This September, two female Iraq War veterans will move into a sleek new house designed by 10 rising stars of the architecture world — first-years at the Yale School of Architecture. The house exists now only on paper, but over the next few months, all 51 first-year students will descend on New Haven’s historically impoverished Hill district to put their ideas into practice.
Thursday marked the culmination of weeks of work by the students, who had divided into five teams to craft designs for the site at 33 Kossuth St. The wining team was announced after six hours of presentations and deliberations last night, and its design will be the one built this summer. The Architecture School’s Building Project has been a keystone of the school’s curriculum since 1967, a tradition that will be celebrated in June with the publication of a book detailing the program’s 40-year history.
Every spring since the project’s founding, architecture students have designed and built a structure for a nonprofit agency. In the 1960s, projects were based in Appalachia; in the ’70s, students began building in Connecticut; and by the ’80s the program came home to New Haven, Architecture School Dean Robert Stern said. The program reflects the school’s commitment to exposing its students to real construction projects and to giving back to the surrounding community, he said.
“It has always been felt that Yale students should have a firsthand experience of constructing and should have a sense of social engagement,” Stern said.
Architecture professor and Building Project Coordinator Herbert Newman said that this year marks the first time that the students have worked with Common Ground, a nonprofit agency dedicated to solving homelessness. The school also teamed up with Connecticut’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs, since the home will be sold at low cost through Common Ground to two women returning from the Iraq War, said professor Adam Hopfner, who is also the Building Project director.
“In conversations with [Common Ground] we’ve learned that over a quarter of all homeless people in America are veterans, which to us was just a staggering figure,” Hopfner said. “They typically come from disadvantaged communities and have less of a support system when they return from deployment. And when they come back from this war there’s an enormous danger that they can slip through the cracks. This is an attempt to deal proactively with that potential by providing affordable, stable, desirable housing.”
Students were restricted by an approximately $200,000 budget, and they had to incorporate a handicapped-accessible three-bedroom owner unit and a one-bedroom tenant unit into a 2,100 square-foot plan, Hopfner said. But otherwise, designs were up to the teams, he said.
Common Ground Director of Design and Construction Nadine Maleh said she was thrilled to work with Yale on this project.
“It’s been fabulous,” she said as she entered deliberations to choose the winning team last night. “We have a really hard process to go through now, because all of the projects are very strong.”
While students said the design process has been rewarding, many said they were exhausted from weeks of long hours of collaborative work.
Felicia Martin ARC ’09, a member of the winning team, said she thought her team’s design won because of its simplicity and the quality of its street-front elevation.
Tal Schori ARC ’09 said he had worked at least 16 hours a day for the past week finalizing his team’s design, but he said he was somewhat uncertain about how this experience would help him in future architectural endeavors. Although most professional architects work in groups, he said, the students’ teams were unique in that there were no hierarchies.
“I’m still questioning the pedagogical value of the assignment,” Schori said. “In some ways it’s a very unnatural process, and the results end up showing that too many hands were involved in the process. It’s like ‘Lord of the Flies.’”
But many former students, looking back on their experience with the Building Project, said it was an invaluable introduction to real-world architecture. In particular, alumni of the project cited it as a useful introduction to construction practices.
Many first-years have never worked on a construction project before their summer work on the Building Project, said Clinton Prior ARC ’07, now a teaching assistant for the project.
Richard Hayes ARC ’86, the author of the forthcoming book “The Yale Building Project: The First 40 Years,” said the project demystified the construction process for him as a student. He decided to write a book about the program, he said, because he found Yale’s pioneering of the program to be a fascinating chapter in the history of architectural education. Many other architecture schools have begun similar classes modeled after Yale’s.
The program was begun under Charles W. Moore, chair of Yale’s Architecture Department in the ’60s, Hayes said.
“He was a really innovative educator, and this is one of the innovations he introduced to Yale,” Hayes said. “It was also a reflection of that era in American culture. A lot of students at that time took an interest in problems in Appalachia.”
This year’s project is focusing students’ attention on a social problem particular to their own times, Hopfner said.
“It’s really considering issues at multiple scales simultaneously: the politics of the city, the psychology of the individual, the role gender plays in our society, the impact on the environment,” Hopfner said. “And it’s dealing with the social reality of the displaced culture of veterans. There is the potential capacity for healing that the architecture can provide at all these scales. … And that’s something that the students have really taken to heart, and there has been quite a bit of thought and sensitivity to the issue of these vets.”