Group Effort

Three friends build an unconventional triple-decker on Portland’s Munjoy Hill

By Edgar Allen Beem
Photographed by Trent Bell

When real estate developer Peter Bass and sculptor Lin Lisberger decided it was time to downsize from their big family home in Gorham and move to Portland, they also decided to recruit some friends to move in with them. The people they selected turned out to constitute a downtown Portland development dream team, so it is no surprise that the multi-family home they built is something special.

While Bass handled the financing and permitting, architect David Lloyd of Archetype Architects designed the building and engineer John Ryan of Wright-Ryan Construction oversaw the construction. Ryan’s wife, Jenny Potter Scheu, also an architect, contributed to the design and Lloyd’s partner, Nancy Adams, a fashion designer-turned-nurse, completed the sextet of creative professionals all under one roof.

The home the three couples created together is a square, flat-roofed three-story building clad in cedar shingles that is very much in context with its Munjoy Hill neighborhood. Only the mahogany-railed balconies at the southwest corner overlooking the Ocean Gateway terminal and the palatial cruise ships that tie up there suggest that 29 Waterville Street is anything other than a recently remodeled tenement.

“It’s a contemporary version of a triple-decker,” allows Lloyd. “My family grew up in East Boston and Winthrop in triple-deckers.”

Wood-framed three-story apartment buildings — single-floor apartments on each of three floors — sprung up all over New England and the Northeast between 1870 and 1920 as cities industrialized and people moved in from the countryside. Munjoy Hill was a working-class district of modest single-family homes, apartments, tenements, and triple-deckers with a reputation as a tough neighborhood until gentrification began to spread along the Eastern Promenade and over the Hill in the 1970s. Today, Munjoy Hill is one of Portland’s most desirable neighborhoods, attracting many creative people with its diversity and proximity to downtown.

Bass and Lisberger were looking to downsize and move into the city, but the other two couples, who made up Waterville Triad LLC, already lived on the Portland peninsula, albeit in the West End. Ryan and Scheu lived in a nineteenth-century duplex with, in Ryan’s words, “too much space to heat and maintain.” Lloyd and Adams lived in a long, narrow townhouse condominium that, with a kitchen at the far rear and living room out front, was not really conducive to entertaining. They were also interested in downsizing space and lowering their heating bills.

The building site Bass found was a vacant lot at the base of Munjoy Hill. Just 3,200 square feet and no more than sixty feet on any side, the lot had been used for off-street parking for close to thirty years. When Bass proposed building a three-story building on the little infill lot, abutters quickly objected. There goes the parking. There goes the view. There goes the neighborhood.

But the Waterville Triad prevailed despite the objections and the fact that Portland has a reputation as a notoriously difficult place to get building permits. Bass and his partners understood the Portland permitting system because they all have extensive experience designing and building in the city.

Bass’ Random Orbit, Inc. developed the Peloton Labs on Bramhall Square, turned the former Sacred Heart School on Sherman Street into Parkside Studios, and developed East Bayside Lofts, Park Street Lofts, and artists’ studios on Merrill Street on Munjoy Hill.

Wright-Ryan projects in Portland have included the five-story Council on International Educational Exchange building in the heart of Old Port, rehabilitating the Cannery in the Gorham’s Corner neighborhood at edge of the Old Port, University of Southern Maine’s Wishcamper Center and Osher Map Library, the Kimball Court apartment complex on Congress Street, and the affordable housing complex at 53 Danforth Street.

Archetype Architects (formerly Archtellic) designed both the 53 Danforth Street project and East Bayside Studios and converted the former Portland Public Library Baxter Building into the home office of the VIA marketing agency.

Most of the neighbors’ objections to 29 Waterville Street disappeared as they realized that the developers were actually going to live in the building and that Bass and friends were not asking to do anything that was not already permitted on the lot.

“I do a lot of buildings on the peninsula,” says Lloyd. “It’s a tight urban context, but I enjoy the challenge of designing contemporary buildings in historic districts.”

Built into the slope of Munjoy Hill, the building Lloyd designed has a ground floor entry, storage room and garage, and a shared rooftop deck. Each of the three floors houses a five-room apartment. Lloyd and Adams and Mollie the collie moved into the first floor in late 2010. In early 2011, Bass and Lisberger and their poodle Luna occupied the second, and Ryan and Scheu and their poodle Otis the third.

Each of the units is 1,550 square feet, featuring an open living room, dining room, and kitchen space on the balconied corner and different arrangements of attendant bedrooms, bathrooms, studio offices, laundry, and storage spaces. Given that each floor is similar in size and layout, it’s striking how different each apartment feels.

The first floor unit loses the light earlier than the upper two floors, but that gives the Lloyd-Adams apartment a coziness. “They have better views,” concedes David Lloyd, “but we have direct access to the back yard.”

The two upper floors feel somewhat like New York City high-rise apartments. The Bass-Lisberger unit is a bit more open and airy, while the Ryan-Scheu unit on the top floor features more kitchen and storage space as well as a hallway lined with books.

The Waterville Street triple-decker cost approximately $275 per square foot to build, including land acquisition. The building, says Bass, “came in just under the appraised value.” The City of Portland values each unit at $371,000 for tax purposes. Natural gas-fired heat, hot water, and dryers typically cost them each about three hundred dollars a year.

“All the heating, cooking, and hot water,” says Lloyd, “costs me less than my cable bill.”

John Ryan credits “attention to details” rather than any alternative or innovative technologies for the building’s energy efficiency.

“You focus on the envelope,” Ryan says. “If you get the envelope right, other decisions are less important.”

The building is not super-insulated, but it is extremely tight. All joints and seams in the walls are taped and caulked to prevent drafts and heat loss. And each unit is equipped with its own Rinnai on-demand continuous hot water heater and a small Pensotti boiler that circulates hot water through radiant heating coils beneath the cement floors. The result is thermal control so constant that when Peter Bass’ boiler shut off last winter, he didn’t notice for two days.

Active, employed, and engaged, the residents of 29 Waterville Street are not yet thinking about such things as mutual aid in old age, one of the benefits of triple-deckers back in the days when they were often inhabited by extended families. Nor do they regard their living arrangement as a cohousing project, which might suggest more shared facilities, shared meals, and restrictions on the sale of properties.

“We’re all pretty independent,” agrees Lloyd. “Everyone has their own separate lives, but we do support one another, like keeping an eye on things when people are away and walking the dog when they can’t get home.”

“I personally didn’t realize we were getting into an unintentional community until half way through the process,” adds Bass.

“We still like each other,” explains Lisberger. “That’s because no one has a big ego and everyone has a good sense of humor.”