2020 has refocused attention on how many current housing developments remain inaccessible, inflexible and isolating. Fresh from winning a competition by London’s Enfield Council to design a concept for a new intergenerational housing scheme, Adrian Hill and Milena Patru of Adrian Hill Architects discuss personal precedents, layering privacy and why shared learning should always be part of shared living.

What was the importance of this challenge to you as a practice?

ADRIAN HILL: Before recently establishing our own studio, Milena and I were working together in our previous practice, where we started off with a focus on residential work before moving on to larger schemes in student accommodation and also senior care, particularly a project in south London in which the entire top floor was designed for residents suffering with dementia. I have an elderly relative suffering from a related condition, as such my family and I have been assessing how they might be incorporated into our own home. So these were things that have been at the forefront of our mind recently. It's also obviously a very relevant discussion at the moment within the context of COVID, which has intensified the debate about the ongoing loneliness epidemic. On the other hand multigenerational households have always existed, they’ve just not often been designed for. That’s what made Enfield Council’s challenge so pertinent and progressive. If you look at the demographics within that area, many have already grown up in a multi-generational home, just without a baseline of mechanisms or policies directed towards that reality.

The inter/multi-generational home isn’t a new concept, though increasingly it’s being rediscovered as a solution to many of today’s housing challenges. Where did you start your research?

MILENA PATRU: One of the first things we did was think about precedents: where in the world is this prevalent? We know that there are a lot of multi-generational living arrangements in a city like London, they’re just not visible in the urban core. So I thought back to a place where I had seen this physically manifested and that was my home region of Transylvania. In the village that my grandparents lived and farmed in, people often had two houses. It wasn’t something I understood at the time, but now makes a lot of sense in the context of these conversations. In that community there were very strict social rules that meant, while the eldest children would get an education and some money to make their own way in life, the youngest child would inherit the farmstead and be expected to stay home to look after their elderly parents. Then when the youngest child got married and started their own family, the grandparents would move into the second, smaller home. We thought, what does this solve? They have two front doors, a shared courtyard and barn – all the means of production. Yet at the same time they sit independently, each having an individual face projected towards the community. This was the key for us: that balance between living together whilst also servicing the need for privacy and identity.

This was the key for us: that balance between living together whilst also servicing the need for privacy and identity

AH: From there we started looking at the back-to-back houses that existed around Birmingham in the UK at the beginning of the last century. There you would have 10 or 12 houses sharing facilities like toilets and a laundry. Everyone worked together to maintain and operate that shared infrastructure. At that time this was a housing type for people living in poverty; private space simply wasn’t a luxury that they could afford. But what they had that many people living in a city like London now don’t is that vital sense of togetherness that comes from mucking in together.

How did you balance the need for flexibility with feasibility in the design of the core unit?

MP: We took the decision that it’s rarely more than two households that live together, so we simplified our entry based on that premise. There’s also, typically, one smaller and one larger household, so the way the space is divided isn’t an even split. Between the two connected apartments, which are quite rigid in structure, we’ve positioned an extra room that adds a lot of flexibility. While there would be a variety of unit sizes within the scheme to accommodate a range of household types, from solo students to large families, the one we illustrated for the competition has five bedrooms in total, with one of those being the adjoining room. In that example there could be a four bedroom plus one bedroom property, or a two bedroom plus a three bedroom, or simply a one bedroom plus a three bedroom with a shared space.

There need to be protocols in place to make the sharing of units and the broader community structure work

AH: It’s a kind of buffer zone. It could be a snug, a bedroom or the space which two households use for jointly for childcare, or it could be a study. In fact we did want to respond to the current crisis by making sure there was provision in the design for those working from home. We set out the floor plan to eliminate corridor space, and instead turned that circulation space into the study. Effectively we’ve gained an extra room while remaining within London housing standards.

While there’s always the risk of getting lost in the  complexity required of this sort of proposal at the widest scale, we felt that that core idea of the ‘two front doors’ is actually very simple and something that many would be able to comprehend. The real innovation comes with how a council or developer picks that up and runs with it in terms of the management process; there need to be protocols in place to make the sharing of units and the broader community structure work.

How does that ethos of shared resources play out in the programming of the wider development?

MP:  For us it was important to create different types of spaces that would be shared with different types of people. Inside the linked unit, which is what we call the two joined apartments, there’s the terrace that you share with the second household that you live with. But then there’s also a courtyard that’s accessible to everyone on your stair core. Beyond that there’s the broadway running down the centre of the development, which is fully public. We wanted to layer that potential for various types of interaction. That broadway would also host commercial shops, workshops and offices that would be the focus of the ‘community task force’, an essential pillar of our proposal.

Part of the potential of these sort of developments is that they provide a framework for not just intergenerational living, but intergenerational learning

What that means in practice is that if a resident was, say, a carpenter or plumber or shopkeeper, they would put some time aside per week to work in the community. That work would then be used to offset rent or maintenance costs. We showed the council a case study of a carpenter who could help with the upkeep of the development, but also then mentor some of the younger residents. That sort of relationship addresses not only isolation amongst older generations, but also skills gaps amongst the younger. Part of the potential of these sort of developments is that they provide a framework for not just intergenerational living, but intergenerational learning.