By Tracy Hanes

The Comeback of Multi-Generational Homes

 A  blast from the past—the multi-generational home—is making a strong comeback in Ontario. Pre-World War II, this form of housing was common, but it was eclipsed by demand for single-family homes due to the popularity of the automobile, increasing household wealth, affordable airfare and a cultural shift to children leaving home at a young age. 

Now the multi-gen home is a growing trend, driven by people’s concern about how to accommodate aging parents (especially since COVID-19’s deadly toll in nursing and retirement homes) or a desire to help financially challenged young adult kids struggling with housing affordability.

About 20% of Canadians were living in multi-generational housing prior to COVID-19, according to a Pew Research Centre study. The last federal census revealed a 38% increase from 2001 to 2016, with the highest proportion (17%) in Toronto. While children used to leave home at 18 for postsecondary education and often didn’t come back, lack of housing affordability or student debt has forced many young adults to return to their parents’ homes. And with the population of senior citizens over 65 being the highest it’s ever been in Canada, many are looking at ways that they can remain independent, yet have support and companionship. 

“There is no question that age-in-place with family is becoming more popular in our society,” says Stephen Hunt, principal of Hunt Design Associates Inc. in Markham. “Particularly in view of the COVID era, people feel it’s safer to provide care at home and protect the nest.” 

While home additions or refinishing basements to create apartments for family members has been common in the renovation market, new-home builders are realizing the opportunity and some have begun to introduce multi-generational designs as part of their product mix.

Embracing the Concept

Marshall Homes has embraced the concept at two of its Pickering sites, as well as Jeffery Homes at its Bowmanville site. Three years ago, Marshall introduced the Flexhouz, incorporating a small bungalow within a larger two-storey house on a 50-foot lot. The homes cost approximately $1.6 million and three buyers at an 18-lot upscale site opted to purchase the design. 

“The first customer to get the Flexhouz is very happy,” says Craig Marshall, president of Marshall Homes. “He has his in-laws living there and he has told me it is exactly what they wanted.”


In fall 2020, Marshall launched its Next site in Pickering, offering the Flexhouz on smaller, 37-foot lots. The 42-lot Next community, where about one-third of the homes are Flexhouz designs, quickly sold out.

The affordability issue prompted Jeffery Homes to introduce some multi-generational homes at its Orchard East site in Bowmanville, part of the municipality of Clarington on the GTA’s eastern edge.

“We thought if we could take a bungalow that had a bigger footprint and have a separate dwelling in the basement, it could be a mortgage helper or accommodate adult kids who have come back home,” says Scott Jeffery, co-owner of Jeffery Homes. “Some kids go to university and graduate with huge debt, or have gone through a divorce and have a child or two and need to stay with their parents until they can re-establish themselves.”

However, adult children don’t necessarily want to share space with Mom and Dad, says Jeffery, so his company developed the Waterford, a 2,929- to 3,540-square-foot bungalow (including both units) on a 40-foot lot. Each unit has two bedrooms and two bathrooms. The lower level contains 1,435 square feet, with 9-foot ceilings, a full kitchen and soundproofing, as well as its own heating and cooling system. The double-car garage has a dividing wall in the middle, with stairs to the basement from one of the bays. The Waterford sold for about $850,000 including the finished basement unit; a similar model with an unfinished basement was priced at $699,000. The seven two-unit homes available in Orchard East sold out. 

“The bungalow is raised, so you do end up with a few steps to the main level,” notes Jeffery. “In the basement, we wanted bigger windows, so we did 9-foot ceilings and heated floors. It’s very comfortable and doesn’t feel like a traditional basement. People can use the separate staircase in the garage or a side entrance door to access it.”

More Than Just Bungalows

Hunt says traditionally, multi-generational homes have been bungalows, but that’s not always possible in the current market as they require larger, most expensive lots. But designing homes with private elevators opens up multiple possibilities, such as in two-storey homes and three-storey townhomes. The cost of the elevator is negligible compare to the price for a larger lot, Hunt says. Where accessibility isn’t an issue, Hunt’s firm has designed detached and townhouse plans where the basement and ground floor comprise one residence and the second floor another. 

For Max LeMarchant, owner of New Amherst Homes, the question was not if but when he’d be including multi-generational housing in New Amherst, a New Urbanism development in Cobourg. The community master plan, created in the early ’90s by New Urbanism gurus Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, included the provision for secondary suites—a forward-thinking idea in Ontario at the time. It took until 2011 for the Planning Act to be amended to require municipalities to authorize Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) or secondary suites in their official plans and bylaws (as of January 1, 2012). But it took several more years for those changes to work their way into the province’s housing industry.

While he had previously built a few custom basement suites to accommodate buyers’ family members, two years ago, LeMarchant started building laneway ADUs as part of the housing mix. The end units of New Amherst’s Garden Flats (small at-grade townhomes geared to empty-nesters) include a detached double-car garage with a 660 sq. ft. coach house apartment above. Three of the four Garden Flats with the one-bedroom accessory units have sold, with buyers using the coach houses as rental properties or to house family members. LeMarchant plans to build two more coach house units this year on the end units of a block of newly-released three-bedroom bungalow loft townhomes.

He also saw opportunity in some sloping lots in New Amherst’s current Phase 6 to create multi-generational houses with self-contained one-bedroom, one-bath walkout suites with separate entries and HVAC systems. The Calcutt Cottage includes a 1,483 sq. ft., three-bedroom, two-bathroom bungalow with 721 sq. ft. one-bedroom lower suite on a 49-foot lot, starting at $812,900. The Port Granby Estate with walkout suite on 49-foot lot starts at $834,900 and includes an 1,886 two-storey, three-bedroom, three-bathroom residence on two floors with a 570 sq. ft. suite in the walk-out basement. A third option is the Cusato, a two-storey plan with three bedrooms on the second floor and an adaptable suite on the main floor that could be used for an adult child or senior parent. However, it lacks its own kitchen, separate entrance or heating system. 

“There’s a big threshold to get into the housing market, and families are leveraging their resources to make it possible,” says LeMarchant. “Multi-generational homes such as these give residents autonomy but still allows everyone to be part of the family.” He says these housing units help to diversify neighbourhoods too, making them more sustainable and are a good way to integrate more people into the community’s social strata. 

Laneway Housing

Until recently, the housing industry’s response to multi-generational housing has been poor, according to Leith Moore, former adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo’s school of Urban and Regional Planning and principal and founder of R-Hauz Solutions, a Toronto company that manufactures factory-built laneway and mid-rise avenue housing. In Toronto, he’s seen a real upsurge of interest in life-cycle housing.

“You have the ability to use your own land, buy a laneway house from us, and in four months it’s done and you can put your family in it or rent it,” says Moore. “You can have something on the ground floor, such as an office, visitor suite or guestroom. Or if you’re using the ground floor as a garage, it can easily be adapted to family living.”

Moore says these units are the least expensive form of housing and provide gentle density, with a repeatable design. And with COVID causing people to realize the advantages of having family close by, laneway homes provide a lower-density, affordable ground-level solution in the city, as opposed to moving to the suburbs. 

R-Hauz’s laneway houses range from 800 to 1,200-square-feet, priced at $330 to $350 per square foot, about half the price of a Toronto condo. Moore says R-Hauz’s six-storey mass-timber townhouses, designed for avenues, offer flexibility in the number of units (up to six) and mix of uses, and can also be a multi-generational solution: “With the six-storey, you could have all family, no family, some family.”

LeMarchant is also offering his laneway units as a solution for homeowners who already own an existing home or property that can  accommodate an ADU. Currently, the coach houses are stick-built, but he’s exploring modular solutions.

Custom home builders are also seeing more interest in generational housing. “We’ve been getting more inquiries the last few years,” says Jonathan Jacobs of Walden Homes. “It’s definitely something people are talking about. I can’t say there’s been a large influx, though people are cognizant of the value in doing this.” 

Although Walden hasn’t experienced a lot of demand yet for these types of homes, it will be starting a multi-generation project this spring in an upscale neighbourhood in Brampton, adding a large addition to a small heritage home on a street occupied mainly by ‘monster homes.’

“It will be a modern addition that’s essentially a second home attached to this home,” Jacobs explains. “It’s done so that sometime down the road, the husband and wife that own the house can potentially have both sets of parents come live with them. It will really maximize liveability on this amazing property.”

Design Considerations

Designing multi-generational homes comes with some challenges and different considerations than a single-family home would normally entail, including separate heating and cooling systems and fire protection between units. 

“Because these suites require a one-hour fire rating, they are more difficult and costly to build than a normal home,” says Marshall. “We included a zoned heating system, which I would highly recommend. We also had a few hiccups along the way with the first Flexhouz, with trades having to get familiar with the concept. Despite never having done one of these before, our construction team led by John Giancola executed it flawlessly. The next ones will be easier.”

Hunt says if the unit is to accommodate aging parents or people with special needs, it’s important to consider residents’ ability to access their home, as stairs could pose a problem. Bathrooms and kitchens should be designed to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers. 

Parking can be a further concern, as homes with secondary suites may have more vehicles than a single-family home. Jeffery tried to build its two-unit home on quiet streets without sidewalks; all have double-car garages and double driveways to avoid having cars on the street. LeMarchant says New Amherst’s proximity to grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, coffee shops, etc., allows residents to function with less reliance on vehicles, meaning that many households could likely get by with one car, thus requiring less parking.

Marshall, Jeffery and LeMarchant say getting approvals for the units from their local municipalities was a fairly simple process, and their local governments were receptive. 

While Jeffery’s and New Amherst’s ADUs can be used as rental units or multi-generational suites, the zoning for Marshall’s Pickering Flexhouz homes only allows family members to live in the secondary suites. 

“The municipality of Clarington was great and was all for it,” says Jeffery. “They could see the vision and they want to have this type of product. The town planner was very helpful. She gets it and sees a need for these.”

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