Every family is different. Why are so many family homes the same?
The North American ideal of the nuclear family has shaped the way we live for a century now, informing everything from city planning to builders' floor plans. A new house near Hamilton suggests a different model: a place that provides the suburban virtues of privacy and comfort, while making room for the elders of a family to live and age in place.
"We think there's a lot of value in a family being able to live together, and to creating a home that can accommodate that," says Betsy Williamson, one of its architects.
This model of domesticity scrambles the very ideas on which the suburbs were built, to beautiful results. Designed by the wife-and-husband-led Williamson Williamson Architects, the 3,800-square-foot House on Ancaster Creek combines quarters for a couple, Michael and Binh, with space for Binh's parents. Most of its components are ordinary – three bedrooms, a home office, living room, dining room and kitchen, much like the generic builder houses that sit across the street.
Yet, the house's design is altered by the addition of a second kitchen and a very unusual floor plan: It's essentially an L. One wing holds public rooms, which line up across the lot to enjoy remarkable views of the creek and woods behind the house; a second wing protrudes toward the street, with a kitchen and bedroom for Binh's mother and a guest room for visiting family, plus the garage.
When the couple were building the house, Binh was already living nearby in a house, with his parents in a basement suite. "They weren't sick at the time, but they were getting older," Michael explains.
"Part of the design consideration for this house was to get them on the main floor, and allow us to be together when we wanted to be."
It is exceptionally well-detailed, and the architects have used design to represent the flow of the two spaces into each other. If you enter the house via the elders' wing, you pass under a stream of oak panelling that leads into the centre of the house and a grand spiral stair that leads up to a small second-floor master suite. "That connection to the most intimate part of the house," Shane Williamson says, "is an indication that this really is a family affair."
Today, the house is home to three family members; Binh's father died during the design process, but his mother lives comfortably in her suite, with nursing help and frequent visits from family. The clan gathers often in the living room and for meals at the dining table and in the kitchen.
The living room, dining room and kitchen wrap around a small courtyard animated by a Japanese maple, and the kitchen has a double-height ceiling that rises, as a pyramid, to a central skylight. All this interplay between architecture and landscape, indoor and outdoor, is deftly handled in what is, as Shane Williamson puts it, a "bespoke" house. The architects won a 2017 Ontario Wood Works Award for the design.
Likewise, even the more modest spaces of the house allowed the architects to explore some favourite themes. "We're really interested in tactility and detail," Betsy Williamson says. "The things you touch every day become a huge part of the house."
In a guest bathroom, one single bar of red powder-coated steel wraps around three walls; it serves as shelf, towel bar and as support for a round mirror. "It adds a huge amount of customization to a space that is otherwise quite ordinary," she explains.
And yet, if you ignore some of these particularities of detail and the wonderful quality of the site, it's easy to imagine a more generic version of this house: a broad, narrow building with a ground-floor secondary suite built in. Why are there not more of them?
In part, because owning a house has been affordable for most middle-class people, even in the most prosperous cities. That has changed, likely for good. "Property values are so high that it's becoming an easy decision to consolidate multigenerational family resources under one roof," Shane Williamson says.
Another reason is culture. "
Multigenerational living is not so intrinsic to our North American culture as it is elsewhere," he adds. "But given the diversity of our society," he argues, "it's coming." Part of that involves the arrival of new Canadians who bring a cultural norm of multigenerational living; Binh, the homeowner in Ancaster, is of Vietnamese descent. South Asian families have likewise brought this practice with them to the Toronto suburbs.
And indeed, the Williamsons have already designed two other multigenerational houses, with similarly nuanced spatial arrangements, in Toronto.
But as this shift continues, long-standing expectations and planning rules may stand in the way. When zoning regulations were introduced early in the 20 th century, they came to shape new neighbourhoods around certain ideas about how people should live together – and who would live there. This began in Canada, with the urban design of Frederick Todd in the years around 1910: the town of Mount Royal, Que.; Toronto's Leaside; and Vancouver's Shaughnessy Heights, where houses rested on verdant streets away from the smells and noise and crowds of the city.
Such a "separation of uses" became much more radical after 1945 – part of "a modernizing vision," as the historian Richard Harris has put it, "that sought to create a tidy, rational, planned environment." If you live in a suburb, as most Canadians do, there probably aren't any apartment buildings on your street, and it's probably against the rules to build one.
That tidiness, which is so familiar, doesn't lend itself to all the messy realities of life. Indeed, the Ancaster Creek house was built following local zoning, but, according to the architects, it wouldn't be permitted if it were a two-family house.
And the house does not express its most unusual quality. The building is largely opaque, a sculptural composition of boxes wrapped in limestone and vertical cedar slats. "It is a contemporary house in a non-contemporary context," Shane Williamson says, "but it doesn't shout its multifamily nature to the street." It is different, but a good neighbour.