Elis build for the homeless

Renee Wells, disabled veteran of the Persian Gulf War and single mother to her two children, now has a new place to call home — thanks to first-year students in the Yale School of Architecture.

The home at 33 Kossuth St. in New Haven was dedicated and unveiled to the public on Monday, though Wells will not move in until November. The architecture students’ First Year Building Project was begun in 1967 and has provided affordable — and unique — housing in low-income areas for each of the past 40 years. In the last 19 years, each class of first-year students has collaboratively designed and built a home in New Haven.

Renee Wells, right, a disabled war veteran and single mother to Megan, 8, and Kenny, 10, iwill move into a new house built by first-year architecture students through the Yale School of Architecture’s First Year Building Project.
Paul Needham
Renee Wells, right, a disabled war veteran and single mother to Megan, 8, and Kenny, 10, iwill move into a new house built by first-year architecture students through the Yale School of Architecture’s First Year Building Project.

The project started in the spring, when the students broke up into five teams of 10 to create proposals for the site, which was donated by the City of New Haven, said Adam Hopfner, director of the Building Project. The groups faced a number of constraints, including their clients’ demands and budget constraints.

This year, Hopfner said, the designs were also required to adhere to Americans with Disabilities Act standards to accommodate Wells’ needs.

Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, said this year’s challenge was especially difficult for the budding architects.

“This was our most ambitious project ever,” Stern said. “It’s not just a little ‘let’s have fun with a hammer’ project; students had to grapple with real issues, especially regarding making the house accessible to a disabled woman.”

The students had to build a fully accessible 2,100 square-foot building, featuring both a three-bedroom owner’s unit and a one-bedroom tenant’s unit, Stern said. The tenant’s unit can be rented out and will be a potential source of income for the homeowner.

After the proposals were presented in April, architecture critics and neighborhood residents selected the winning team. Ground was broken for the project in May, and all first-year architecture students helped with the construction. Felicia Martin ARC ’09, who served as Construction Document Manager for the project, said that aside from very specific electrical and plumbing work, the house was built entirely with student labor.

Martin said she was especially impressed by the speed with which the project was completed. She noted that the five-month timeline was far shorter than professional architects’ typical schedules.

“I’m just really impressed and surprised that that much work can get done in that little amount of time,” Martin said.

Parsa Khalili ARC ’09, who was part of the 14-person group that spent the summer in New Haven working on the project, said that seeing the project through to its completion was a valuable experience.

“It was empowering to see something going from being on paper one week and being on the ground the next week,” he said. “We really got to see the nuances involved with construction.”

James Flax, who lives next door to the new building, was impressed by the students’ diligence.

“Down the stretch, they were working 10- and 12-hour days and weekends,” he said. “They worked really, really hard.”

New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who was in attendance at Monday night’s dedication, said that even though 25 percent of the city’s population is disabled, most disabled housing units are put in high-rise buildings.

“It’s amazing and wonderful that we can find this residential building that does it very differently and very well,” he said.

Wells said her new home’s location is an improvement, as it is closer to her medical treatment facilities.

This year’s project was unique in its collaboration with two other organizations. Common Ground, an organization that fights homelessness, organized the financing of the project and worked with students to address and explain the homeowner’s needs, according to its founder and president, Rosanne Haggerty.

The Connecticut Veterans Affairs Department identified the homeowner for Yale and Common Ground, said Laurie Harkness, a representative for the department. Both groups said they hope this project will serve as a catalyst for future projects at Yale and beyond that are focused on veterans’ housing. 23 percent of the homeless in this country are veterans, Haggerty said.

To celebrate the project’s anniversary year, Richard Hayes ARC ’86 has written a book entitled “The Yale Building Project: The First 40 Years,” describing the program’s history and its impact. The project was begun by the late Charles W. Moore, chair of Yale’s Architecture Department from 1965 to 1971, as a way to both expose students to the full scope of a building project and to support low-income communities, Stern said.

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