(hey, type here for great stuff)

access to tools for the beginning of infinity

Designing homes that age well & adapt to life’s different stages

From the sandwich generation to the boomerang generation, homes undergo makeovers that don’t seem aligned with life’s events. This can be fixed.

Right before sitting down to write this, I biked with Kirsten to meet with Daniel “Dan” Parolek, an architect and urbanist based in the Bay Area. His planning firm has been working on relatively dense, walkable communities for years now; he explains the firm’s view in a book, Missing Middle Housing.

Daniel reached out when he recently saw Kirsten’s video on Culdesac Tempe, a place that self-defines as a car-free neighborhood built from scratch in the US. He helped develop the project’s blueprint and was interested in knowing our thoughts about it, thanking us for the many interviews and points of view we had come up with for the video production. And, since we happen to live nearby, we met at a place Daniel and us could easily reach by a pleasant bike ride.

Hidden Cafe (Berkeley, CA)

He was mentioning this on a sunny day while people sat outside an old simple-but-charming brick building by a creek and park that had emerged after an old train had been decommissioned decades ago, giving way to a longish, walkable belt that follows up after the first road intersection as a bike path connecting Berkeley with nearby Albany (population 20,000). It was a series of decisions that permitted the level of density, greenery, and conviviality (in this case, through a café when people work inside or chat outside, “this building’s last iteration of a long series, and I’m glad this time it seems to be working alright,” Dan said).

Other decisions, both top-down and bottom-up ones, would have yielded other outcomes; no decisions would have also contributed to an outcome (stasis, a well-known phenomenon in the Bay Area when it comes to urbanism). Things can change, and sometimes, they do change. “This place was very belligerent against any change; nobody wanted more buildings or density, and the building department was really a byproduct of that mentality; it was all NYMBYism.” Then, about seven years ago or so—Dan states—things changed. Even within Berkeley’s building department. “Who would have thought.” When you’re meeting with an urbanist, places take on a whole new meaning.

Are walkable communities un-American?

We mentioned knowing Patrick Kennedy, a local builder with whom we had produced some stories a few years ago —back when it was still really, really unpopular to talk about apartment buildings and not-yet-legal backyard cottages, and Dan explained that Patrick had been the “very first in cracking the code.” What did he mean? —We asked. Apparently, he had managed to get the first approval for the first residential building going up in central Berkeley “like, in decades.”

We sat outside the Hidden Café and enjoyed one of these conversations that you regret not having recorded, going seamlessly from big-picture topics to biographical notes of us three. Dan is originally from Columbus, Nebraska, a town of around 25,000 people. It had allowed him to appreciate a gently urban environment in chich everything feels reachable by foot or bike, from school to shopping or going about with friends.

Like us, Daniel Parolek isn’t simply interested in “building more supply,” which can be read as “build more and faster no matter what, I don’t care about the quality, the wellbeing, the amount of greenery, the design and materials, or the proximity of quality stores, activities, work, school.” He seems concerned about the quality, livability, and health of the places going up, which must be placed within a context that is as important as the dwellings themselves.

Contrary to the idea of suburban US Midwestern and Western post-World War II urban blueprints, one of his great-grandmothers lived all her life in one of the units of a charming brick quadruplex in a moment when the urban experience mustn’t have felt much different for Europeans living in small or mid-size cities and their equals in, say, Nebraska. At that moment in time, a relatively walkable, mixed-use urbanism was as middle-American as it was Dutch or French, if more grid-like and rationalistic across the New World as they were new urban centers built from scratch mainly during and after the Enlightenment.

How does an urbanist time-proof his house?

Daniel Parolek went to college in Berkeley and got his architecture degree later on, settling in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has worked since in the most-needed types of projects promising a type of walkable, denser urbanism that can fill the missing gap between suburbia and old urban centers. He married, settled in, and bought his place, a 1,000 square-foot bungalow on a small, triangularly shaped lot defined by him as a charming transition between two streets (“not designed by an architect, I bet,” he adds), a place “more than enough” to raise two kids and have guests over. When they bought their place “way before this area got this prohibitive for, basically, everybody but a few,” the house probably used too much room for the garage, the laundry room, and a mud room, so a series of small, affordable renovations upgraded the house for every stage in the family’s biography.

I was especially interested in how the Paroleks had dealt with another aspect of urbanism that seems “missing”: how to design a place so it can suit our present self but also our evolution over time as individuals and families. Stages in life, or working from home or not, trigger renewals that, at best, don’t live up to one’s expectations. For the Paroleks, it wasn’t a matter of rocket science: raising two children, they consolidated areas with services that took too much room for the amount of “service” they gave (mud room, laundry room, garage), freeing space for the family to use. A wall went down to make the kitchen more permeable, and the children shared a room as toddlers, later acquiring each room of their own. The house didn’t get bigger, yet it gave everyone their place at different stages.

And when the two children—now young adults—left for college, the Paroleks didn’t have to “downsize” because the home felt reasonably sized; unused bedrooms get a whole new meaning, and now they can have dedicated spaces for certain activities. The term “empty nest” doesn’t seem to apply to those managing not to bank their future in expensive renovations that won’t keep life frozen in time.

Usual setup of room used as “living room”: two tables, six chairs, and 3 more “platforms” with “short legs” to make a sofa in “L” (reading, hanging out, etc.). Optimized for no visitors

Children grow up, and life goes on. Yet, for some reason, mid-life house renovations seem to be as pervasive and poorly designed in general as trying to cope with that stage in life by buying status symbols that didn’t feel within reach before.

Some homes, neighborhoods, and cities are renovated with one misleading premise that got so much into our subtly ingrained shared culture (which philosophers call “intersubjectivity”) that we may mistake by “reality,” or the fatalistic attitude condensed in expressions such as “this is how things are.”

These renovations are performed as if things were to remain in a particular way, with no desire or room to evolve or adapt seamlessly to the changes we experience as we grow and live with a different budget and family setup, which won’t remain the same. But things got in one way, and not another, by a series of individual and collective decisions, and so, they can change.

Our perception of the world shapes our homes

How much of our incapacity to see change and impermanence comes from our cultural construction?

French philosopher François Jullien, a sinologist (expert in Chinese culture, where he lived in his youth, learning the language and studying locally) and Hellenist, has used his background to explain to the Western public that the way we look at things, “make” things and “design” objects or places, is not a coincidence and springs from a tradition that we frame as “reality.”

Living room in “visitors mode”: we add as many elements “table” as needed. In this case, 4 individual “platforms” with long legs form a big table. Low-tech transforming furniture

According to Jullien, while Western culture evolved from Plato onwards to try to study and find the “essence of things,” or those aspects that don’t change (like the human soul, or the ideal object —say, the “chair” that makes us recognize every other single chair as one more of an infinite series of them—), Eastern culture won’t recognize things as isolated “subjects” but as fluid elements within a context that is always in transformation and “between things.”

But, what makes a chair a chair, or a house a house, or the concept of civil liberties actually recognisable by anyone as “civil liberties”? Through ideals and things independent from experience (knowledge that exists “a priori”), Plato and Kant helped make Western thought interested in (obsessed with) the true essence of things on their own, the properties that define them in an unequivocal way that doesn’t require a sense of place and time. Hence—François Jullien explains—the Greek (and Western) obsession with the “meta,” (the Greek word, nothing to do with the company) or essence of things, the ideal or soul of every single entity surrounding us.

Hence, the “meta” of things, or the ideal world that shows the potential of every concept or object, ends up being the desired “reality.” In short, things should be one way because they are meant to be one way and not another, according to an accumulated wealth of knowledge.

Multi-purpose space: storage, gym, garage, “big emergency bedroom” when we have more visitors than expected; there’s only 1 level to accommodate people with limited mobility (visitors, or us in the future)

By contrast—François Jullien notes—, there’s no elevated concept such as “meta” (or “beyond,” as in metaphysics, etc.) in Eastern culture, but a natural observation of things playing their role within a context “in between” places, states, or points in time. So, while Western tradition identified “water” and “ice,” Eastern thought got interested in the process of “freezing” or “melting,” or the nuance of the in-between of two ideal, artificially non-mutable states.

Seeing impermanence as an opportunity

In Eastern thought, the world isn’t a representation of the essence or “a priori” of things, but something that occurs amid absolutes: a landscape doesn’t manifest itself and gets recognized with a word with a root related to “country” or “land” (“land-scape” in English, “pays-age” in French and similarly in other Romance languages, “land-schaft” in German), but by formulating all that is contained between the concepts of “mountain” and “water”: 山水 (shan sui) means literally “mountain and water,” and it’s up to us to evoke what this in-between contains, and how it evolves over the day, the seasons, our lifetime… This way of wording a complex concept invites us to understand that things aren’t immutable; things aren’t a reductionistic, idealized still picture.

And so, the unfolding of things over the seasons or over time, from aging to impermanence, holds a more complex meaning and appreciation to cultures that decided not to string their reality to ideas that don’t change. The sensitivity of how things change, an appreciation (celebration?) of how beautifully things age if we educate our perception to see it, is expressed in Japan with the concept “mono no aware,” or empathy towards the evolution of things (wabi-sabi). Life passes, as do seasons, and things age, and sometimes we can express it in tiny poems, or by stopping by a tree blossoming, or by understanding that there’s a patina that can feel more authentic to our experience than the immutable coating of “things good as brand new.”

Right behind the “garage” is my man cave; I use this room for work and introspection. This is the minimum viable setup: one desk, one chair, storage, stove, standing desk

Similarly, designing a home for an ideal person and one ideal moment in one’s life is a quest bound to disappointment and deception. Dreaming of a big home with lots of bedrooms for everybody and also for guests, and having the energy and boldness to make it a reality, happens in a moment in life that won’t be the same once the new house has been bought or the lengthy, expensive house renovation has reached the desired state: while we were performing the perfect plan, life was cruel and didn’t stop, so the curse of expanding already big homes to reach middle age is meant to be repeated.

Homes, sports cars, SUVs, and the arrow of time

Is this difference between the Greek “meta” and the Eastern “in-between,” as studied by François Jullien and others, what makes it so difficult for us to accommodate designs that allow our surrounding reality to evolve and accommodate other stages in life?

Not that Western thinkers didn’t see the limitations of our tradition and tried to come up with meaningful amends by, say, expressing how important it is to appreciate (affirm?) the impermanence of things (by reflecting on our own mortality, as expressed by French essayist Michel de Montaigne and, later, by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche via his life-affirming concept of “memento mori,” which feels a bit like Shakespeare’s Hamlet monologue).

Another possible setup for my office: desk plus long chair (the storage has a built-in ergonomic position as headboard)

But our tradition didn’t buy it in a mainstream way, and we’re still drawn by our “a priori” ideals. Being Platonic animals, we keep lurking around an old Greek concept that might be misleading. Moreover, we associate impermanence with negative traits: aging, for example, isn’t beautiful but ugly, almost sinful. Accommodating one’s house for a middle-aged life? Isn’t that accepting defeat against time? How about buying into the advertising idea of “fixing” collateral damage of life following its course?

People talk about the midlife crisis archetypical car, a sports car for men or an SUV for women (when soccer commutes have ended or are about to do so), though nobody mentions the midlife home renovation, which normally aims to increase the family’s space right before or when the family is entering a new stage as children leave for college.

There’s no stage in life where people show more naïveté than middle age, when caring for children and elderly parents at once is more than possible. To some, it’s a stage in life that feels at times like a curse… or is it a blessing? Some psychotherapists call it euphemistically “the passage to the second half of life,” especially as life expectancy offers improved perspectives once the prime years are behind. Increased longevity is already transforming the world, but it is not always for the better.

When life is messy

The sandwich moment seems like a life pinnacle for a lucky minority capable of reaching a certain fulfillment at home and at work during midlife, seeing how their children grow older and more autonomous with parents still in good health before their last years, and seeing some recognition on the professional field as well.

Another setup I tried at my office: I add one more table when I need more working space

The narrative goes that this conundrum was an advantage in the past, as multigenerational dwellings guaranteed a mutually beneficial relationship between the elderly and their grandchildren; and then, things changed forever. Only, they didn’t. There’s a “sandwich generation” and also a “boomerang generation,” new multigenerational households in which children live with their parents after college or return after experiencing economic difficulties.

However, most middle-aged parents with children may face empty nest syndrome to some degree. Today, empty nesters are, on average, less involved in their children’s lives, and relationships have evolved to become more transactional—and perhaps less nurturing.

Some stand-up comedian must have joked about one unbearable hitting us during middle age: as people leverage their professional life and are capable of improving their material surroundings, they decide to undergo a complex, costly, sometimes byzantine home renovation to accommodate for their teenage and young-adult progeny. Then, after dealing with a lengthy and more expensive process than expected, the children are ready to leave home.

A crueler version would account for those who never finish the work on time yet manage to feel they have skipped some precious moments with the family with much-deserved tranquility of spirit. I’m not sure how the gag would go, or whether it’s something to laugh about or rather something to reflect on with solemn sadness, like the mood of Lev Tolstoy while writing The Death of Ivan Ilyich (the archetype of an ordinary bureaucrat who realizes the unbearable emptiness of his life after suffering an accident).

A peek outside from the ground floor (garage floor below and more multiuse rooms upstairs)

When people don’t learn to age gracefully, or so it seems, the houses don’t seem to do it on their own. Does it take a mentality, more than money or skills, to build or adapt a house that knows how to age gracefully? Big places devoid of people that become museums are testimonies (sanctuaries?) of memories lived, as useful as secondary homes that don’t get any use, the middle-class equivalent of the villas from the past with their furniture protected by white sheets, waiting for their opportunity sometime into the future.

Experimenting with impermanence

When we restored a derelict country house one hour south of Barcelona, a series of spaces disconnected from each other which had experienced unfortunate interventions over the years, our conversation with architect and friend David Tapias, we raised one question and worked on it: can this uninhabited house, which seems made of uncomfortable self-contained units (an old “home,” a garage, a space for animals, a very low attic), be a place for “us” as a changing entity over the next decades?

My brother-in-law (married to my sister, an Englishman) claims not to be a painter, but he is; got this one from him

Could it work as a place for one or two that doesn’t seem freakishly big and cold, and also a home for the five of us, for us plus significant others in the future, for us and a guest family, or for our future adult kids and their families and friends? So the place was designed to allow for porosity in its use and interactions, with several multipurpose rooms that switch seamlessly from garage to bedroom, from bedroom to living room, from small office to gathering place.

To accommodate this change in use and perspective, we created a simple furniture system with a series of platforms with two sets of legs, short and long, so these elements, individual or aggregated, can be desks, dining tables, or the structure for coffee tables, long chairs or beds. It works for us, though, in honesty, the furniture doesn’t change much. But we love how easy it is to invite, say, ten people for a meal (say, fifteen counting us) and rearrange the room with no hassle nor expensive solutions in, literally five minutes: get one platform or two more, add the “long legs,” and make the existing table longer. Same for getting the place back to the previous setup.

Open kitchen with high ceilings for mezzanine upstairs (where Kirsten works when we are there)

The bottom area (previous garage up front and old animal pen) felt like a forgotten land. We got to design a one-level layout with micro-cement floors that wouldn’t only get the car inside if needed but would get any of our parents (or us in the future) in a wheelchair (motorized or not) when old age hits, which it will. The “garage” is now mostly a multipurpose room with a small gym, which we use, storage for bikes and other paraphernalia, and also the place where the car sits once we leave. The main floor, also accessed from the road, though at a higher level than the bottom due to the street-level difference, could also be used by anybody with mobility challenges.

Useful makeovers vs. status makeovers

We aren’t sure our country home is perfectly optimized for our future selves, though we’re glad we didn’t design for one “precise moment,” for one “ideal” of us frozen in time. In that sense, we embraced a more Eastern perspective (call it the way you want) of looking into reality that allows for perceiving life’s evolution instead of getting stuck in the Greek “meta,” if we were to recall François Jullien’s musings on Sinology vs. Hellenism.

A report from Freddie Mac found that baby boomers plan to stay in their homes for as long as they can hold onto their appreciated homes, paying outdated property taxes. Even though a significant percentage of older Americans move to residential care communities, they do so as late as they can.

But some older Generation X members hitting their mid-fifties and baby boomers are discovering a whole new meaning in homes that are prepared for flexible arrangements, no matter the stage in life: young adults are returning to their parents’ homes at higher rates due to a combination of setbacks economic insecurity, accumulated debt, and housing prices. In 2023, more than one in five (21.7%) young adults aged 25-29 lived at their parents’ home, up from 16.5% in 2007.

Winter fire in the kitchen’s cast iron stove

Younger empty nesters, some of whom undergo previous lengthy renovations to adapt their homes to a big family, fall again into expensive makeovers to make use of the space: previous bedrooms are turned into gyms, home offices, and multiuse spaces and guest rooms for adult children and their expanding families.

Boomerang and granny units

Some elderly parents are teaming with their middle-aged children to leave their big properties and move into their own independent units inside the property, thanks to the approval of Accessory Dwelling Units in California, Oregon, Washington State, New York, Maine, or Connecticut. ADUs can be attached to the main house, detached, or go in or on top of an underused garage.

When investigating homes that seem to “learn to age” with their occupants. Tim Seggerman’s Brooklyn home, which he bought in 1987 for $140,000, seems to be one of these places. Seggerman learned to adapt the house’s interior to the changes that came with his family moving in, then his children getting older and moving out, or after a divorce, with one simple but decisive advantage: he’s a trained builder and master carpenter who seems to embrace what may come.

Things change, and when Kirsten produced our first video with Tim Seggerman, he didn’t seem to be struggling with change, trying to press “pause” on the remote control to freeze his life. He explained that he has learned to appreciate the impermanence of things. The goal isn’t “closure.”

“The idea of being unfinished is very important. Houses are there to be lived in. They’re there to be personal expressions of people. So many architects, you’re dealing with fine lines and everything is precise, insanely precise, but you know that in reality, you get out and there are so many things that go on. You can build it perfectly and it might look nice today, but you have to allow for life.”