Rowhouse Revised

Photo: Kevin McMahon.

Philadelphia observers have grown weary of low-density, suburban-inspired subsidized housing. The just-completed Sheridan Street Houses, at 7th and Montgomery, in North Philadelphia, seem to be yet another entry in this genre. But architect Brian Phillips’ design is more sophisticated and may provide a model for affordable housing in the future.

Phillips, principal of Interface Studio Architects, frankly acknowledges what he calls the “complicated nature of contemporary urbanism,” pointing to the often awkward relationship between suburban-like new construction and existing fabric nearby. Instead of trying to design the ideal city block as a response, Phillips took a far more pragmatic approach. “You have to think about what the chassis of the building is, what its needs are, and then hatch the design out of that.”

In other words, Phillips and his partners approached Sheridan Street like an industrial design project. They did not try produce a charming street of brick rowhouses with front porches, but a new type of sustainable urban housing that seeks to improve quality of life for less-advantaged families in an affordable way. The houses are selling for about $150,000, and residents will be responsible for upkeep. Although the price seems high, the houses, at 1350 square feet each, are larger than the typical North Philadelphia rowhouse.

The project was a joint effort between Interface Studio Architects, the Asociación de Puertorriqueños en Marcha, and the Community Design Collaborative. Since 2005 the three have been working together to devise an innovative solution for this vacant and overgrown block between Montgomery and Berks Street.

The roof-top terrace / Photo: Kevin McMahon

The result is a carefully conceived and executed work of sustainable infill housing. Designed with an eye toward social and environmental health, the new Sheridan Street houses offer a possible vision of the future of North Philadelphia. Using inexpensive materials and incorporating the latest in energy-saving technology, Sheridan Street will provide homes to thirteen families with little impact on Philadelphia’s aging infrastructure.

Despite an abundance of blank wall space, the basic rectangular plan and three-story elevation evokes the traditional Philadelphia rowhouse. The development departs from the traditional by using new materials and altering the relationships between the houses and the houses to the street. Instead of forcing a row of repetitive, identical facades onto narrow Sheridan Street, ISA gave the block a little more room to breath. The modular houses are separated into L-shaped pairs, allowing for generous green space in between and behind. Although the houses’ fiber cement siding looks inexpensive, it’s actually tougher than vinyl and should last longer.

The architects believe the configuration will support the social life of the block and reduce its environmental impact. The grassy lawns will allow for interaction with next door neighbors as well as those across the street. Turning Sheridan Street itself into a social space is key. The lawns also provide a pervious surface for water run-off, as well as room for a rain barrel to collect water from the houses’ gutters.

Photo: Kevin McMahon

Other energy efficient features include sun shades above south facing windows and solar panels above third-floor terraces. ISA’s goal wasn’t simply to create an affordable and energy-efficient house, but a livable one too. The third-floor terrace is the kind ubiquitous amenity found on new, market-rate rowhouses, but rarely incorporated into subsidized developments like this one.

Because Sheridan Street is honest about the realities of program, cost, and prescribed density, Phillips sees the project as a prototype for affordable housing throughout Philadelphia. It’s easy to imagine the Sheridan model being implemented elsewhere. Demand for decent, affordable space is growing, as is the city’s endlessly expanding roster of vacant land.

About the author

Kevin McMahon recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an M.S. in Historic Preservation and now works as an associate at Powers & Company, historic preservation consultants. He’s interested in architecture, development and the infinite layers, physical and historical, that Philadelphia contains.



Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
In Belmont, The Making Of A

In Belmont, The Making Of A “City Of Villas”

January 20, 2017  |  Vantage

Contributor Joshua Bevan takes us on an architectural tour of Belmont, where the origins and growth of the neighborhood can still be read in its distinctive homes > more

Shaping A New Urban Crossroads At 33rd And Chestnut

Shaping A New Urban Crossroads At 33rd And Chestnut

January 18, 2017  |  Vantage

Contributor Ann de Forest stands at the confluence of Penn and Drexel's campuses where a once listless intersection is being redefined with energy, connectivity, and strategic design > more

The Best Seats In The City, Ban Be Damned

The Best Seats In The City, Ban Be Damned

January 16, 2017  |  Buzz

Last week Friends of Rittenhouse Square and PPR announced a ban from sitting on the interior walls of the park. Two days later Mayor Jim Kenney reversed the rule. We take a look at life along the balustrades in these old photos > more

Capturing The Ghosts Of Demolition

Capturing The Ghosts Of Demolition

January 13, 2017  |  Last Light

The demolition composites of photographer Andrew Evans beguile the eye with ghostly images of a city passing through time. Evans presents his newest additions to the series and explains his process with this photo essay > more

Pencoyd Bridge Reopens In Manayunk, As Redevelopment Of Foundry Site Begins

Pencoyd Bridge Reopens In Manayunk, As Redevelopment Of Foundry Site Begins

January 11, 2017  |  Vantage

The deserted industrial site of Pencoyd Iron Works is next on a growing list of riverside redevelopment along the Schuylkill. Contributor Mick Ricereto takes us deep inside the history of the family-owned foundry and farmland that dates back to the city's founding > more

Urban Fantasy: The Carousel Maker Of Broad & Erie

Urban Fantasy: The Carousel Maker Of Broad & Erie

January 10, 2017  |  The Shadow Knows

Traditional carousel design may have roots in Europe, but "Philadelphia Style" took the amusement ride to a whole new level. The Shadow takes a stroll down Germantown Avenue where the G.A. Dentzel Carousel Company became the gold standard in animal kingdom merry-go-rounds > more