Three Deckers: A Boston Icon

Holiday time is family time, right? Everyone piled in together, hemmed in by Christmas trees, rented banquet tables, kids’ presents, and the chairs brought up from storage in the basement. Too much togetherness?

Well, what about having two or three generations all living under one roof? Is that once-vital residential lifestyle dynamic finding new converts? Here in the Boston area it seems to have never left, particularly close to the urban cores. Any establishing shot of recent gritty films based in Southie, Dorchester, and Lowell all have included the familiar site of the area’s triple-deckers. I don’t know if they are as synonymous with Boston as, say, the rowhouse is with Baltimore, but after traveling, nothing says “welcome home to Boston” more than the site of those Eastie and Winthrop triple-deckers out near Logan.

eastieTriple-Deckers in Eastie. (Photo by Pierre LaScott / Flickr)

Built up mostly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the economic model of this ubiquitous just makes so much sense. A family could purchase the house, live on one floor and rent out the other two to cover the mortgage, maybe even pocket a few dollars along the way. Or, as families immigrated and/or expanded, two or three sets of relatives could pool resources and have their own apartments in the same structure, all under one roof. The benefits also would extend to informal childcare and eldercare arrangements, generations growing up and watching out for each other. More than once referred to as “democratic housing,” even the forward-leaning 1940s vanguard Modernist partners, The Architects Collaborative have roots in the triple. Before they pooled their own resources to buy land in Lexington and set up a small Modernist housing development with common land to share — known as Six Moon Hill, many of the young partners of the firm had pooled resources living in the same triple in Cambridge. As my friend, Bruce Irving wrote for This Old House:

Triple-deckers … remain one of the most successful forms of housing ever built in New England and a fixture of Boston’s older neighborhoods. The beauty of the triple-decker lies in its efficiency of design: in addition to using land economically, the identical floor plans stacked atop one another divide in three the costs of the cellar and roof construction. Often, front and rear porches give breezy vantages onto the neighborhood … Triple-deckers help build close-knit neighborhoods and provide a cohesive streetfront.

Indeed, the model is so smart that it remains a constant in Boston — even as many have been converted to condos — and they may be pointing the way out of the housing downturn for builders. A report on Tuesday night on NPR/APR’s Marketplace pointed to recent trends in California and Arizona, where big residential construction companies are building brand new multi-family housing in “exurbs.” The boom years on the early 2000s saw massive upticks condo conversions of multi-family homes in urban areas and new construction in the suburbs was almost exclusively large houses on oversized lots. But now, in some communities, many McMansions have been turned into rental housing for college kids and builders are looking for new models.

Once such builder of new multi-family suburban homes mentioned in the radio report is Lennar, with a line of homes that they call “Next Gen Homes.” You can see a few videos of this concept here. On the facade, they look like the kind of suburban homes that we in New England only see traveling or on national reports about housing in the West and South — you know, vaguely Mediterranean, fake “Tuscan,” etc. But they call the floor plans “homes within a home,” apartments with their own entrances under the same roof.

It is encouraging to see builders, not an industry known for progressive experimentation, taking a chance on what is actually a tried-and-true evergreen model up here in the Northeast. In fact, it would be even more encouraging to see area builders and local zoning boards in Boston’s suburbs take note. There is a demand for this more upscale, yet efficient, version of multi-family house. I often am scouring listings for families looking for houses with room for their parents, nannies, or young adult children. This is especially common for well-to-do immigrant families with parents who visit or plan to relocate from India or China, for example. As the radio report pointed out, this is a common arrangement for Asian families. It sounds like a generalization, but it is based in data.

Not too long ago, I helped in a home search for a family looking for a large house which could also accommodate the wife’s parents. As I was describing the variables with my business partner, I mentioned that they might be open to buying two properties, one modest house and a condo for the wife’s parents. My partner, who is of Chinese background, asked if the parents were Chinese. Yes, I said, they were. “Well, then they are moving in together and you will be buying the larger style home,” he declared with unwavering certainty. Sure enough, they bought a big $1.6 million Shingle Style with a three-car garage, they converted the third bay of the garage to a fab little in-law pad. If one of these Next Gen homes had been available, no doubt they would have gone that route.

I am eager to hear about readers’ experiences living in triple-deckers.