Building a better triple decker
Laid out as three or six, stacked flat units, the buildings tended to be long and narrow. Generally unconnected to their neighbors, the freestanding building afforded light and air to enter the building in all directions, and characteristically provided front and/or rear decks for occupants to grab some fresh air. Like perforated blocks, the flat-roofed, the buildings created a predictable street rhythm and neighborly dialogue between pedestrian and inhabitant. It was the perfect Victorian model of workforce housing and the backdrop for Boston's boom.
En masse, the triple decker ruled Dorchester, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and Roslindale, with thousands of blocks being created until the early 1900's. Built like tanks, the homes beautifully endured decades of family use, adapting to the stylistic swings of the 20th century. Modifications were generally limited to kitchens and baths due to the inflexible layout the center bearing wall created. Kitchens tended to be located in the rear of the building, small and hobbit-like, with access to a rear stair. Long corridors connected the unit entry to the kitchen, and, often, a living room overlooking the street. On the outside, many triple deckers received new aluminum or vinyl skins simply fastened over the peeling paint on old growth cedar clapboard, vinyl replacement windows, and bent aluminum sheets concealing ornate cornices. Without a doubt, the forms have stood the test of time and adapted to 21st century needs.
Tragically some triple deckers did not make it. Fires selectively removed buildings, and economics did not replace them (the neighborhoods could not sustain the cost of new construction relative to the built value), at least, not until now. With Boston's largest building boom in 100 years, the last decade of growth has pushed the needle of viability and the triple decker has benefited. Meaningful renovations are concurring, adapting dilapidated beauties into new homes ready for the next 100 years. But it is the vacant lots, the places where homes were lost that real opportunity exists. We are not saying that a 21st century renovation does not create an excellent building with updated insulation, systems, amenities, layout, and claddings, but a new build--if done well--elevates the triple decker into a state-of-the-art machine for living, complete with the accoutrements of your boss's Lexington mansion and the sensibility of your wise, old grandmother.
So how do you improve upon perfection. Well, don't go that far! The triple decker is by no means perfect. Remember that center bearing wall that limits modern room layouts? And the rear-facing kitchen being a mile from from the living room? All true. The historic triple decker suffers from ailments that the modern triple decker can avoid: within the same type of volume, same building width, and same scale, we are able to achieve modern expectations, and, do much better. Whether it is net zero energy consumption or PassivHaus, the triple decker has the ability to lead the world as the perfect urban house. Yes, we are serious.