The Philadelphia Rowhouse: Its Past And Its Future

June 20, 2017 | by Hilary Jay

The language of row house design in transition. In “Newbold”, old and new collide on Chadwick Street | Photo: Michael Bixler

Author’s Note: According to the Philadelphia Healthy Rowhouse Project—an initiative begun by the Design Advocacy Group in 2014 and incubated at the Center For Architecture + Design—our city faces an extraordinary housing challenge. The multi-floor row home, comprising 70 percent of Philadelphia housing stock, is not only ubiquitous, but economical in land use making homeownership a possibility for a diverse range of citizens including low-income populations. Nearly more so than any other city in the country. However, 75 percent of all these homes are more than 50 years old, deteriorating at a rapid clip, more quickly than owners can repair them. HRP, in conjunction with the City of Philadelphia, has set a goal to improve 5,000 homes annually by providing funds for direct repairs, as well as for homeowner loans. $100 million in funding was generated through a city bond proposed by City Council President Clarke. Details are being worked out now to make funding available to local residents.

Of the 109,000 homes in the city with minor and moderate repair needs, 45,000 are eligible for Basic Systems Repair grants, and 34,000 have incomes that exceed the grant maximum but may need help obtaining a loan. Last May, Philadelphia City Council approved a 0.1-percent increase in the real estate transfer tax that will pay for the $60 million in funding to expand home repair grants and $40 million to create a new loan program for homeowners who are being routinely turned down from private lenders. The loan program will leverage millions of dollars in private capital that will fund loans for Philadelphia homeowners who are currently considered “unlendable.” The need is clear. Healthy Rowhouse is working with the city and its nonprofit partners to create efficient, cost-effective loan and grant programs to ensure that every Philadelphian can live in healthy housing.

In 2015, ISA Architects and developer John Longacre reshaped the corner of 16th and Moore with their modern row house project, reNewbold. The double row of $350+ LEED Platinum-certified units are divided by a canyon of private parking. | Photo: Michael Bixler

According to the American Housing Survey, more than 235,000 homes in Philadelphia have leaks, with the most common leaks coming from the roof. Meanwhile, 90,000 homes have cracks in the floors or walls, 77,000 have inadequate heating, and 45,000 have broken windows. Among the homes with repair needs, more than half are minor, able to be resolved for around $10,000 or less.

Brian Philips, AIA LEED AP—a 2011 Pew Fellow—and partner Deb Katz , AIA LEED AP, are ISA (Interface Studio Architects), an architectural and teaching practice out of Philadelphia and Cambridge, MA. Through the course of their careers, each partner has written, thought, debated and pontificated on the brilliance of the row house vernacular to serve our environment, our low and high income residents and our urban fabric. Their studio work includes multiple variants on this building type, working toward a 21st century model for living, including the $100K house, the Folsom Powerhouse development in Francisville, the sustainable Flexhouse 2, and Sheridan. I recently talked with them to catch their perspective on the urban domicile.

Hilary Jay: You’ve been obsessed with the row house vernacular for a long while.
Where are you now and do you have new thinking on Philadelphia’s most common architectural form–both in low and high income neighborhoods?

Brian Phillips and Deb Katz: When we first became interested in the row house, we started by critiquing it as an architectural object. When we started looking at Philadelphia in 2005, our mission was to blow up the tired typology of dark, narrow, windowless boxes by reducing walls, opening stairs and creating large windows, terraces, gardens, and relationships to the streetscape. However, a decade into our practice we have come to realize that the row house is an incredibly flexible, adaptable typology that operates today – as in the past – as a democratizer of the urban fabric. Our work, and the work of many others, is exploring new riffs on a classic, malleable prototype that has unending potential for variety and adaption to contemporary life, as well as a unique ability to appeal to and serve diverse populations across boundaries of class, race, and identity. We have come to see Philadelphia’s row house fabric as an expression of American culture, navigating and reflecting social, political, and economic trends over the past three centuries. What makes Philadelphia so unique is how those historic trends remain in close visual and spatial conversation with each other.

Corner units of Folsom Powerhouse in North Philadelphia. | Photo: Michael Bixler

HJ: “critiquing it as an architectural object”? Where was the critiquing done? Penn? And what were the conclusions?

BP & DK: Critiquing was done in practice. 100K House and Sheridan Street Housing both flew in the face of convention. 100K was tiny, super energy efficient and bucked the trend of bigger is better which defined the last housing bubble. Sheridan Street asserted a contemporary and minimal approach to subsidized housing in a time when the New Urbanism remained the architectural preference of the moment for affordable housing. Conclusions were that performance and lifestyle relevance should be more important than fitting in with your neighbors in more expected ways.

HJ: In 2005, there were townhouses that were unconventional, no?

BP & DK: Absolutely, but we didn’t know about a lot of them. When we started, Philadelphia was a city that still thought everything should be red brick. It’s come a long way….

HJ: Did you truly need 10 years to recognize the inherent flexibility of the form?

BP & DK: ….. and still learning. I think the flexibility is really at the larger urban scale. A 16’x40′ box with only light on the short sides has major limitations. What becomes obvious after more experience is that row house neighborhoods have remarkable resilience and curate diversity. For example, Fishtown was built as worker housing and is now re-imagining itself as a destination for creative millenials. The neighborhood is evolving into a neighborhood of wealth – as it reimagines new possibilities within traditional shapes and dimensions.

ISA experiments with townhouse design on Front Street with El Chalet. | Photo: Michael Bixler

HJ: Please say more about townhouse as a democratizer.

BP & DK: Whether you are rich or poor or somewhere in the middle in Philadelphia you likely live in a row house, though the width of your home may vary from 14 to 16 to 18 feet. Life in a row house has a similarity across demographics and neighborhoods that have a wide variety of people grappling with the same spatial challenges and opportunities. Philadelphians are all in it together when it comes to negotiating the constraints of row house living. The dense fabric of row houses puts the common benefits of sidewalks, streets and parks ahead of the individual needs of any one homeowner.

HJ: Is there a difference between what appeals to different classes and races?

BP & DK: Probably, though I can’t say we’re really up to speed on this. Would be an interesting research project.

HJ: What’s your take on gentrification?

BP & HJ: I think it’s a highly charged and misunderstood idea. Cities are about change and transformation is a natural progression of any good city. “Gentrification” I think is best thought of as when a neighborhood changes enough that existing residents feel unwelcome and they didn’t have a voice during the planning or emergence of that change.

ISA designed this student housing project at 1856 N. Willington Street for TempleTown Realty. | Photo: Michael Bixler

HJ: How do you adjust for budgets? That is, can quality design and building be created for the masses?

BP & DK: Bigger budget projects can benefit from higher quality materials both inside and outside. They also might have room for more adventure in section, meaning volume spaces that span two stories inside – or exterior terraces. That said, budget constraints can also lead to more design ingenuity — we enjoy thinking through how to make do with smaller spaces, cheaper materials, and typical construction practices.

HJ: Let’s talk about American culture. How does the townhouse/row house symbolize that?

BP & DK: Particularly in the current atmosphere of American politics, the row house still has lessons to teach us. The urban relationships between row houses create a dynamic relationship between individual expression and collective experience. Every home has both public and private edges, but fundamentally the personal space of the home is organized around the common needs and amenities of the city. Row houses are about individual concessions for the common good, but the individual still retains a strong voice.

HJ: Talk to me about the trends of the past 340 years and where we’re off to now?

BP & DK: Really enjoy how previous iterations of the city are becoming relevant again. The post-industrial city was decimated by the pulling apart of housing, industry, shopping and working into different spatial sectors. The suburbs set the pace here in dismantling urban fabric. It is remarkable how the desire for proximity, innovation and social connections find traditional urban density just as attractive as previous generations. Even with changing technologies and logistics, a walkable dense urban fabric remains desirable and productive.

ISA’s 1000K House project on Susquehanna Avenue. | Photo: Michael Bixler

HJ: Is this unique to Philadelphia, the East Coast, elsewhere? Overseas?

BP & HJ: Yes and no. Philly leads the U.S. in proportion of total housing stock that is row houses (see Washington Post graphic) – with Baltimore a close second. No other cities in the US are close. Versions of row houses exist in cities throughout the world – but, Philly is unique in its relentlessly consistent row house fabric.

HJ: As far as Philadelphia architecture goes, what’s stand up for you?

BP & HJ: Definitely love the volume and variety of row houses. I find myself completely captivated by the record of history, culture and construction techniques that are embedded in them.

HJ: Where do you get your design cues from? What inspires the look and feel of your homes?
Are there particular designs that work well in one neighborhood but not another, especially given the historic fabric of Philadelphia?

BP & HJ: We have been interested in amplifying latent qualities of what we see in the existing fabric of the city into newly relevant, but familiar experiences. Our Powerhouse project explores the idea of the “super stoop” which is an expanded version of the traditional rowhouse element into something scaled up and more social.

Feeling the squeeze in Francisville. ISA’s Folsom Powerhouse row on the 1700 block of Folsom Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

HJ: What’s your stance on historic renovation and adaptive reuse? According to the Center for Architecture and Design, 70 percent of Philadelphia’s homes are row houses. 75% of them are over 50 years old. The old stock is deteriorating faster than they can be fixed. Given 40,000 vacant lots, what’s better: Tear down the neglected or preserve?

BP & HJ: Over the past couple of years we have really engaged adaptive reuse. Our Ambler Yards project is repurposing several existing industrial/office buildings for creative workplace users. We’re taking a light touch approach with a focus on entry portals, lobbies and environmental graphics. We recently converted the old Transatlantic warehouse in Northern Liberties into 40 apartments. However, we don’t believe in preserving for the sake of it. It needs to be purposeful and based in need, economics, and design opportunity. There may well be some beautiful buildings to tear down – and some ugly buildings very much worth saving.

HJ: To date what’s your most important construction or project? Maybe it’s Gray Area?

BP & HJ: Difficult to ever argue it’s not 100K house. That project really set the stage for us in how we think and use tight constraints to inspire our work. However, Powerhouse, Modules, El Chalet, Roxbury E+ (in Boston), and Flexhouse (in Chicago) are all seminal residential projects for us. Certainly, Ambler Yards (currently under construction) will be important as our largest non-residential project to date and set the tone for expanded project types. Gray Area and our recent installation at the Cooper Hewitt “Citizen Design Lab” we see as a key part of our interest in broader influence beyond just making buildings.


About the Author

Hilary Jay Hilary Jay, founder of DesignPhiladelphia, is chief investigator with her firm Blackbird Partners, dedicated to solving community issues through design thinking and implementation. She recently became a senior advisor with Econsult Solutions, a national economic policy and strategy consultancy.


  1. Mike says:

    The work displayed in this article is depressingly ugly. Do they cover all their exteriors with remnants from other projects? At least El Chalet has an interesting shape. The rest look like shipping containers.

    Does anyone think this stuff will age well in terms of style or design?

    1. Davis says:

      I want to like them, but I can’t – I agree with your thoughts. These are largely depressing and aggressively ungainly.

    2. James says:

      Not only will the style or design not age well, but the materials certainly won’t either. The token natural wood treatments on many of these shipping containers is already blistering after only a year. The corrugated and various metal roofing materials that are being used in place of bricks are very sad to observe.

      1. Carol says:

        I, too, am wondering about the longevity of the materials being used. In addition, the use of metal cladding feels cold, compared to the brick facades of the older structures. Is a combination of the two, too expensive? Is there a more creative way to warm up the new facades?

    3. Iliveinapark says:

      I don’t think it will last. In eyes the use of quality restoration contractors would definitely help in Preservation of facades that make this City a cultural treasure.

  2. Lisa Birkelbach says:

    As a resident of a South Philadelphia row house 100+ years old I can see the benefit of the new structures and some designs are better than others. Every time my friend and I pass the residents we call the Sea Shore Motel we shake our heads and say who thought it was a good idea to plaster teal siding on these “condos” sticks out like a sore thumb.

    1. Candyfish says:

      Ha! I like that!

  3. Edward Tilton says:

    UUUGLIE. A couple of those ruin a whole

  4. Phillip Schearer says:

    These ugly samples make me yearn for more red brick.

  5. Jim Clark says:

    Most of them are ugly. I was watching a show on HGTV about some folks purchasing a row home in Philly. The inside was fixed up real nice and the outside was cleaned up, bricks re-pointed, the backyard was a postage stamp and you parked on the street. I remember my parents and the three row homes they lived in. They purchased the second one on Auburn Street near St. Bonnie’s for $4,000 in 1949; and the third on Hellerman Street near Brous for $10,000 in 1965. The one on the show sold for $410,000. I could not believe that a row house in Philly sold for that much money.

  6. Chris says:

    Article mentions a Wash Po graphic… am I dense, or is the link missing?

    1. Michael Bixler says:

      Hey Chris,

      Good eye. In in there now.


  7. hilary jay says:

    Ok Folks. No question that the facades of buildings contribute to the appearance of a neighborhood and ISA has a distinct idea about how appearances work, let’s move on. Beauty is not the full equation when evaluating design – it is important, I agree, just not the whole story. Do you have thoughts about other aspects ISA talks about? Anything you find particularly fascinating?

    1. Iliveinapark says:

      Yes. I think that buildings like 100k are important to help further democratization of home ownership in Philly or at least keep it. The truth is a “boring” brick front and minimum high end finishing is key to affordability. Noting sexy, we ain’t got the money for that. And a big part of that can be done through proper historic preservation.

  8. Sally kane says:

    At least if they would emulate the design and flow of the beautiful houses in Philly, it would be understandable, however, replacing something so beautiful with something so grotesque, doesn’t make sense. Isn’t their someone from L and I who can do something?

  9. Dane Wells says:

    In the late 1700s and early 1800s, many of these row houses were financed by land rents and through savings societies. This “friendly financing” allowed Philly to become a city of homeowners (1890s about 70% of working Philly families owned their home!)*

    Has anybody developed a handbook for the care, repair and restoration of a brick row home? I would like to see more of this portion of our architectural heritage better preserved. They don’t have to be torn down to make them better.

    *For more information, take the Preservation Alliance Fishtown tour on July 29th.

    1. Patrick Grossi says:

      Dane, in 2008 the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Office of Housing and Community Development, and National Trust for Historic Preservation collaborated on the “Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual: A Practical Guide for Homeowners.” It’s not exhaustive, more of a primer, but an excellent resource and one put together with much care:

  10. Kathe says:

    Ugly, ugly, ugly!!!

  11. glenn says:

    the new homes are not built well and they are suffering from the same thing that all the new modular homes are. Fast building and not preparing the ground properly so they sink and crack.

  12. MickR says:

    I live near East Kensington and stroll past Susquehanna and Amber frequently to look at all the nice little additions; now I’m learning these two distinctive little boxes are $100K super-efficient homes? I want one! The one thing I don’t like about my restored red brick rowhouse is the energy use and lack of vapor separation between my basement and living space.

    I absolutely love these forward-thinking structures but full disclosure, I’m involved with architecture and design and consider myself progressive and a modernist. The more visual diversity the better. And more $100k projects!

    1. Davis says:

      As a preservation minded designer – I agree – we need more visual diversity – but not this kind. It’s a mixed bag of course, some of the above have merit, but on the whole they turn their backs on the existing neighborhoods – in some cases flipping the bird to them.

    2. Jawn D. Baptist says:

      I am a modern minimalist fan as well, but it’s sad to see the newer construction, even on the streets you mentioned, as very very few of them have any real visual connection to the surrounding area, or neighboring houses.

      Not too far from Amber and Susquehanna are some incredibly hideous reddish and brown structures on York. I’ve been in the same neighborhood for a decade and have seen some very nicely done renovations and finishes, but also a few eyesores that may have been better off as vacant lots.

      I’m a huge fan of the wooden accent siding, and super-efficient buildings, but they really should at least try to develop a sense of neighborhood design language before working on entire blocks.

      Diversity is the spice of life, especially visually, but apparent and rampant randomness can make an area look much worse, and more disjointed. There is always a line to be crossed when pushing for progress, but this city has too much history to abandon elements of it. A better designer would find ways to hint at the classic while making the newer more sleek….

  13. Steve Gotzler says:

    The goal seems to be to build things fast and cheap. Oh, with DESIGN. So everyone bought this program while they were in college. It was a cheap program. Developers like it cause it costs almost nothing. Cheap and fast to build. There is a touch of NEWNESS to it. It will age poorly. VERY POORLY. Just sort of laying the gound work for the next ugly poor neighborhood.

  14. Jawn D. Baptist says:

    For the sake of maintaining the actual history of this great city – since that’s what you do (well) here – it’s probably a great idea moving forward to refrain from calling Point Breeze, “Newbold” (your quotations are very much welcomed). It’s not even a cool name, and the beer isn’t that great either, truly.

    Point Breeze is the name of the area, as you know. Let’s call it that. Let’s keep calling it that.

    Officially changing the name is one thing, but doing it to fit the whims and urges of a mediocre developer that isn’t well-liked here is another. It’s disrespectful to the city, and to the residents that have grown up, and reside there.
    It’s akin to trying to cover a Furness masterpiece with some shoddy siding that doesn’t match, wasn’t requested, and will most likely be taken off in a few decades anyway. Let those hideous new designs keep the name, but only those buildings.

    If one chooses to call an area something else to try to erase the past (good or bad), then I wonder how true of a Philadelphian they actually are. Please don’t give in.

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