A 3-decker for the time: hermetic and solar-powered Dorchester Reporter

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Lena Sheehan stands in front of her three-story house in Somerville and looks at the construction of a new high school and transportation hub one block away. “I can't get over it, I haven't been here in a long time,” she says. “This is the new T – isn't that brilliant, right next to the house.”

After Sheehan and her husband immigrated from Ireland in the early 1990s, they bought this property on School Street in 1998 against the advice of friends. “It was really a crazy idea because Somerville wasn't where it is now,” she says. “We were very young and naive; It was such a big risk. “

Then one day she saw a good omen. Her husband found an album of old Irish music that a previous tenant had left behind and played her a song about his small home village.

“It's not a very nice song,” she says, laughing and humming the melody. “But he played it and we both danced around in the living room. And we laughed. And I remember thinking, okay, that must be a good sign – maybe it wasn't a terrible mistake after all. “

Your bet on the house has paid off. The town began to look good, and more than 20 years of rent from the three-story building allowed them to purchase two more rental properties and their family home in Newton.

Three-decker for the planet

The thousands of three-deckers (or three-deckers, depending on who's speaking) in Massachusetts are not only an economic engine for families like Sheehans, but they also mean something new – for the climate. State officials say if we are to be carbon neutral by 2050 – as Governor Baker set out to do – triplane must play a role.

Secretary of State for Energy and Environment Kathleen Theoharides says today's homes are here to stay and they need to be updated. About 80 percent of the state's current building stock will still be here in 2050, she says.

“The ability to remodel this building stock and make sure it is in a state where people save money through energy efficiency and is really a comfortable place to live is an integral part of that job,” she says.

Buildings are responsible for more than a quarter of the state's greenhouse gas emissions. Residential buildings with fewer than four residential units, including single-family homes, account for the majority of these emissions.

Stephen Pike, CEO of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC), says the clock is ticking around 2050 and the pace of retrofitting needs to accelerate significantly.

“At this point, we're probably doing a few thousand a year on a 2050 standard,” he says. “You can do the math quickly: we have to build around 100,000 houses a year [over the next three decades]. And where do you start? “

One starting point is our old friend, the triplane, and the Solution du Jour is known as the “Deep Energy Retrofit”. That means isolating an entire building, sealing air leaks, and installing more sophisticated HVAC systems – ideally with solar panels.

It's easier said than done. Triplane weren't built for energy efficiency, and making them that way is challenging. Because of this, the state recently held a design competition to generate ideas.

One participant was Travis Anderson, a local designer from the design-build company Placetailor, which specializes in energy-efficient buildings. (Full disclosure: Two years ago I asked Placetailor for help with a renovation.)

According to Anderson, retrofitting a three-decker is like converting an old station wagon into a modern electric vehicle. “Instead of just swapping the car for a brand new one, we kind of have to find out,” he says.

Anderson worked with experts from UMass Amherst on a submission entitled “(Re) Facing the Future”. The proposal looks like a cross between the modern of the 21st century and the classic three-decker we all know – with still-developing window panes that let in light and collect solar energy.

The proposal uses a thermoelectric “smart facade” that creates an airtight seal around the building, insulates, uses solar energy – and does all the work on the outside so as not to disturb tenants. The price: $ 329,952 plus $ 34,000 for solar systems.

This was just one of more than a dozen solutions to turn triplane into buildings fit for a carbon-free future.

Above all, however, the question arises: How economical is it to retrofit the entire housing stock of the state?

Who will pay the bill?

In Worcester, Taylor Bearden believed she found a way to make it work. Bearden is a co-owner of Civico Development, a company that purchased 18 triplane planes in Worcester to make them as energy efficient as possible.

From the outside, the crisp paint, siding, and windows make the Civico homes stand out from the rest of the neighborhood and show how good these old buildings can look with a little investment.

Bearden steps into the basement of a three-decker in the Bell Hill neighborhood, where his company owns 10 of them that have come together to create a kind of “campus feel”.

He lists the improvements: “The old cabling is gone. The heating systems and hot water, everything is brand new, all sanitary facilities are brand new. We won't have a very expensive water leak that will displace tenants for three months to repair. We don't leave any of these hidden problems behind. “

Civico is not your typical owner. His business model is based on what he calls the “triple bottom line” of people, planets and profit. And so far it has worked – the company has figured out a way to bring triple decker into the future while generating returns for investors at the same time.

But there is a crease.

Civico began purchasing and renovating in Worcester in 2017. At that point, Bearden said it was possible to buy a building and do a major upgrade. Now, just four years later, the numbers are no longer “drawn”. Real estate prices have risen so much that there is little to pay for improvements.

Before property prices skyrocketed, “50 cents of every dollar went to acquisitions and 50 cents to renovations,” Bearden estimates. “In the current markets, maybe 10 cents of every dollar could be used for renovation. And that's not a recipe for better accommodation. “

Civico is now finishing the company's 18th and final triplane in Worcester. The total cost of the eight-unit building – for bowel rehabilitation and retrofitting with deep energy – is estimated at $ 1 million.

Bearden believes that up to 6,000 triplane would benefit from the same investment in Worcester alone. Boston has nearly 10,000 of them, and parishes across the state have many more.

Bearden said his company managed to remodel its 18 buildings without subsidies. But to continue and expand this type of work, builders will likely need government support.

Despite a number of incentives designed to help builders build greenery, experts say the state housing stock will be carbon neutral by 2050 and billions of dollars in state and federal subsidies are required.

A bill in Massachusetts law aims to retrofit 1 million homes over a 10 year period. President Joe Biden said during his campaign that he wanted to modernize four million buildings and weather two million houses in four years.

But these are just suggestions. Now that we know how to retrofit a triplane, all we have to do is figure out how to pay for it.

This story was published by WBUR 90.9FM on March 12th. The reporter and WBUR share content through a media partnership.


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