Family of the Future

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. All writing and graphics are done by me. 


“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.

Every person originates from a family. Heck, we might just all be part of one mega family with roots stretching from the Y chromosomal Adam and mitochondrial Eve, as author A.J. Jacobs puts it. If family is a primal commonality among the human race, why are there so many different ideas of family?

The reason is that there are so many different types of families, and each of us is only familiar with the kinds that we have had exposure to. 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 paradigmatic shift over the last generation, continual change is expected. In this project, I speculate the future of families, the change in family structures, values, and needs.

The more traditional definition of family is a group of people who share blood or legal bond living together as a unit. The essential function of a family is to ensure the continuation of society, biologically and socially. In theory, a family should provide a home for common living to all its members and achieve other secondary economic, educational, religious, cultural functions.

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 such as infectious diseases, poor sanitation, food shortages, unclean water supplies, inadequate medical care, et cetera. 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 because of the growing number of one-person households and women choosing to have fewer children. 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. As for the rest: 7 percent live with a parent who cohabits with an unmarried partner (a category too rare for the Census Bureau to consider counting in 1960). 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. Family is closer to that of an idea; subjective and emotional, flexible and nonbinding.

Predicting that this trajectory continues and versatility remains to define family, I think that multi-families could become a trend in the future. 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 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.

Fiona Bennie suggests a similar estimate of future families. “Tandem Tribes,” phrased for two single-parent families sharing one family home, would each occupy private spaces within the house. Single parents have a partnership of convenience, with both parties enjoying mutual benefit from collaborative child-raising. Another type of family is multi-gens, or multiple generations living under one roof. These families depend on support from one another, each person chipping in on their part, and everyone leads independent lives made possible by a synergistic ground.

Multigenerational family living is already staging a comeback. As of 2008, 49 million Americans, or 16.1 percent of the total U.S. population, lived in a multigenerational household. In 2009, this number was 51.5 million Americans (17 percent of the population), and in 2014, 60.6 million Americans (19 percent of the U.S. population), according to Pew Research Center analysis. Multigenerational living has rebounded since the pre-recession era, with numbers more than doubling since 1980.

A few factors contribute to this phenomenon, such as the big wave of immigration by Latin American and Asian groups, like their European counterparts from earlier centuries, who are more inclined than American natives to live in multigenerational family households. However, this is not to say that the incident is Latino or Asian specific. The move into multigenerational family households has grown more prevalent during the Great Recession and onwards among all major demographic groups. Another factor is the cultural shift in marriage, which is now common to delay or forgo. A byproduct of this is that more young and unmarried people in their 20s and 30s move into their childhood homes to save economically while launching careers.

The recent pandemic, too, has brought on a surge in multigenerational buying. Due to concerns about isolation and the spread of Covid-19 in senior housing, many families have decided to bring aging parents into the home. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Grandparents help with child care, and children keep them company, and their adult children can better manage their work-life balance while working from home. Some families see multigenerational living as a means to consolidate the family’s wealth as well.

Family values are in part shaped by family structures. With the new multi-family structures, family values too shall be redefined. Building emotional and spiritual kinship through unconditional, non-judgmental support will most likely become a crucial value in a family that lacks formal ties. Common life experiences and shared values/beliefs/traditions, whether social, cultural, religious, financial or others, would also be elemental in bridging separate households into one family unit. Collaboration will be another core value in the changing dynamics of the family. Since a significant advantage of multi-families is the co-beneficial efficiency, and many will choose to form a multi-family for this reason, flexible collaboration will need to be negotiated to ensure the best for all members of the family.

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. An apartment is a suite of rooms forming one residence, typically in a building containing a number of these. How then could apartments be redesigned for multi-families?

I turn to nature for inspiration and find that beehives and cells are particularly interesting and applicable. Honey bees construct hives out of wax they secrete from special glands in their abdomens. As both residents and architects, bees have the assertive ability to continually sculpt and grow their nest, unlike humans, who usually take on a much passive role as occupants who are forced to live 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. Further, 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. Multi-families, like cells, are constructed and customized in a supple manner.

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 form a clan newly or break off from 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 noticeable discrepancy in utility usage among the group members. By making collaborative consumption beneficial, it becomes desirable and not sacrificial, and in this way, a sustainable lifestyle can be achieved more enjoyably.

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.

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. The curve also prevents noise from the outside penetrating in because sound waves wrap around the building and shield the interior from the loud noise outside. As a result, sounds are softer inside the house, making it ideal for uninterrupted relaxation.

Single Unit sketch

There are many possible pairings of multi-families dwelling in this apartment. To mention a few, the first might be a single-parent family in need of child care and a childless couple who desire but cannot have children. This symbiotic relationship fills each other’s needs and wants; the single parent can receive trusted and reliable child care without the burden of a high price, while the couple can receive the emotional fulfillment that comes from raising a child.

Another scenario could be a retired couple and a younger couple melding together to form a friendly quartet. While the generational gap may bring about some unique challenges, valuable perks outweigh the minor concerns. For the older couple, living in collaboration with young people will help them age in place, and finding companionship can improve their mental and physical health. For the younger couple, cohabitating is a financially affordable solution that helps with saving and a special opportunity to connect and learn from the wisdom and insights of the older generation.

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 will not need to move to a bigger house to have more space. They can purchase a second unit in this apartment and connect it to their current unit to make a larger home. The same plan goes for multigenerational families.

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 loyal devotion of families. Critics may also point out that the fissile design of the apartment reflects, and perhaps encourages, this impermanent union.

What people need to understand, however, is that the changing nature of family is a response to changing definitions of quality of life. Change is not a total erasure of the past. It is an adaptation. If people are changing, then design should too. It is an unreasonable expectation to try and fit all families into a three-bedroom apartment, for no reason except custom.

There is no guarantee that multi-families will forever remain in their ties; this is the same for any other family, including the traditional ones. 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. It’s the spiritual bond through trust. There isn’t a reason why multi-families wouldn’t be able to have this bond.

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. Hopefully, no families will decide to split just because the architecture can.

Form Follows Family
Form Follows Family

With family lives and values changing, housing design should respond to this change. It is the home that houses people and their philosophy, after all. I speculate that the definition of family will continue to depart from convention, and unorthodox multi-family living arrangements will become more common. Living spaces will need to accommodate the new needs of the multi-families. My design proposal for the future apartment is an organic and sculptable design that is conveniently customizable to any family: form follows family. The interlocking walls open a boundless opportunity for community extension. The design is intended to reflect the flexibility of multi-families and aid in family building decisions by giving people the autonomy to self-direct the architecture of their living space.

There is no one type of family that is right or normal. Right and normal is a subjective judgment. The best that design can do is to help people find what is right for them.