Family of the Future

Speculative Design

A project speculating the future of families by visualizing an alternative to the current housing model. The vision-driven (What if..?) approach to design pushes the boundaries of what a family can be.



“What is a family?”

This easy-sounding question lacks a succinct and quintessential definition. So many things can define a family, and it means something different to everyone. From single-parent to extended families, the family make-ups are diverse; and family life continues to change and evolve. The once-dominant nuclear family structure is replaced by a new norm of diversity in family groupings. Given that family structures and values have undergone a large shift over the last generation, continual change is expected. In this project, I speculate on the future of families and the change in family structures, values, and needs.

In the past, large families were typical worldwide. Victorian families especially were famously known to be very big. The reason for this was that it was not unusual for babies to die in their infancy due to common vulnerabilities in general hygiene and medicine. Parents had lots of children to ensure that at least some of them survived.

The average household size has been steadily shrinking since the 1940s. As child mortality became lower with medical advancements and the death of a child a rare event, the need to raise large families has diminished over time. Parents have chosen to be strategic with childbirth to ensure they give their children the best opportunities for a better life.

Today, there is no one dominant family structure; there are all kinds. In a 2014 report for the Council on Contemporary Families, Philip Cohen notes that 22 of 100 representative children live in a married male-breadwinner family. In the 1950s, this number was 65 percent. The largest group of children—34—live with dual-earner married parents, but that largest group is only a third of the total. 3 percent live with either a single father. 3 percent live with grandparents but no parents.

Cohabitation is on the rise while marriage is declining. An increasing share of children live with an unmarried parent, and same-sex marriage is a right nationwide in America. The growing diversity and complexity in contemporary family living arrangements are reflected in the more fluid definition of family. It is not so much the particular members or an objective arrangement necessary for making a family a “family.” Nor is family strictly defined by marriage and blood or legal ties.

Predicting that this trajectory continues, I think that multi-families could become a trend. Multi-families meaning multiple smaller and independent families stringing together to form large family entities. A unique sort of trend reversal could happen where family sizes become as large as they were in the past. But the reason behind large families wouldn’t be an increased birth rate. It would be because many micro-families join to form macro-families.

What kind of living space would be needed to fulfill the needs of the multi-families? The current housing model that best supports co-living is an apartment. How, then, could apartments be redesigned for multi-families?

I find that beehives and cells are particularly interesting and applicable. As both residents and architects, bees have the assertive ability to continually sculpt and grow their nest, unlike humans, who generally take on a much passive role as occupants in ready-made spaces.

Cells undergo a life cycle. A cell is born by the division of a mother cell, and later during mitosis, it divides to make two new identical daughter cells. The daughter cells start the exact same process over again, and the cycle continues. A single cell cannot do much independently and so will group with other cells to create tissues. Tissues combine to form organs, organs combine to form organ systems, and organ systems combine to form organisms. The fluidity of cells being able to divide, separate, multiply, and combine, is conceptually similar to the workings of a multi-family.

What if manmade apartments too were organic? I imagine apartments consisting of spherical floating rooms capable of being linked or unlinked to other rooms. There are no concrete grounds that divide floors nor cement walls between adjacent units. The rooms are moldable like clay and malleable like cells, where the control of a button makes adjustments to link or separate the floating rooms. The construction materials, hypothetically speaking, support this flexure by their elastic quality, yet are durable enough to maintain form across adjustments in shape. This architecture is participatory, meaning tenants themselves take part in the structural assembly of their homes like the hive-building bees.

This pliable design embeds the flexible nature of multi-families: form follows family. Because the units are so adaptable in construction, it makes it easy for people to extend their community or break off from an existing one. Utility-wise, family plans will be available. Family plans would operate on the model of current cell phone family plans, where a group of people shares a monthly allotment of utilities, and all charges go to one combined bill. This plan would be a great way to save economically, especially if there is a discrepancy in usage among the group members. By making collaborative consumption beneficial, it becomes desirable and not sacrificial.

Speaking of sustainability efforts, the round design of the apartment is a contributing factor as well. Round homes were typical in many indigenous cultures, and there are specific reasons for that. Circular houses use less building materials than rectangular houses, meaning a smaller eco-footprint and more living space for less cost. With dozens of round interconnected modules forming the roof, each module supporting a portion of the roof, circular houses have incredible structural integrity and strength, unlike houses built of one large roof. The curved roofs make them wind-resistant, allowing wind to flow around them and not up against, making these homes particularly advantageous in extreme weather conditions. Since less surface area is in contact with adverse weather conditions, the overall durability, and energy efficiency of the home is high. Additionally, the circular structure supports a natural flow of air and temperatures inside the home; once heated air rises and reaches the center skylight, which is cooler, the air reacts by dropping to the floor where it moves across to the walls and rises again till it meets the skylight and drops again. 

There are many possible pairings of multi-families dwelling in this apartment. One might be a single-parent family in need of child care and a childless couple who desire but cannot have children. Under mutually agreed terms, this symbiotic relationship fills each other’s needs and wants; the single parent can depend on reliable child care, and the couple can receive emotional fulfillment from raising a child. The more traditional family formed through marriage can also benefit from dwelling here. If the parents decide to have more children and the family size grows, they can purchase a second unit and connect it to their current one to make a larger home. 

Form Follows Family

Some people may be disappointed that the multi-family model is not stable or long-term like traditional marriages and think the business-like concept of calculated choosing corrodes the unconditional love and devotion of families. Critics may also point out that the fissile design of the apartment reflects, and perhaps encourages, this impermanent union.

There is no guarantee that multi-families will forever remain in their ties; this is the same for any other family. Marriage happens with the intent to stay grounded in a commitment to a loving union, but that intent is not always kept fully through. The absence of a formal societal contract might make the multi-family seem more susceptible to a temporary commitment and not life bound. But what keeps a family together isn’t a scripted contract. 

With family lives and values changing, housing design should respond to this change. The design of the apartment, while fissile, is also combinative. The design is more meant to parallel the flexible ideology of multi-families than to promote fragile impermanence about them. It intends to aid in family-building decisions by giving people the autonomy to self-direct the architecture of their living space.

It is the home that houses people and their philosophy, after all.