Behold the triple-decker, as ubiquitous in the Boston area as a Dunkin’ large iced coffee — and now at center stage in a quest to create energy-efficient, affordable housing.
The housing type is so common it easily fades into the background. But that’s part of the point, for both housing and climate policy. Builders know how to make new construction carbon-neutral, but what really needs attention are the buildings that already exist. For the residential sector in particular, there’s vast potential in the concept of the “fixer-upper” — increasing the supply of housing through retrofits and rehabilitation.
The triple-decker is a perfect candidate for this kind of work. Generally built between about 1880 and 1930, the wood-framed structures stacked living quarters with identical floor plans one over the other, commonly with front and back porches and often a small yard. They were built several at a time, accommodating thousands of immigrants and factory workers, in conjured neighborhoods with access to local stores and a T stop.
It hasn’t been an entirely smooth ride. After the turn of the 20th century, established Bostonians declared the triple-decker a “menace” and effectively banned their construction via zoning. Like a lot of other housing stock in the ’50s to the ’70s, many fell into disrepair, before being revived in the ’80s and ’90s by landlords splitting them up into individual condominiums sold at ever-higher prices.
But there are still scads of triple-deckers — nearly 9,000 in Boston alone — that could serve as climate-friendly multifamily housing for a range of incomes. They just need a little love and attention, to bring them up to date for 21st-century standards, says Steve Pike, CEO of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which launched the Triple Decker Design Challenge, an architectural competition attracting more than a dozen local firms that submitted a range of makeover methodologies.
Each of the teams started with one basic step: swapping out old heating oil and gas systems to go all-electric, which can come from renewable sources like wind and solar, both on-site and from the grid. From there, the designers got wicked creative, proposing state-of-the-art systems for efficient heating and cooling, insulation, and ventilation; or a fourth floor on top, for more housing or a roof deck, as well as solar arrays. One submission included an attractive outdoor shed for the heating and cooling system, integrated with an electric-car charging port, bike shed, and compost and rainwater collection.
It’s nice to see there’s no shortage of innovative design thinking around the Boston area. Funding for the competition came from the Barr Foundation (the foundation also supports the Globe’s education reporting). The winners were announced late last month.
The triple-decker gut-rehab effort is also about to get the ultimate imprimatur: a Dorchester property off Columbia Road, built in 1901, will be featured next month on the PBS program “This Old House.” Host Kevin O’Connor is a big believer in tapping the potential of built structures that already exist.
“The housing we have is where the solutions lie,” says O’Connor, who made an appearance at a virtual event earlier this year hosted by the Boston Society of Architects, which has an online exhibition celebrating the beloved New England building type: Past, Present, and Future-Decker.
“They are extremely durable homes,” says O’Connor, a New Jersey native who himself lived in triple-deckers in his youth.
If the triple-decker template is essentially sound, the question now is how to make the most of it — and at what cost. The estimated price tag of the renovations submitted in the competition ranged from $168,000 to more than $500,000 per structure, the latter resulting in a very spiffy triple-decker but not one most could afford. The Clean Energy Center says cost-effectiveness was a major criteria, but also points out that in the long run, savings on energy bills will recoup the initial investment of the renovations.
More money for this kind of work may be on the way, to add to existing programs such as tax credits and other funding for energy-efficiency overhauls, like the Mass Save program. The Massachusetts climate bill, which lawmakers are preparing to resubmit after Governor Charlie Baker sent it back earlier this year, sets strict limits on carbon emissions from multiple sectors, including buildings, and establishes a framework for homeowners to replace oil heat. Federal funding may also soon be available, as President Biden has called for retrofitting four million existing buildings in four years.
A related challenge is making the renovations easily repeatable, a prerequisite in strategies to fight climate change — scaling up from a few model projects to hundreds of buildings, to bring about more systemic change. The beauty of the triple-decker is that there is little to no variation in the structures, so retrofits can be applied uniformly. Concentrating on one type of housing makes the task seem more achievable. New York City has the more massive task of choreographing retrofits for a broader range of existing structures, including hundreds of giant, leaky postwar apartment buildings.
The problem is that existing buildings — the vast majority of which will still be in operation by midcentury — account for almost 40 percent of carbon emissions. That’s too big a chunk of pollution to ignore. Put another way, as O’Connor points out, there are roughly 120 million existing homes, with about one million more added in a bountiful year. “Just do the calculation,” O’Connor says. “We’re not going to ‘build new’ our way out of the problem.”
By contrast, with cars and trucks, which account for an estimated 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, manufacturers can flip the switch, as it were, by making future fleets all-electric, as California and Massachusetts have required by 2030. There’s little point in retrofitting fossil fuel-powered vehicles; ultimately they will just drop out of use (and head to car museums and private collections).
In decarbonizing the economy — Massachusetts has a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 — housing may well be a final frontier. And while this all sounds terribly futuristic, the past is actually a pretty good guide. After Boston banned triple-deckers, many lower-income families ended up being warehoused in big housing projects that failed for a number of reasons, including racial segregation and a lack of services and maintenance.
That mistake — discarding a proven formula — shouldn’t happen again. The collections of triple-deckers, not only in Boston but Fall River or Worcester, represent a housing solution hiding in plain sight. What’s more, they almost perfectly embody another climate-friendly, back-to-the-future concept: the 15-minute city, where residents can get most of what they need with a short trip by foot, bike, or transit.
Imagine that — an idea from a hundred years ago, brought back to life. Like that large iced coffee, if something works, stick with it.