We are family

IF THERE'S ONE tradition to which Hongkongers hold true, it's the notion of living with their children into old age. According to last year's Axa Retirement Scope global survey, Hong Kong topped the list of 15 countries where people expect to live with their children on retirement.

The survey found that 24 per cent of Hong Kong retirees live with their children. Among respondents aged over 45, about two in 10 (26 per cent of males and 17 per cent of females) cited residing with their children in older age as the 'ideal living arrangement'.

Designer Richy Ng recognises that most middle-aged Hongkongers continue to provide for their parents, spouse and children. However, he says that younger clients are moving towards having two separate homes: one for their elderly parents, and one for themselves.

Although today's extended families uphold these traditional values, they have different needs. They may be happy enough to live together, but they no longer want to grapple for space or share basic facilities.

For this reason, if there's room, Ng always proposes separate living areas in the multi-generational homes he designs. 'A combined living/dining room and a separate family room will give everyone room to space themselves out,' says Ng, of Box Design. 'Ideally, if there are two floors, there could be one living space upstairs and another downstairs.'

The living spaces should be purpose-designed to cater for different needs. 'The older generation's space should contain the bare necessities such as an area for a TV, and maybe a small sound system,' says Ng. 'The lighting here should be bright, but not flat. Furniture can be a little sparse and comfort is the priority. The sofa shouldn't be too low because this would make it difficult for older folks. For the younger generation, these concepts are reversed. We build into the design items such as up-to-date home theatre and sound systems. Furniture is sleek, and all pieces should co-ordinate. Comfort comes almost last on the agenda. Lighting should be dim for atmosphere.'

In the quest to find space for everyone, extra attention should be paid to the bedrooms. These are sanctuaries to which occupants can retreat to remove themselves from the busy, often compact living areas, says Ng. Allow them to be flexible so they can be adapted to suit changing needs.

For a duplex project in Kowloon Tong, Box Design was commissioned to gut the existing residence and convert it into comfortable accommodation for three generations. The 3,500sqft, two-level house has gardens at the front and rear. Areas or spaces classed as family were left open, whereas spaces deemed private were closed for solitude. 'The idea was to create a space that promotes cross-generational gathering, for example a large combined living and dining area, with allowance for a more expanded communication space to creep in from the kitchen when needed,' says Ng. 'We also wanted to ensure easy accessibility to the main areas for all members, so the spaces feed into each other for a smooth flow of traffic.'

The focal point is a fireplace in the living room, representing a communal gathering place. An indirectly lit geometric slate feature mimics the fireplace to further enhance the effect. Because the living spaces were designed on two levels - one upstairs, one down - the challenge to prevent the spaces being visually separated was overcome by using similar decorating materials in both, to achieve the illusion of continuity.

In another project, for the Chan household in Hunghom, Box Design was asked to make a 2,100sqft flat more comfortable for three generations on a budget of $500,000. Even though this meant the changes could be only cosmetic, Ng says it was enough to make a difference.

'The main thing to ensure is that there's no claustrophobia,' he says. 'The space has to be well organised, tidy and free from clutter. You'll also want to create a welcoming gathering space, which has room for all family members.'

The designers removed bulky furniture, replacing it with loose sofas and low, fitted cupboards, and added false ceilings for a cosy effect.

If space is tight, Ng says it's essential to stick to the basic design rules: allow in as much light as possible; choose light pieces of furniture (preferably with castors, which gives the impression of mobility); and de-clutter.

Hong Kong design firm Joey Ho Design had an extended family in mind for its future-home exhibit at a show in Guangdong. The designers realigned the conventional floor plan by attaching a grandparents' suite to that of the core nuclear family. 'The layout provides individual living territory for each family member while retaining other spaces shared by all parties,' says principal designer Joey Ho.

In this design, a circular family/entertainment room serves as the hub connecting two disparate domains. Although Ho thinks the traditional values of families living together will endure, he says present and future generations will want to retain their individual space. 'Our concept involves integrating three zones for the different generations into one housing unit,' says Ho. 'It's like three apartments grouped together.'

The central zone contains the kitchen and large dining area for shared family meals. However, the elderly parents also have their own kitchenette and tea house - a small, traditional living space designed for two - along with their own entrance. The children have a playroom that can be converted into teenagers' quarters when the time comes.

Ho kept the decoration of the zones different, using traditional materials such as bamboo for the seniors, and contemporary features for the younger generations. In the home of the future, he says, families can live together in domestic harmony - provided their identities are preserved.