The Secret Life of Buildings: Modern Row Houses

Jeremy Avellino, founder and design director of Bright Common Architecture and Design, has a passion for bringing row houses into the 21st century. “Philadelphia is an extremely rare and unique city with one of the highest rates of density in the nation. This density allows for sustainability and affordability,” he said.  Plus, one other thing at the top of Avellino’s list – an opportunity to achieve decarbonization.

“Think of a row house as a power plant,” said Avellino, an award-winning member of Green Building United and an expert in Passive House Design. “Buildings are responsible for 72% of greenhouse gases in Philadelphia. The national rate is only 39%. Most of our carbon footprint is related to gas lines that heat and cool our homes. If we want our city to be carbon neutral by 2050, we need to make a huge dent in this starting now.”

The solution? Electrification. “People understand electric cars. If your home were as fuel efficient as an electric car, it would greatly reduce your carbon footprint,” said Avellino. Meanwhile, a zero-energy home drastically lowers heating and cooling bills. 

Avellino put his theory to the test in retrofitting his own row house, making it a carbon-free, zero-energy house. “I installed solar panels on my roof which will eventually provide free electricity,” he said, tipping his hat to Solarize Philly, which offers a Solar Savings Grant Program to low and moderate-income homeowners. Before you wince at the expense of solar energy, consider that there are 10-year affordable loans that are calculated to match your existing energy bills so you won’t feel the pinch.

20th Century Update

There is more than one way to bring an older row house up to speed.  For a project Avellino calls House Askew, he chose “a moderate retrofit,” maintaining the original architectural details while providing energy-efficient measures.

“This 3-story, 2300 square foot brick row house in Philadelphia received one of the city’s first foam-free deep energy retrofits, foregoing the toxicity and underperformance of spray foam,” said Avellino.  Instead, he used Building Biology and Passive House principles as his guides. “This electric-only, “frack-free” house is solar-ready to push it closer to net-zero energy,” he said. Meanwhile, the exterior maintains the original charm of its early 20th-century brickwork, masonry, and arched front door and window. 

Something Old, Something New

Deciding when to maintain a row house’s original façade and when to build a totally new structure takes into consideration questions of safety, engineering, and design. In designing Kensington Yards, Avellino did both. He maintained the mid-19th Century brick façade of a one-row house and created a new modern property of the adjacent vacant lot, connecting the two with a shared courtyard. The result was a fourteen-unit, multi-family development.

Exterior view of Kensington Yards Condo building.
Kensington Yards

 “The properties had been vacant for fifteen years. We found a shoe in the wall from 1890,” Avellino said. Working in collaboration with Red Oak Development and with Alejandro Franqui and Deborah of Solo Real Estate, Avellino designed a new addition for the rear of the property.

“It was a fun space to design. When you combine the new with the old, you have a wonderful transition,” he said. Case in point: the arched windows on the original property are echoed in the new construction. “While saving the historic façade of one of the homes, the project illustrates the value of preserving Philadelphia’s rich history and using it as a catalyst for regeneration,” said Avellino.

Reimaging Rowhouses

Sometimes, the best update for a row house is totally new construction. An example is a modern structure Avellino calls “Outlet.”  It is one of many design projects that resulted in Bright Common winning AIA Philadelphia’s Emerging Architecture Prize. Outlet makes no effort to blend in. Its exterior is corrugated aluminum in bright white and charcoal grey with contrasting levels. These modern row houses rise to new heights, shoot off at unexpected angles and feature oversized round and arched windows. What they all have in common is they are all Passive Houses. 

Outlet House designed by Bright Common. Photograph courtesy of Sam Oberter Photography.
Outlet House. Photo: Sam Oberter

Zero-energy houses are a commitment to the health of the planet and future generations. By making an investment in your home now, you are banking on a future with no heating or cooling bills and the satisfaction of knowing you are part of the change that you – and Jeremy Avellino – want to see. “ 

This article is part of a series titled “The Secret Life of Buildings” where we write about the history and architecture behind Philadelphia’s buildings. We’ve covered row house stylescommon Philadelphia brick stylestrinity homes, star bolts, and residential courts, among other topics. What else would you like to learn about? Follow us and DM us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know!

Rehabbing Your Rowhouse

Bringing an older Philly rowhouse into the 21st century can be challenging. We want to make it easier and more affordable. With 70 years of experience, our agents at Solo Real Estate have managed multiple home renovation projects across the city so we’re sharing some insights on what to look out for in a rehab property, and what you can expect to have to update. 

Whether you’ll be doing a gut-renovation or updating a few things, most row houses tend to have the same problems. They are dark and narrow with small kitchens, postage-stamp-size middle bedrooms, and outdated bathrooms. The secret to home renovation is knowing where and how to open up a space to more light and functionality. For that, you need to work with an experienced architect and contractor who have expertise in rehabbing homes like yours.  

Kitchens & Bathrooms

Even the most livable property usually requires a major makeover of the kitchen and bathroom. If sustainability is your goal, just say no to granite and marble countertops. “Custom made cast concrete countertops and sinks are better for the environment,” said Jayme Guokas, owner of Craftwork Design, a Philadelphia-based design firm specializing in customized living spaces. “Using cast concrete saves material from being quarried from the earth. It has a more hand crafted, warm feeling, especially with inlays of fossils, agate rocks and minerals,” he said.

When Guokas rehabbed his East Kensington row home, an 1880 structure, he conceived of it as a showcase for his business. “The house reflects my firm’s design principles as well as our ethic of sustainable building, using reclaimed and locally sourced materials wherever possible.”  

For example, Guokas used Heart Pine flooring from a South Philly factory and a former livestock tank as a shower base. The cast concrete throughout the house, on countertops, windowsills, and sinks, featured inlaid glass, stone, and antique tile. Guokas balanced the reclaimed accents and poured concrete with contemporary appliances, light fixtures and ceiling fans. Guokas also used custom cast concrete to update the kitchen of Deborah Solo.

Deborah Solo’s kitchen. Photo: Isaac Turner Photography

In his work for Parish House, a 1912 property in East Kensington, Guokas applied principles of sustainability. He created hand-troweled concrete countertops in all six units, as well as concrete sinks in two of the four bathrooms. An antique longleaf pine vanity is made from the beams salvaged from the adjacent church.

Parish House Interior by Craftwork Design. Photo: Isaac Turner Photography
Concrete Sink made by Craftwork Design. Photo: Isaac Turner Photography

Influenced by woodworker/designer George Nakashima and the Arts & Crafts aesthetic of Henry Mercer, Guokas uses birch plywood for kitchen cabinets with creative stain options. A beautiful example is the hand-stained cabinetry he completed for a house on Seventh Street.

Let there be light!

An open floor plan is a popular way to bring more light and flow into your house. Or add a skylight to the living room, kitchen, or at the top of the stairwell. When possible, enlarge windows or select a front door with a decorative glass panel. When it comes to ceiling light fixtures, consider mixing recessed lights throughout the first floor with contemporary or vintage hanging fixtures.

The lighter your walls, the more light bounces off of them. Go with bright neutrals or white. But not just any white. Sherwin Williams offers 48 shades, ranging from cool to warm.  Benjamin Moore has over 300! We recommend bright white for ceilings and a warmer white for walls. If you’d like to add a pop of color, paint an accent wall to create a focus area while maintaining a sense of openness with the surrounding white walls.

Doing away with the cramped second floor bedroom and enlarging the bathroom is an option if you do not require the room as a nursery or office. Another way to open up your home is to create a trendy roof deck with an outdoor spiral staircase.

The Rehab Bible

Before you make any decisions, read the Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual, an online, free, homeowners Bible. It clearly spells out how to approach renovations and additions, permits and codes. More importantly, it tells you how to avoid costly mistakes.

  • Don’t try to be your own contractor
  • Don’t work with relatives or friends
  • Don’t work without a written contract
  • Don’t put down more than a 20% deposit
  • Don’t release more than 95% of the total cost before all work is completed to your satisfaction

“Managing over 400 units for different owners, Solo Real Estate is positioned to help row house owners identify reputable architects and contractors,” said Alex Franqui.  “We get multiple bids from contractors. If you have a small job, it’s difficult to find a plumber or roofer. But we do enough business with them that they will handle the job.” 

Interested in purchasing a rehab property? We can help! Learn more about our buying or property investment services here, and contact us for more information.