As divorce and blended families are becoming mainstream --think of the Brady Bunch as pioneers in the field-- the homes where they live have to adapt to the new family dynamic. Architects and real estate agencies are eager to jump on the bandwagon.
GENEVA- "House, nine rooms, 210 square meter, in a quiet neighborhood. Double house; ideal for stepfamily." "Your new life commands a new living environment. Stepfamilies need a separate space for each of their members." "Home plan suitable for a blended family. Two sleeping areas plus a large central room."
When Ms. X falls in love with Mr. Y, and they decide to move in together along with their children from previous marriages, the situation can be complicated. The new "nest" needs to have spacious and multi-purpose rooms. In France, real estate agents and promoters are starting to target blended families specifically in their classified ads.
"More and more people are getting divorced, especially in Paris and its suburbs. We have many customers in this situation. We try to interest them in a certain type of home," admits Alexandre Colleu, a real estate agent working in suburbia. In France, one out of five children live in a blended family. In Switzerland, more than 22,000 divorces were granted in 2010; the figure has been increasing steadily for the past few years. "Separations are increasing, but so is the speed at which couples find new partners. They are not a market yet, but they're a target population," confirms Yankel Fijalkow, author of The Sociology of Housing. "Real estate agents have now found a way of selling homes that would be too expensive for a single family," he notes. At the National Architecture School in Paris, where Fijalkow teaches, masters-builders and architects are working on the issue: "They are studying the housing models of countries from countries where people live with their extended family rather than within nuclear families," Professor Fijalkow explains.
Not every family is the Brady Bunch
Each blended family is different. Some homes are organized so that each generation has their own space– whereas in other houses, people are separated according to family groups. Let's go back to the aforementioned "nine-room house". The estate agent describes it: "It is made of two detached houses linked by a footbridge. The couple who wants to preserve their newly-found intimacy can live in one house, and the children in the other. Also, children of blended families are often teenagers who appreciate the idea of having their own private space," he adds.
Sibrine Durnez, an architect in the Belgian city of Liège, has designed a house with two very separate levels. "The parents did not want to live in a sad, empty house on the weeks when they don't have custody of their children. So from their floor, they can't see the kids' rooms. They also wanted all the children's bedrooms to be exactly the same size, to avoid jealousy," she explains, adding that her firm mostly designs small houses for single-parent families.
Other families chose to allocate a part of the house to each "clan," where they share some rooms but sometimes have two different front doors. The most radical version of this is a perfectly symmetrical house, with a double kitchen and a double living room, which can be separated or joined according to the mood of the day. "It's important to be able to spend time with each other, but it's also important to be able to ‘avoid" each other," Yankel Fijalkow explains.
Different homes for different scenarios
When your new partner moves into your home with his or her children, there are also different scenarios. When the budget is tighter, stepsiblings have to share bedrooms, a difficult situation for teenagers. Makeshift wall/shelves have been invented to make the best out of small rooms. Bigger budgets might choose to extend their residence. In France, Camif Habitat, a home furniture and design company, offers wooden house extensions custom-made to "fit the dimensions of a new family."
In Switzerland, classified ads are still low-key about the topic. "We rent out apartments as they exist, and then the tenants organize the place the way they want it to be," says Bernard Nicod, of Nicod real estate. At Domicim's, people are saying the same thing: there is no specific market here.
At CGi Immobilier, a third real estate company, on the contrary, agents are working on the future. "The first thing is flexibility. To meet this demand, we will offer ‘mixed-integration housing" that can adapt to the family's evolving needs, so that there is no need to move house as the family reshapes," deputy administrator Charles Spierer told us. "We have three- to five-room standard apartments, with a smaller room on the side, a kind of studio. The two units are independent. They have their own entrance and are separated by a double-door, like in hotels." Spierer lists the things that can be done with the added room: a study if one of the parents works from home, a bedroom for the au pair, a private space for a teen, a new room for the children of a stepfamily or an ageing grandmother, or even a separate rented accommodation.
Jeanne Della Casa, an architect in Lausanne, Switzerland, worked on this type of project with her students at the Technical University (EPFL) – specifically, on a "removable bedroom". "The important thing is to be able to do and undo the spaces. The things that a family goes through – as couple, separated, blended… – only last for a few years. These different cycles change quickly, compared with the lifespan of a building. It seems risky to me to plan a house on a single one of these cycles," the architect says. Some may deem it risky, but others would call that being optimistic.
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Photo – Marion Girault-Rime