A row of triple-decker homes in Boston, Massachusetts.
A row of triple-decker homes in Boston, Massachusetts. Credit: Piotrus / Creative Commons

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A Massachusetts competition is spotlighting ideas to make the state’s iconic triple-decker apartment buildings more energy efficient. 

“The idea that we would take this beloved housing type and find a way to make it economically feasible and attractive aesthetically — it was a fantastic competition,” said Katherine Faulkner, founder of sustainable architecture firm WestFaulkner and part of a team named runners-up in the competition. “We’re proud of our entry and we’re still working on trying to make it a reality.”

The contest, run by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, asked participants to submit plans for retrofitting a triple-decker to eliminate the use of on-site fossil fuels and drastically improve energy efficiency. Competitors could choose to plan renovations that kept the basic footprint and structure the same, or they could opt to add a unit as part of their design. 

There were few other requirements. The goal was to keep designers’ options open to encourage creativity and innovation, said Peter McPhee, senior program director at the clean energy center. The contest received 14 entries. Winners will receive $25,000, and the people’s choice awardee and runners-up will get $15,000. (The competition received funding from the Barr Foundation, which also funds New England coverage for the Energy News Network. )

The contest is the first phase in a multiyear effort to stimulate energy-efficient retrofits for older buildings. In the next phase, planned for later this year, the state’s clean energy center expects to help fund demonstration projects using the concepts generated by the design competition. The third phase would involve creating a state program to incentivize more widespread retrofits.

“We’re trying to generate a solution, then demonstrate and prove out,” McPhee said. “Then the third step is to integrate this into the market and the industry and the workforce so it can be brought to scale.”

The multifamily houses known as triple-deckers, or sometimes “three-deckers,” have attracted attention as part of Massachusetts’ attempts to slash emissions from building sources, which are responsible for about 27% of the state’s greenhouse gases. Constructed in the late 1800s and into the 1930s, triple-deckers were designed to provide rental housing to the waves of immigrants coming into the region. Each building had three roughly identical units — one per floor — as well as a flat roof and windows on all four sides. Most also include porches or balconies on each level. 

Now a classic building type in eastern Massachusetts, triple-deckers were considered a triumph of their time, packing many residents into a relatively small space, while still giving them plenty of airflow, sunlight, and privacy, McPhee said. Today, some 17,000 remain, though many still sport drafty windows, oil-burning heating systems, and little or no insulation.

“They were a great housing type for the time,” McPhee said. “That being said, they’re incredibly energy-inefficient for the most part.” 

They can also be some of the trickiest buildings to retrofit. Because they are so often rental properties, there is the question of how to encourage owners to invest in the necessary changes when it is tenants who will reap the savings on their utility bills. When the buildings have been turned into condos, it can become challenging to reach the consensus needed to undertake such an ambitious and pricey project. The age of the buildings — many triple-deckers are more than 100 years old — adds another layer of difficulty. 

“There’s a number of challenges we think we can learn from by doing this for triple-deckers that we can apply to other types of buildings as well,” McPhee said. “So we thought this would be a good place to start.” 

The winning entries promised reductions in energy use ranging from 80% to 104%, a number that would make the building a net producer of power. All of the top placers proposed using electric air-source or variable refrigerant flow heat pumps to heat and cool the buildings, and all used various techniques to better seal the building envelope. Most included solar panels or a solar-ready roof.  

A winning entry from MERGE Architects calls for extensive insulation, new siding, and an electric vehicle charging station. A vertical shaft in the middle of the building would allow effective ventilation without the use of electricity. A new, three-story unit would be built on the back of the existing building, preserving the traditional appearance of the house. 

“We felt it was important to preserve the iconic triple-decker from the street,” MERGE senior associate Soo Jin Yoo said. 

WestFaulkner’s submission, created in collaboration with design and real estate firm Placetailor, calls for cladding three sides of the building with large, prefabricated panels to better insulate and seal the structure without displacing tenants during construction. The plan also adds a modular fourth-floor unit with a roof designed for optimum solar potential, a model intended to allow building owners to offset some of the construction costs by reducing energy costs and bringing in additional rental income. 

Another runner-up design submitted by a partnership between Leupold Brown Goldbach Architects and Scott Payette Architects calls for adding large windows and roofed balconies to the south-facing wall of the building to cool the units in the summer and allow low-angle sunlight to enter and warm the units in the winter. 

“The goal was how to do this in a cost-effective way that could be replicated easily and at a larger scale,” said Scott Payette. 

As the state looks ahead to the next phase of the triple-decker initiative, there are also concerns beyond the efficiency of the designs themselves. It is vital that any incentive program that emerges from this process keep equitable workforce development in mind, said Wandy Pascoal, housing innovation design fellow for the city of Boston and the Boston Society for Architecture. Growing demand for efficiency-oriented renovations will require the recruitment and training of skilled workers, presenting an opportunity to implement policies that can provide opportunities for traditionally marginalized populations. 

“This is an area where folks can really start to build expertise,” Pascoal said. “So we need to be really intentional about who is getting access to this education and reaching out to people of color.”

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Sarah Shemkus

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, TheAtlantic.com, Slate, and other publications. Sarah covers the state of Massachusetts.