Multigenerational houses
Under One Roof

Meeting cafe at the multigenerational house in Lemgo
Meeting cafe at the multigenerational house in Lemgo | © Thorsten Krienke via, Licenced CC BY-ND 2.0

Living in a Multigenerational House – behind this is the idea that young and old can mutually support one another. In Germany, this form of living is becoming increasingly popular, even among elderly people. But is it a solution to current social problems?

Living with other people, best of all children, in the centre of the city and with a patch of green in front of the door – this is just how Ingrid Vetter envisaged her life in old age. Three years ago, at the “Leuchtturm” (i.e. Lighthouse), a multigenerational house in the centre of the lively Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, she found her dream house. Rainer Gebauer had also at some point begun to think about “how you what to spend your old age”. Because he and his wife preferred not to envision that time in a nursing home, they set out in search of a residential alternative for their retirement and also hit upon the “Lighthouse”. Since 2009, the couple has been living under one roof with a mixed and colourful house community consisting of young and old.

Residential model with a future

Shared living projects such as the Berlin “Lighthouse” have potential. This is alone suggested by the demographic development: while more and more elderly people live in Germany, the proportion of young people is shrinking. But the work world’s demand for flexibility and mobility, increasing individualisation and dissolution of traditional familiar structures, also compel us to reflect on new forms of living together. Because fewer and fewer people have children and grandchildren, or these live in other cities, contact with and assistance from relations has become less and less common.

While all generations living together under one roof was once taken for granted, it is today the absolute exception. Multigenerational houses are thus in a sense a step back in time, when usually, three generations lived together. Exchange and mutual assistance is ensured alone by the fact that the organizing of common life does not allow for a mere living next to one another but only for a real living with one another: the residents decide themselves who may move in, organize living arrangements, develop the rules for living together and actively shape them.

The new form of living appeals to young and old alike: according to the 2012 Vorwerk Family Study, 79 per cent of people over sixty think multigenerational houses a “good thing”, and 55 per cent could imagine themselves living in such a house. Among young people, the model encounters an almost equally great resonance. Whereby people with higher education and higher incomes are more open to the new forms of living together.
  • At home in the “Lighthouse” © Nora S. Stampfl
    At home in the “Lighthouse”

    In the centre of Berlin, a group of people together built their dream house. Ideas were exchanged, plans made, a suitable property and financing sought, and then finally it was built. The future residents moved in in 2009. Twenty-nine adults, ranging in age from twenty-six to seventy, fourteen children between two and thirteen years of age, and two cats and two rabbits in 2015 make up the house community of the “Lighthouse”. Even before the foundation was laid, the participants already had a considerable superstructure of ideas: they wanted to live intergenerationally, communally and ecologically in the self-managed house.
  • Far-sighted choice of legal form © Nora S. Stampfl
    Far-sighted choice of legal form

    The residents are organised in the cooperative “Lighthouse eG”, which is the owner of the house. They have only the right to live there and must pay rent. The grounds belong to the foundation trias, which has loaned the plot to the group for its use. This arrangement is intended not only to counter land speculation; the legal form is “also a reason for the high binding factor”, says one resident. “There’s little turnover in the house; the initial residents are more or less still aboard.” But also the joint work on raising the walls at the beginning of the project – contribution of individual work was a loan term – welded the group together.
  • Ecologically, too, a showcase project © Nora S. Stampfl
    Ecologically, too, a showcase project

    The “Lighthouse” would like to make a contribution to society and offer an example self-management and community instead of alienation and isolation. The “Lighthouse” cooperative also has high ecological standards: the house was built as a “passive house”. A geothermal installation and solar panels make it largely independent of external energy sources and go easier on the wallets of the residents.
  • Flexible living © Nora S. Stampfl
    Flexible living

    The “Lighthouse” is erected on twenty pillars. This principle of construction makes possible the implementation of “flexible floor plans”: not only do all residents have the possibility of choosing the cut of their own individual flat, but they can also respond flexibly to changing needs because the walls are moveable. Thus residents can remain living in their dream house even when individual space requirements of a household changes.
  • Mix of young and old © Nora S. Stampfl
    Mix of young and old

    The young-at-heart pensioner Ingrid Vetter particularly enjoys the mix of young and old in the house: “You experience a lot more of young people”. She has never regretted relocating from Bavaria to the multigenerational house in Berlin. Vetter feels comfortable with the successful mixture of social connections and possibilities of withdrawal: “Even though I sometimes shut the door, that’s fine”. But most of the time her door remains open, because from the start she found the “considerate treatment of one another” very pleasant. Every two weeks all the residents come together in plenary and make decisions on the basis of consensus.
  • Out into the garden! © Nora S. Stampfl
    Out into the garden!

    Especially in summer, the life of the residents largely takes place in the communal garden. It is not the vehicle of lofty goals such as the establishment of a subsistence economy. “Our ‘cabbage and turnips garden’ simply provides many opportunities to get together in our leisure time”, says one resident of the house. The “Lighthouse” garden has already been the host of children’s parties organized together with the neighbouring day nursery.
  • Treehouse in the centre of Berlin © Nora S. Stampfl
    Treehouse in the centre of Berlin

    What city kid grows up with a treehouse? Communal, self-managed living makes it possible. It was important to the “Lighthouse” founders to combine life in a central urban location with access to their own green patch. And in other respects as well children in the multigenerational house have plenty of scope – they can romp all round the house.
  • Living with a family of choice © Nora S. Stampfl
    Living with a family of choice

    “A healthy mixture of socialism and egotism” is the recipe for success, says Rainer Gebauer, enabling dozens of people to live together harmoniously under one roof as in the “Lighthouse”. The Gebausers feel completely contented amongst their family of choice: even though they both have grandchildren, they think it’s great to constantly have a throng of “spare grandchildren” around them. “And that they’re not our actual grandchildren often makes things easier”, says Rainer Gebauer.
  • Architecture creates opportunities for meeting © Nora S. Stampfl
    Architecture creates opportunities for meeting

    Why do you need one hundred square metres all for yourself when half will do? In the “Lighthouse” each household has its own rooms, but the goal from the beginning was to reduce individually used areas in favour of communally used ones. Thus there is a guest flat, laundry room and garden for general use. Or the residents meet up to watch TV, play table tennis or table football in the communal room. “But meetings mainly come about spontaneously”, says Rainer Gebauer. “You just ask: ‘Do you want to have a coffee?’”
  • Return to the good old laundry room © Nora S. Stampfl
    Return to the good old laundry room

    Sharing too is very popular at the “Lighthouse”. With increasing prosperity and the advent of affordable appliances, the laundry room disappeared from German apartment buildings. At the “Lighthouse” it is experiencing a revival, because washing machines were banished from the flats. But the “Lighthouse” laundry room was not born of necessity, as were those in the past, but from the pursuit of sustainability and community. Even doing the laundry becomes an opportunity for residents to meet and have just a short chat in-between things.

Between expectation and reality

Nevertheless, the multigenerational house is still “a pure niche product”, says Bernhard Heiming, CEO of the building company BB Hausbau and voluntary head of the working group Senior Home Properties of the German Association of Private Housing and Real Estate Companies. For several years now, individual projects have been launched that often arise from private initiatives, but to offer real solutions to social problems, in Heiming’s view, the idea of the multigenerational house must go beyond isolated applications and be transferred to district concepts that create surroundings which in fact do justice to the demographic development.

Government has recognised the potential of this approach for cities and has promoted around 450 participating houses with the “Action Programme: Multigenerational Housing” since 2006. These houses have been established locally as hubs for information and services needed by people of different ages: mutual assistance ranges from computer courses and surrogate grandmas to help with homework and lunch for schoolchildren, following the model of the extended family.

Better quality of life

But do the new intergenerational forms of living also solve the social problems that have arisen from demographic change? In her Master’s thesis, Yvonne Kuhnke examined neighbourly support in multigenerational housing projects. She was unable to find tenable evidence that the actual relations of assistance reflect the high expectations raised by research, media, actors in the housing market and government policy. While it is true that people give each other a hand in these housing projects, ranging from help in shopping to child care and cooking in the event of illness, this assistance is “predominantly ‘typical’ of support amongst neighbours, characterised by a manageable extent and low degree of commitment”. Precisely the responsibility for nursing, she says, is what neighbours generally cannot or do not want to undertake. “Such projects should be considered under the aspect not of an easing of public sector responsibility in future”, Kuhnke therefore proposes, “but rather of their significance for the quality of life.”

Better quality of life was the whole point of joining forces for the house community of the “Lighthouse”. The children are glad of the gummy bears from surrogate grandma Ingrid Vetter and she enjoys her colourful family of choice. The multigenerational house was never supposed to be a safety net for emergencies: “I don’t expect care services from my neighbours. I’d organise care differently”, say Vetter. Alone the knowledge that someone will sometimes cook for her when she is ill, she says, is worth a great deal. But neither she nor the other elderly residents have yet to experience the real thing. “And who knows how the house community will deal with a case of long-term care”, says Rainer Gebauer. “What will be, will be”