Why Ontario’s housing stock is not meeting today’s multigenerational living demands

For decades, Ontario’s housing has been designed for the ‘traditional’ nuclear family, but post-COVID we are challenged to meaningfully reconsider this stance and rethink how we live together.

Over the Covid-19 pandemic, the fragility of “traditional” housing has been exposed. The inability of assisted living and long-term care facilities to protect vulnerable, elderly residents led to many families caring for their loved ones at home. Offices and schools shuttered overnight, leaving families to juggle homeschooling, working from home, home resource sharing, and other challenges daily.

Truth is, the vast majority of homes in Ontario are not adequately designed for family members of different generations to live together. Many homeowners, especially those with limited financial resources, have had to devise their own solutions to the problems of cohabitation, often involving the construction of illegal secondary suites in or around their homes.

Pandemic-induced overcrowding is not the only issue affecting housing in Ontario. More generally, Ontario’s population is growing older: by 2050, about one-quarter of Ontarians will be older than 65. This will cause a significant burden to already-strained social services, and cause aging baby boomers to reconsider how their future care needs will be met.  Furthermore, nearly half of young adults aged 20-34 live with their parents—a phenomenon not only affecting established urban areas such as Toronto, but also a majority of suburban communities, where most new homes and family-oriented developments are being built. These, and several other factors—including a growing population, housing unaffordability, evolving cultural norms, and a richly multicultural populace—are causing a sharp increase in the demand for multigenerational housing. While, in general, there is not enough housing to meet this demand, there is also not enough diversity in housing types to accommodate changing family dynamics.

In considering these issues, there are several ways in which policymakers, developers, and we—architects and designers—can better respond to the growing calls for action in this area. First, a holistic, community-first approach is required at the broader planning level. Second, a diversity in housing types is needed to respond to the needs of larger and more varied family compositions. And lastly, specific home design elements should be implemented to ready homes for multigenerational use and ensure a resilient future.

Q4 Architects’ multi-generational community typologies.

A holistic, community-first approach

Holistic planning and policy development at the community level can result in a process that welcomes resilient multigenerational design. These multi-gen developments can either be private sector driven (i.e., developer-driven) or public-sector driven (i.e., government-mandated), but must include sustainable design practices and the application of time-, user-, and age-specific perspectives in how they relate to the broader community.  For instance, flexible zoning regulations can permit a variety of housing types, including homes containing more than one unit within or adjacent to a primary dwelling unit. This zoning should allow for market-ready purpose-built multigenerational units, secondary suites “as-of-right”, and more innovative dwelling types that employ creative ways to trade-off outdated parking requirements for multigenerational spaces. We must also design and recognize multi-generational suites as something entirely different than legal rental units or secondary suites.

Furthermore, child-centred and elder-centred planning could help us reimagine open, green, recreational spaces. For example, instead of locating large parks at inaccessible edges of suburban communities, we may prioritize small, programmable, networked, and easily accessible green spaces. Increasing lot densities and somewhat decreasing private outdoor spaces improves home affordability, while creating connected and interactive communal spaces which benefit both young and old. Merging this with less-trafficked rear-lanes and mews has the added benefit of creating safer streets for young and old, integrating dignified secondary entry, and producing a further shared amenity that will foster social interaction.

Designed around a rear-lane street network, the Cornell Village in Markham, Ontario was envisioned as a model for New-Urbanist development. The community facilitates multi-generational living, showcasing a mix of unit types, massing and façade styles that creates a sense-of-place amongst residents of all ages.

Diversity of housing types for a resilient future

When designing multigenerational homes, we must first recognize that a one-size-fits-all housing solution does not exist. While purpose-built solutions can better complement other age-friendly design strategies, it is seldom planned for in the design process. Family relationships and aging are very personal concepts, and designing within this context often requires us to reflect on lived experiences. This typically results in more nuanced and human-centric design that prioritizes functionality and livability over trend and marketability. Thus, future home design processes must take into consideration people’s needs at every stage of life. The result will be designs that produce safe and comfortable environments that facilitate aging-in-place.

There are several housing types tjat are inherently more amenable to multigenerational living. For example, rear lane homes and townhomes with a coach or garden house may offer a separate apartment with a dedicated garage and outdoor space for additional residents. This design option may serve multiple demographics, such as a young family who wants to live independently in an affordable space but requires family-based childcare, or elderly parents who may need personal care and support from their children. Secondary suites may be integrated within the home or designed as detached and separate, with their own kitchens and living spaces. All design decisions should seek dignified solutions to the at-times difficult realities of another generation’s everyday routines.

Multigenerational home design includes many nuances that need to be considered, including family members’ need for independence and privacy, as well as their desire to share resources. Should a family’s needs change, a multigenerational suite should also pivot to provide valuable rental housing, which both offsets mortgage payments and creates mixed-income housing to support community caregivers and service-workers.

Q4A’s design of Cornell Village incorporated suite-above garage coach houses and at-grade laneway houses to allow extended family members to comfortably share a property. Many Cornell residents today use these secondary suites to house and share resources within a multi-generational family.

Design interventions within the home

As new models of living together become more widely embraced, it is likely that a combination of market-driven and government-mandated multigenerational housing will become part of future communities. Whether this is through inclusionary zoning measures, revisions to the building code, or homebuyer preference, individual dwellings within these communities will benefit from specific design elements that facilitate multigenerational living. For example, as decentralized provisions for ride- and car-sharing increase, and zero-emission vehicles proliferate, it will become much more feasible to design garages for easy conversion to living space from development outset or as-of-right conversion.

Home basements, which are typically left unfinished for mechanical systems, storage, and other such utilitarian purposes, are another area that should be reconsidered in this context. Currently, basements are considered ancillary to the home, and homeowners carry the burden of transforming these spaces into living quarters if they so desire. In these situations, substandard renovations may result in potentially dangerous environments for basement residents. For example, on any other floor of a house, windows may be used as additional emergency egress. However, basement windows are not typically designed for safe egress – they are often too high from the floor, too small, and/or inoperable. In recognition that basements can house entire families, the OBC must mandate safe secondary means of egress and minimum natural light and ventilation standards for all new homes.

Additionally, home designers should consider a move away from the conflict-ridden kitchen triangle in which the focus is on individual efficiency (based on a previous generation’s gender roles), and instead design kitchens that allow for multiple cooks and concurrent meal preparation/cleanup. Often-hidden laundry rooms should be designed as larger, more open and convenient laundry spaces that adequately respond to multigenerational needs. Another consideration should be the inclusion of straight-run stairs instead of split-level, circular, or angular staircases which can significantly hamper future stair-lift modification.

At its core, designing homes for multigenerational sharing is about enhancing dignified living. Ontario not only has a housing supply problem, but a severe lack of diverse housing types that anticipate our province’s changing demographics and lifestyles. We can no longer ignore the fact that multigenerational needs are on the rise. Responding to these needs with bold, yet feasible solutions will go a long way in creating a more affordable housing stock and a more resilient future.

David DiGiuseppe is an intern architect with Q4 Architects.