When Liz Willis was a freshman at Texas A&M and her older sister Kim Coates was in her first year of medical school, they lived together in a place near College Station, Texas.
It lasted one semester.
“She didn’t like my pizza boxes,” says Ms. Willis. “She stole all my clothes,” counters Ms. Coates.
Now the two sisters are living together again—but this time in different houses—on an 8-acre property in Austin. Between the two homes is a swimming pool and pool house that Ms. Coates built and which they share. Ms. Coates, 52, recently finished building a contemporary home that features oak, steel and concrete. Ms. Willis, 48, is in the middle of construction to replace a house she’d already renovated once before.
Multigenerational living is on the rise in the U.S., as are large compounds of separate buildings for just one family. But architects and home builders are noting the emergence of requests by siblings for separate homes on the same property, usually divided. Whether built on land left to them by parents or property purchased by one or both, these brothers and sisters are homesteading together, but apart.
Having separate houses can alleviate some of the stresses associated with living together. Most notably, it allows for distinct financial responsibilities and more privacy. The siblings and their families can spend time in the same place and then go to their separate spaces. Visiting relatives can see both families at once.
Conversely, living in close quarters poses the danger of magnifying decades-old sibling jealousies and tensions. Differences in personal wealth or approaches to home-building can also arise. Sometimes spouses with their own agendas can cause problems.
Six years ago, four siblings—two sisters and two brothers, who requested their names not be used—tore down an 8,000-square-foot house they inherited from their mother in the San Francisco Bay Area and subdivided the 1-acre lot, allocating parcels by having one of their children pick numbers from a hat. Each sibling then asked architect Steven Stept to design their homes.
“It’s been an interesting process—a little bit painful at times,” says Mr. Stept, a managing partner at Feldman Architecture in San Francisco. The architect is almost finished with a roughly $7 million project for the siblings, who range in age from 40 to 47.
The four houses range from 3,100 square feet to 3,700 square feet and sit about 20 feet apart from each other. They’re connected by paths and share a swimming pool. While the siblings weren’t completely unanimous about the style of the homes, they all compromised: The houses share the same “modern California” aesthetic, with boxy shapes clad in stucco and wood. Inside, however, the homes have subtle differences in materials and finishes. One brother was very detail-oriented and led others to consider more modern design, while one of the spouses questioned the technology decisions. But the siblings worked it all out, says Mr. Stept.
On Bainbridge Island, Wash., Bob Manlowe and his sister, Laury Bryant, decided to build separate vacation homes on a 1-acre property that had been in their family for decades. The siblings tore down two existing structures—a run-down log cabin built in the early 1900s and a small house where their grandparents had summered—and hired Seattle architect Matthew Coates to design one house on the Puget Sound and one house a little up the hill, offset so as not to obstruct each other’s views. The siblings declined to disclose construction costs, but similar houses would cost about $4 million combined to build, contractors estimate.
Mr. Coates says designing two homes for siblings has been much easier than designing one house for a married couple. That’s because the homes can be symbiotic while still having a distinct architectural style. “Even the question of who got the house on the water wasn’t a problem,” says Mr. Coates. Mr. Manlowe got the house on the water, but the two families share the beach, kayaks and a patio with a fire pit.
Mr. Manlowe, a 58-year-old attorney, says there was never any question he and his sister would embark on the project together. He took the design lead—a role he was used to as the elder brother who used to “take me to task,” jokes Ms. Bryant. As they’ve grown older, their lives have continued to be intertwined, with their children, seven between the two of them, becoming good friends. “The project could have gone either way, but it ended up bringing us closer together,” says Ms. Bryant, a 57-year-old communications consultant. “It was a common bond.”
For Wendy Hogan, achieving closeness and privacy at the same time was the goal when she and her husband, Robert, bought 10 acres for $250,000 just outside of Rapid City, S.D., near where Wendy Hogan grew up and much of her family still resides. The couple, both psychologists whose primary home is on Amelia Island, Fla., then spent around $1 million to build themselves a modern, 1,500-square-foot modular home for part-time use, and a 4,500-square-foot, full-time home for Wendy Hogan’s brother, Bill Howell, 59, an airline-safety inspector. “We had some extra cash,” says Mr. Hogan.
The two houses have a barn between them and are about a five-minute walk apart. In the summers, when the Hogans are there for almost four months, they have Mr. Howell over for cocktails and dinner every night. “He’s just a really congenial guy,” says Robert Hogan. For her part, Dr. Hogan, who is 62, says that by living so close to her brother she is tempted to comment on his parenting— and sometimes she does just that. “I talk about it openly and honestly with him,” she says.
Mr. Howell, who is divorced, says he appreciates his sister’s advice. “She gives me pointers, but she’s sensitive about it.” He was a little worried about privacy issues but it hasn’t been a problem, and having his brother-in-law always working up something on the grill makes his life easier, he says.
Denver architect Brad Tomecek spent time separately with the Hogans and Mr. Howell before he created the design. The challenge was how to deliver something cohesive that would adhere to the Hogans’ more modern aesthetic without making Mr. Howell, who likes his
Most siblings who build homes on the same property end up dividing the land with ownership under separate deeds. While it’s possible to have a form of joint ownership known as tenancy in common, the issue of what happens if one person wants to sell always comes up, says Birmingham, Ala.-based architect Jeff Dungan, who is in the middle of a project for two brothers building separate homes on a 12-acre lot in Florida.
For example, Ms. Coates and Ms. Willis, the Texas siblings, along with their husbands, bought their property in 2001. The 8-acre parcel, valued at about $960,000, is located on the Colorado River, about 13 miles northwest of downtown Austin. They subdivided the land in 2015, when Ms. Coates started to build her 7,000-square-foot house, designed by Austin based architect Kevin Alter, spending about $500 a square foot.
Now the two sisters own a dance-clothing company together, working from an office that’s also on the property. Though they spend almost all day every day together, even having dinner together with their families some nights, they have carved out some separations. Ms. Willis is building her own pool, so her teenage daughter doesn’t bother Ms. Coates, whose own children are now out of the house. Ms. Coates recently moved her office upstairs: She says it’s because they needed more room for new employees. Her sister says it’s because she was talking too much.
“She’s always the queen. She’s in charge, and I’m good with that,” says Ms. Willis.
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