Over the last few decades, our lifestyles have changed, but the types of homes in which we live have not. That’s the driving thought behind Making Room: Housing for a Changing America, a new exhibition that examines possibilities for better housing, which opens at the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C. on Saturday. Through analysis of residential and zoning codes, case studies, and a centerpiece 1,000-square-foot demonstration home constructed within the NBM galleries, museum visitors will gain insight into flexible living arrangements that suit a variety of scenarios now more common than the nuclear family.

The exhibition begins with an analysis of current housing conditions by the Citizens Housing & Planning Council (CHPIC), conveyed through infographic charts and introductory text. Despite a marked decline in nuclear families—or married couples with children—much of the housing stock is still geared toward this family type. However, lifestyle changes have reduced nuclear families (now only twenty percent of current national households), and increased other modes of living. Single people make up a much larger demographic proportion; yet only 11.63 percent of housing stock is one-bedroom, with studios making up just 0.87 percent. The other 87.5 percent of housing stock comprises two-, three-, four-, and five-bedroom houses.

To address this imbalance between housing type and lifestyle, the exhibition team—led by Pierluigi Colombo, art director of Italian furniture producer Clei, Lisa Blecker, marketing director of Resource Furniture, and exhibition curator Chrysanthe Broikos—created the Open House, a roughly 1,000-square-foot installation of a home, furnished by Clei, that will display three living scenarios over the course of the exhibit, on view until September 16, 2018.

The first of these scenarios—on display until February—envisions a couple living with two roommates. Four adults live comfortably within three bedrooms, two of which make up communal living areas during the day; moveable, soundproof walls turn them into private spaces at night. In March, the Open House will shift to a model of multigenerational living that imagines a single mother living with her mother and son, again with moveable walls to carve out private spaces for each family member as needed. The last scenario, which will open in June, provides a  setting for a pair of empty-nesters to live comfortably while renting out a portion of their space as an independent studio apartment.

In all of these configurations, the base layout, including kitchen and laundry rooms, remains the same. But this set up is hardly static: technology embedded within the cabinetry, for example, allows for one-touch or remote-controlled opening. Each room becomes a multi-functional space, thanks in large part to multi-purpose pieces of furniture from Clei. The company’s in-wall storage and sleep solutions are the 21st century version of the Murphy Bed, allowing for easy spatial transformations from day to night. A side table expands to become a 10-person dining table; another pivots to become a desk beside the bedroom window. Even doors are multi-functional, with pocket construction that allows for ironing board concealment at the laundry room entrance, and shoe storage at the walk-in closet.

Design for aging populations is another through line of the three scenarios. Refrigerator and oven placement, as well as a telescoping kitchen island with integrated induction range, allow for people with mobility issues to cook comfortably. More, the dishwasher opens with a knock, and a shower enclosure folds away, accommodating individuals that rely on walkers of wheelchairs. The empty-nester scenario might allow for added income for those beyond retirement age, but could also serve as an option for live-in assistance if necessary.

The NBM exhibition serves as a follow-up to one held by the CHPC at the Museum of the City of New York in 2013, Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers, which also included an installation by Clei. Here, however, the conversation expands with several built case studies to imagine dwellings that further illustrate the broad range of new housing possibilities in suburban and ex-urban locales, as well as in cities. These include examples from the tiny house movement, a Denver convent that was converted to a cooperative living situation, prefabricated prototypes in San Francisco and Austin, and Carmel Place, a New York micro-unit mid-rise. Accessory dwelling units—which exist in many forms, from basement units, to garages turned into studios, to backyard cottages—are another typology that is becoming increasingly common. These ADUs can just as easily house a grandparent as a millennial child, and can also provide sources of additional income for families with extra space. 

As housing stock adjusts to meet demographic demand, “Making Room” illustrates means of integrating adaptability through smarter construction and reconfigurable layouts in which every furnishing serves multiple purposes. “Home means a holy place where you have the things that let you feel good,” says Colombo.“ It should be a place where nothing is working against your identity.”