This week I’d like to take a break from the non-stop downer of the news cycle and talk about something else that’s near and dear to my heart: fresh thinking. I’m not even especially concerned about it being “outside the box.” You may have heard me say before that as a designer working in the multifamily industry, our really big moves happen when we think of something a bit new INSIDE the box.

My neighbor Matt is in residential property management. Yesterday he mentioned to me that he had been very busy since October—re-painting apartments as people moved out. “Where are they going?” I asked him. “Vacancy rates are down, so they’re obviously not going to other apartments.”

“I think they’re moving in with somebody else.” Matt said. “They’re doubling or tripling up, or going back to live at home.”

How else could one explain how so many folks are losing their for-sale homes and moving somewhere, and simultaneously, the vacancy rates for apartment properties is increasing? This would suggest there are a lot of strained, crowded households out there.

OK, time for segue number one. I’m writing this post from Southern California, a part of the country where I, as a middle-aged Caucasian man, am now in the minority. We have a Latino-American majority in Los Angeles county, and practically, throughout all of southern California. The process described above, of folks moving back in with the ‘rents, is not unusual in traditional Latino-American families, and in other cultures where extended family is perhaps more important than it is to us long-term American Caucasians.

So, who out there is designing and building product for extended families, especially in market-rate rental communities? The demographics seem to be telling us there is a demand for this sort of property.
I have tried to run the scenario in my head many times. The extended family requires many sleeping rooms in proportion to “living” areas. This would suggest that perhaps a dwelling could be designed wherein there is a main sort of “base line” dwelling—perhaps a two-bedroom arranged in what we refer to as a “tandem” configuration—that is, the bedrooms are back-to-back and the living area tends to one side of the apartment. Imagine, for a moment, that a studio or one-bedroom apartment were appended to the other side of the living area of the original unit, with a discreet door that separated the two. One could easily imagine that this “auxiliary” unit had only the most basic of domestic niceties—a dorm fridge, a microwave, and a sink. All the big-time extended family food preparation and consumption activities would take place in “the big house”—or the core of the extended family dwelling.

As time passed and generations evolved, I could see this scenario, practically an American legend, transpiring. “Alpha” couple moves into the main dwelling space of the apartment, with one or both grandparents sharing the modest adjoining dwelling. In time, the “Alphas” produce offspring, who, in their younger years, are cared for by the “grands,” who conveniently occupy the adjoining suite (enough privacy for intimacy, but close enough for expediency.) Perhaps the college graduation of the Alphas’ eldest child roughly coincides with the grands either passing (sorry for the bluntness, but that’s life) or going to live in a supportive facility. Oldest child moves into the auxiliary space and perhaps mates, marries and reproduces there. By the time the child’s child is of school age, the spaces swap again—eldest child takes over the core dwelling and the original alpha mom and dad move into the auxiliary space, and the cycle continues.

There are a couple of things I find very appealing about this scenario. First, it means the developer has a slightly lower upfront cost, because with extended family dwellings the ratio of kitchens (expensive space) to sleeping areas (relatively inexpensive space) is lower, reducing the overall cost per square foot of the community. Second, the retention of extended families in this scenario would be significant, and rewarding. As long as there is always someone in the household looking forward to moving into the auxiliary space or the primary space, there would be “stickiness.” I believe there is a potential win/win here.

Of course, if such a community were located convenient to a job center (say a university or major medical facility) the long-term symbiosis could be substantial.

Can we do it in the development community? Can we look the demographic trends in the eye and meet the challenge with innovative solutions that return substantially to the bottom line? “Claro que si.”

(Daniel Gehman is principal at Thomas Cox Architects)