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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.