ensure that the housing needs of this significant demographic are better met.

BRANZ External Research Report ER4 Meeting the housing needs of multi-generational households by Dr Penny Lysnar (University of Auckland at the time of the study) and Associate Professor Ann Dupuis (Massey University, Albany) is available online at www.branz.nz. The BRANZ Building Research Levy funded the project.

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