Triple Decker Design Challenge

Renderings courtesy of MERGE Architects

The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) is committed to helping the Commonwealth of Massachusetts meet its 2050 net zero emissions goal. At 27% of greenhouse gas emissions, Massachusetts’ building sector represents the second largest emissions sector, after transportation, that must be reduced in the state.

“Finding affordable, effective approaches to decarbonizing our buildings is critical to our ability to meet our climate goals since 80% of Massachusetts’ built environment in 2050 will consist of buildings that exist today,” says MassCEC CEO Stephen Pike.

Triple decker buildings—so-called because they have three stories with generally identical floor plans—are a very common building type in Massachusetts, numbering in the tens of thousands. The vast majority are wood, balloon-framed structures and feature exterior porches. Many of them were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and provided immigrants with affordable places to live both in the state and throughout New England. Today, these triple deckers continue to house tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents, while also providing prime retrofit opportunities in order to become climate-friendly, affordable multifamily housing.

Thus, the MassCEC Triple Decker Design Challenge was born, offering $150,000 in prizes for design proposals with replicable, scalable, all-electric retrofit designs of the classic triple decker. “Triple decker homes are an iconic part of New England’s landscape and offer a great opportunity to improve the energy efficiency in our homes and in our communities,” says Governor Charlie Baker. “Solutions like those outlined in the Triple Decker Design Challenge will be an important step to electrifying and decarbonizing Massachusetts’ building stock.”

The competition offered applicants three design paths:

  • Triple Decker Retrofit Design: to retrofit a typical triple decker building using its existing square footage;

  • 3+ Retrofit Design: to retrofit an existing triple decker building while also adding one or more additional units; and

  • Bring Your Own Building: to use an existing triple decker as the basis of the retrofit proposal.

MassCEC received 13 submissions and awarded 9 prizes. The three grand prize $25,000 award winners’ proposals were The Back Stack by MERGE Architects Inc., Zephyr Architects’ TDC Retrofit Toolkit, and Making Cents of Carbon by DiMella Shaffer and RW Sullivan.

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MassCEC’s Board of Directors has approved funding for incentives to try some of the ideas surfaced in the competition in real world applications. The approved funding will support approximately 10 affordable housing and 10 market rate retrofits, and more details will be available in late summer 2021. In addition, by fall 2021, MassCEC will develop a white paper summarizing lessons learned from the Design Challenge that can be used in future projects decarbonizing triple decker buildings.

“We get most excited when we are dealing with how to work with the existing houses that we have,” said Kevin O’Connor, host of “This Old House” in his opening remarks of MassCEC’s virtual Triple Decker Design Challenge Presentation cosponsored by the Boston Society for Architecture in early January 2021. “You are not going to find or move your way forward to a sustainable future if we don’t deal with the 100-120 million structures that exist currently.” Coincidentally, the spring 2021 season of “This Old House” featured a triple decker renovation.

For more information on all the Triple Decker Design Challenge entries, visit MassCEC’s website.

Author: Leah Cussen