Looking Forward to Monday Morning
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
Saving the Family Cottage – In Reverse
by Daniel Frisch
Posted February 5th, 2023

I’ve lived a life of privilege, one mostly of other people’s making.  I’ve been invited by countless friends, starting in high school, to visit and stay with them in their families’ second homes.  As a post-graduate living in New York City, I began to think of myself as America’s favorite guest.  Rhetorically, how could friends enjoy their large vacation homes if they did not bring their less fortunate (yet still exceedingly fortunate) friends.  All the better, if the guest(s) could ski, or golf, or play tennis, or even just favor sitting fireside or on a dock working the Sunday crossword puzzle, in ink, of course.

In our role as residential architects, we often find ourselves studying multi-generational homes, and finding ways to preserve birthright homes for future generations.  When designing anew, we ask whether the home will become a gathering place for the owners, their children and grandchildren – whether imminent or years down the road.  When evaluating renovations and additions to existing homes, we immediately ask whether a succession plan is in place. Most homes that families have enjoyed for many years, decades, and even centuries, desperately need functional updating and are burdened with nearly incalculable deferred maintenance.  The costs, therefore, of passing a home from one generation to the next presents significant challenges.  Most multi-generational homes were built by forebears who built for their immediate family, without much thought of the grandchildren who would follow.

Evolving from favored guest to estate planning advisor was seamless.  One weekend, some forty years ago, I am snowed in at a high school’s friend’s ski house in Northern Michigan.  In the blink of an eye, it seems, I am a forty-year-old celebrating Memorial Day on Millionaire’s Row in Bolton Landing, NY, just across from the famed Sagamore Hotel.  Over a number of visits, I became very familiar with the “Big House” otherwise known as Mohican Point on the shore of Lake George and welcoming a fourth generation. Today, some hundred-and-twenty descendants share the house and property, including the oldest boat on the lake, an original ELCO (Electric Boat Company) runabout that debuted at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.  The “Big Man” who built the “Big House,” a Palladian manse, for his growing family at the turn of the nineteenth century was named William Bixby, a Saint Louis railway man with seven children (six daughters).  Like other families that stem from an industrialist (robber baron), the descendants all differ in their connection to the home, both geographically and spiritually, as well as in their ability to afford supporting a second home inclusive of ongoing repairs and operating expenses.  Many years after his death, his heirs reconfigured the home, creating six apartments, one for each enduring branch of the family.  Today the house, accessory dwellings, boathouse, and boats are all managed by a family board, and the multi-generational beat goes on.

Wondering whether others had approached the succession problem similarly to the “Big House” with its multi-generational board, I searched and found a book entitled Saving the Family Cottage: A Guide to Succession Planning for your Cottage, Cabin, Camp, or Vacation Home by Stuart Hollander, David Fry, and Rose Hollander (NOLO, 2013).  I keep multiple copies on my office shelf, ready to share with friends and family looking to “save the family cottage.”  To be fair, the book written by Northern Michigan lawyers is not an easy read, but it coherently and compellingly describes the conundrum of succession planning and offers the legal framework to help families resolve their different needs and maintain ownership and enjoyment of their family heritage.

Unfortunately, the “Big House” on Mohican Point is something of an outlier today.  More often than not, the family homestead built a hundred or more years ago comes under attack from estate taxes, deferred maintenance, sibling rivalries (or worse) and varying needs.  Without adequate planning, the original acreage is sold, the roof begins to leak, and with each passing season family members take to sitting around the porch with the broken rail telling and re-telling ever-taller tales of days gone by, while brokers trudge through with their phalanx of potential buyers, most of whom are blind to the family’s weepy reminiscences.

In his 2003 book, The Big House, a Century in the Life of an American Summer Home (the name ‘Big House’ I think is not wholly coincidental), George Howe Colt writes poignantly about his family home on Cape Cod that could not be saved from the march of time, and in turn, succumbs to the passage of time.  I could not put the book down, as the story so perfectly matches that of many of the multi-generational piles (yes, that is an architectural term), that so gloriously dominate our oceansides, lakesides, and rolling hills.

While we have tried on several occasions to design and provide programmatic solutions to ‘save the family cottage,’ we usually find we have been brought in a little too late, and the aggregate challenges win out.  So, with all this visiting, and thinking, and reading, I got to wondering, what would saving the family cottage look like in reverse?

And as I thought a bit, I realized we have begun exploring this idea with three different families, two of whom are extended family and the other, friends of many years.  I find this especially exciting, as I thoroughly enjoy working with friends and family.  The first study, barely just begun, is for cousins of mine, who are ten years older than I and who have three adult children – and one grandchild and counting – and who are considering building a new home in the country as a family gathering place, a brand new multi-generational ‘Big House’ of sorts.  We are finding as we sit down with this program in mind that we are creating a new prototype of sorts.  Instead of trying to convert an existing estate to the needs of children and grandchildren, we are conceiving spaces where no memories will exist of the ‘room in which I grew up.’  No spouses will be sleeping on a child’s twin bed surrounded by primary and high school awards, certificates, medals, and trophies.  Perhaps this new home will have three or four discrete suites or wings, one for each young family, and with a central kitchen and living spaces – both indoor and outdoor.  The parents’ primary bedroom will certainly be on the ground floor, yet far enough from the communal space for privacy, both physical and acoustic.

The second case study closely resembles the first, except the parents are in their early fifties, and younger than most empty-nesters contemplating building their forever home.  Their four sons range in age from high school to post-collegiate, and there are no spouses or grandchildren in the immediate future.  And still, they have bought eight acres with spectacular views and are beginning to plan for a home in exactly the same way as the first family. Should we split the necessary bedrooms between two structures, a main house and a pool house and should they be built at the same time, or over time? Should the primary be on the second floor to capture the view, and even if so, shouldn’t there still be a downstairs primary for when they get older?  How will the house mature as the family dynamics evolve?

The final project is for my wife’s cousins, who, having retired, thought to modestly improve their weekend home for themselves and for the kids and grandkids. Our first conversations focused on small renovations and improvements.  By the time we finished the programming discussions, we collectively decided the most appropriate strategy would be to significantly re-imagine the house from foundation to roof, tackling deferred maintenance and replacing legacy building systems as we go.  Working largely within the existing footprint, we plan to build a new house that will function for the next generation and beyond.  This means a primary bedroom on the first floor, with children and grandchildren residing upstairs, with en suite bathrooms, a family room to congregate and a large bunk room.  The walk-out basement will have billiards and ping pong, as well as pool changing rooms and baths. At the end of the day, the home will not be spectacularly unusual, but it will extend the family’s enjoyment of the home for at least a generation, if not longer.

We find we are tackling estate planning in two profound ways.  First, we are designing homes that will joyfully accommodate and embrace generational transitions and continuity.   It turns out the empty-nest home, may need to be larger than the house in which the kids were raised.  “If you build it, they will come” – Field of Dreams (1989) sums it up well.  At the same time, we are providing a second more conventional form of estate planning: financial estate planning for parents with adult children who have wherewithal to pass on to the next generation(s).  If one is building for the next hundred years, not for a return-on-investment, the imperatives of short-term economic priorities and resale value are replaced with objectives of a much longer duration.  Approached in this manner, the family estate becomes the very foundation of financial estate planning.  Why not pass on to the children and grandchildren the family gathering place, many, many years before the inevitable; and even better if a trust is set up to pay for decades of property taxes and ongoing maintenance.  I contend the strategies set forth in “Saving the Family Cottage” are equally operative when the house is yet to be built, in that the generational stakeholders can all participate in the location scouting, programming and design of the project.  Nothing seems more rewarding and prudent than using shelter as an effective inheritance tax shelter and long-term financial plan.   Maybe it is time to call the accountant, and the lawyer, and the real estate broker; and of course, the architect.

DF, 2-5-2023