Accessory Dwellings

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Multigenerational homes: accessory dwelling units by any other name

In the past year or two, major builders have accomplished an interesting slight of hand.  They have recognized the need for houses with ADUs, and started selling them for tidy sums — but only while doing everything they can to pretend they have not built ADUs.

That’s the conclusion I draw from a piece by Penelope Green in the New York Times.
Here’s a sales video from Lennar, a builder she profiles.

Lennar’s “Next Gen” is clearly a house with an ADU, but they don’t call it that.  It’s a “home within a home,” and the video is careful not to bring up the bugaboo of renters or strangers living in the extra unit.  It’s for a grandparent, a college age student, or “any family member.”

The keyword that people from “preppers” to investment advisers  are coalescing around is “multigenerational.”  The pictures on the Lennar NextGen web site make a rosy case for it.

lennar next gen marketing

Unsurprisingly for such an intuitive concept, the sales work is going well.  “In Arizona alone, over 100 have been sold,” says the article, and next year, the company will be rolling out Next Gen houses in all their markets.

Other builders have come up with the same concept but their own names, like the “Grand Retreat,” adding to the interminable list of synonyms for the microdevelopment that shall not speak its name.

Digging deeper, the NYT article describes how the ADUs are made more stealthy, so that the illusion of nuclear-family living can be maintained.

To circumvent zoning that is leery of duplexes, Lennar’s Next Gen houses run on a single electric meter, have only microwave convection ovens in the apartment, and from the outside look like other houses.

“One address, one hookup, one electric meter,” said Alan Jones, Lennar’s Arizona division president. It was Mr. Jones who took a Las Vegas architect’s concept and ran with it.

The electric meter thing shows how ridiculous institutional systems of zoning and lending can be.  The number of electric meters is often used as a proxy by the lending industry or zoning/permitting departments to determine the number of units in a house.  People refinancing their properties may receive frantic calls from their lending agents, saying things like “They’re ready to approve your loan, but they have one more crucial question–how many electric meters are there?”  Answering “one” will probably cause less trouble because it’s more likely to match expectations for a single-family property.

Following this logic, a 100-unit prewar apartment building in Manhattan is also a single family house.  Right.

In my opinion, the stealth concept may end up defeating itself when it comes to quality of life, for residents of both the main dwelling and the ADU.  Recasting houses with ADUs as multigenerational homes, at least in Lennar’s case, seems to be removing some of the New Urbanist-type advantages of these dwellings.  They seem to be very car-centric, meaning that aging in place could be more difficult than it looks, and sustainability may not be a big priority.  The ADU in the Lennar video even has its own distinct garage!

Moreover, privacy is a crucial aspect of quality of life.  The space and quiet of one’s own dwelling provides a certain amount of dignity that many people treasure.  Hiding the ADU within a single family frame (often called a “carve-out” ADU) exposes the denizens of each dwelling to the sights, sounds, smells, etc of the other.  It sacrifices the palpable privacy provided by detached (but utterly unstealthy) ADU forms like backyard cottages.  While attached ADUs can be made to feel very separate, careful thought and special construction techniques are required (many detailed in Michael Litchfield’s book), and I’m not sure the big builders are really up to that level of craft and design.

The false contrast of “multigenerational good, accessory dwelling bad” is a curious case of conflicting emotions.  People clearly desire properties that have ADU functionality, but they don’t want to give up the precious illusion that they are living a nuclear family lifestyle.

photo by flickr user theopie (Creative Commons)

photo by flickr user theopie (Creative Commons)

I’d say it’s time for the stealth ADUs to come out of the closet.  They will eventually, anyway — because experience shows that properties built with multiple units will eventually be used as multiple units, no matter what their stated purpose.  It may be grandma sleeping in the in-law unit now, but eventually it’ll be a stranger.  No need to fret — new bylaws will specify they dress up as grandma to keep the illusion going. 🙂

About Martin John Brown

Martin John Brown is a researcher and consultant on environment and housing. Find out more at

4 comments on “Multigenerational homes: accessory dwelling units by any other name

  1. kolpeterson
    November 30, 2012

    I’ve observed that there have been several articles about this kind of multigenerational interior carve out ADU housing trend lately.

    Here’s another one from November 16th— The building company Lennar has been featured in both articles.

  2. Martin John Brown
    November 30, 2012

    It could be that this change in lingo… “accessory apartment” to “multigenerational home” … is the thing that will get people to have a positive perception of ADUs. Perhaps we should just change the name of the blog to “multigenerational homes.” !

    But I personally have doubts about the carve-out form of housing. People crave their own roofs. A badly done carve-out could create a lower quality of life and a less pleasant house — whereas to me a well-done ADU increases quality of life for all users. We’ll have to see where this goes, but I predict that grandma would rather live in a cottage than a carve-out.

  3. Caydence James
    May 22, 2016

    None of the points you mention are that big of a deal – especially the last one where you point out privacy. Clearly you’re not really familiar with what happens with aging adults. As soon as they have to live with someone, their privacy is usually the 1st to go and their choices are to live in an assisted living home or a next gen home. Either way, they lose privacy but it’s less invasive when they’re living in a mini apartment vs a whole building filled with strangers! Not to mention that in a house like this they get to see their family more!
    This home is a great concept so this post you’ve written sounds like you are just looking for something to complain about and settled on this.

    • Martin John Brown
      May 23, 2016

      Hey Caydence, thanks for stopping by our site, I agree with you, living in a “mini apartment” is less invasive than living in a whole building filled with strangers, and having a “mini apartment” can be a good thing for extended families. Our entire site is about those “mini apartments” — also known as accessory dwellings — and the way they affect people’s lives.

      Aging-in-place and privacy are central concerns in nearly all the projects we profile — for example the ones listed here: . I believe after studying more of our site you’ll find that there are certainly better and worse ways to do “mini apartments.” The “nextGen” scheme is one way, yes, but I’m not sure it’s the best.

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This entry was posted on November 30, 2012 by in News, Policy & Trends and tagged , , , .
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