“Low-lying veils of mist gently drift over green slopes, the angular mountain peaks of the Alps seem close enough to touch. In the distance, the smooth water surface of Lake Constance sparkles in the morning light, while the first rays of sunlight are already beginning to slowly dissolve the still life scenery. A new day is dawning and the Generationenhaus mit Blick – the house for generations with a view – seems ready for whatever it may bring.”
A home with a view
When Lukas Peter Mähr was faced with the task of transforming an existing single-family home from the 1980s into a sustainable multi-generational house for the private building owners, the architect was not very comfortable with a simple renovation. The realisation that a radical facelift was needed in order to act in a far-sighted and prudent manner brought about the decisive step towards a solution: a renovation and extension of the building, which had been inhomogeneously adapted several times over the years by the owner himself, in the spirit of the original building characteristics of the Vorarlberg townscape. Thus, a clear and simple cubature made of wood now stands on the massive storey in contact with the earth, with openings where they make sense: a house that humbly fits into the historically grown building structures and – situated on the slope edge of the Rhine valley – opens up magnificent views of Lake Constance and deep into the Alps. But the project also demonstrates true foresight with regard to numerous other aspects.
Building for tomorrow
„If you’re going to spend money, then create something solid and lasting for the future.“ Many people today think like the owners of the Generationenhaus mit Blick, not least because energy is becoming more and more expensive and resources are becoming scarcer. A rethink also seems to be slowly taking place with regard to unchecked soil sealing and urban sprawl. The sharing economy is becoming increasingly attractive and its advantages are coming into focus for many. Even if multi-generational living is experiencing an apparent hype in this spirit, the concept is nothing new: until a century ago, it was perfectly normal for families to live in one house for generations. Only the building typologies at that time were geared to corresponding use from the outset – even if architecture alone cannot be the means to an end here. In order to be able to live harmoniously under one roof in the wider family circle, a certain mindset is required.
Life as a community of interest
However, Mähr does not see the concept of multi-party living as just a family matter: “Regardless of whether they are family members or like-minded people – it must be clear to those involved that they will want to share an entrance, garden or even a car in the future.” So in addition to the structural change, a change in thinking must also take place so that living together under one roof can proceed smoothly. In the long run, we will probably not get around this anyway: While in urban areas or for the well-heeled there are often sufficient offers to meet the loneliness of old age or the demands of young families, the multigenerational model offers considerable advantages, especially in rural areas. In addition to the practical babysitting service or the shared shopping, it is above all about mutual respect, a certain degree of privacy and honest communication.
One model for all?
Even though urban sprawl and agglomeration in major cities around the globe pose similar challenges, there is never one building solution. Today, family members often live hundreds or thousands of kilometres apart for both professional and private reasons and see each other only a few days a year. Marriages break up, singles keep to themselves, couples remain childless. To avoid social withdrawal or loneliness in these cases, friends or neighbours can take the place of family members to maintain the social network as in a close village community. According to Mähr, the concept of redensification and multigenerational housing works very well, especially at the local level: “Here, for historical reasons, we have very small plots of land, building land is scarce and expensive, and as architects we can have a positive influence on the appearance of the village.” Ultimately, however, for Mähr a central problem in building lies in the conscious use of the resources available to us: “We should generally put as little energy as possible into a new building as well as use it in maintenance and be as economical as possible with the existing building stock.”
From existence to permanence
The Generationenhaus mit Blick perfectly reflects this approach. Instead of creating a new home elsewhere, the owners recognised the advantages of their existing building in all its facets and invested in its future. The fact that everyone involved can now feel comfortable and at home is based, on the one hand, on the intensive examination of their own needs and wishes in advance and, on the other hand, on the architectural quality of the solution. A surrounding shell of natural silver fir provides a uniform image and allows old and new to merge. The space between this shell and the existing building creates a strong visual and functional interweaving of the interior and exterior areas. Spacious living and dining areas over two floors allow all parties to enjoy a high quality of stay. And the originally heterogeneous mixture of surfaces has been transformed into a finely tuned interplay of woods and finishes. “How we want to live in old age or as we age, we may not even know today,” says Mähr and adds: “Therefore, our building types must become more flexible away from traditional and standardized ideas. We plan each of our houses in different scenarios, whereby the use of space is allowed to change. For the Generations House, we have specifically made provisions to be able to accommodate three more rooms. The part to the north of the main staircase can be used for different units, and the upper floor can be connected to another bathroom and kitchen.” Permanence also means adaptability.
Text Linda Pezzei