A design lesson, brick by brick

First-year architecture students designed and built a house in New Haven for a low-income family.
First-year architecture students designed and built a house in New Haven for a low-income family. Photo by Erica Cooper.

Fifty students at the School of Architecture spent their summers carrying planks, pouring concrete, hammering nails, and laying bricks. Soon, a homeless person, hopefully a veteran, will move in.

At the end of their first years, all architecture students participate in the Yale Building Project, which gives students hands-on construction experience while providing a house for a low-income family through collaboration with the New York-based non-profit development organization Common Ground. The two-family house built by this year’s team of students — located at 12 King Pl. in West Haven — would ideally be occupied by a female war veteran returning from Iraq. The project is an effort to help alleviate the problem of homelessness among veterans, said Adam Hopfner, a critic at the school who became project director in 2007, adding that 25 percent of all homeless people today are veterans.

“One goal that is very meaningful to me is the social role of architecture in society,” Hopfner said. “By no means do I mean that architecture is the solution to all the ills of society, but it can help deal with a population that is so, so rarely dealt with in architecture. Design is not just for the wealthy.”

Attention to budgeting was particularly important this year because the project’s budget, set by Common Ground, was cut by $100,000 from last year, to a total of $150,000, said the team’s fundraising director Diana Nee ARC ’12.

The final design was modified to keep the project cost-effective, project manager Ashley Ozburn ARC ’12 added. To keep the footprint of the house small, the team built a narrower three-story house instead of a wider two-story one, reducing the cost of the foundation.

The team also pushed the building away from the street so as to use a concrete slab for the base of the house and avoid the necessity of a dug foundation. Incidentally, the shady location of the building kept it significantly cooler than it would have been closer to the street — a surprise benefit for a house with no air conditioning.

The project also had an educational goal: to give first-year architecture students practical instruction in the process of designing and building a house for a real client not affiliated with the University. For two months, the class divided into five groups of 10 students, each group developing its own proposal for a home. This phase ended with a day of critical review, at the end of which a jury selected the winning design that the group would see to completion. Dissolving the design groups, the class came together again for two weeks to vet the winning scheme and to address the faculty’s and client’s concerns, Hopfner said.

While it would be easy to imagine a group of forward-thinking design students growing frustrated with the political and economic aspects of building a low-income house, Hopfner said the students achieved a greater level of creativity when working within firm boundaries.

“The idea is not simply to make the most beautiful sculpture ever to bless the land of New Haven but to come up with a creative solution to the problem at hand,” he said.

To document their efforts in overcoming the daily challenges of construction, the students kept a blog.

“Brick wall. We made a brick wall,” reads one entry from Aug 5. “No one on the team is likely to be hired as a mason any time soon, but it looks pretty good. Any kid with a soccer ball would probably agree.”

On Sept. 27, the Yale Building Project will hold an open house at the project’s site. An occupant has not yet been selected, Ozburn said.

Correction: Sept. 13, 2010

An earlier version of this article misquoted Adam Hopfner. He said that 25 percent of homeless people are veterans, not that 25 percent of all veterans are homeless.

Comments

  • jayman1466

    I really do hate to be the prick here, but I am not at all a fan of this design. Though taste in art is largely subjective, I feel justified in making this claim – design, like all academic fields, gains rigor and strength though scrutiny and criticism. Of course, criticism requires a tangible basis and I’m not sure if I have the expertise to provide it.

    But, as a lay observer, the facade seems incredibly dull. I understand cost was an issue, but a simple paint job over the same material would have made quite a difference. The random arrangement of doors and windows only adds confusion and an unwelcoming aura. The lack of simple ornaments like window shutters makes the place seem lacking and unimportant as to reinforce the resident’s poverty.

    I understand it is trendy nowadays to “challenge” preconceived notions of art and beauty by making lots and lots of ugly things everywhere (again subjective), but honestly, after a full century of this theme of simplicity and lack of ornament, are the designers of this facade being innovative or simply reinforcing a contemporary artistic dogma (one which is still highly criticized).

    Yes, this design may be flashy now, but I can see it quickly becoming a drab, unwanted eyesore.

  • theantiyale

    I think it’s elegant, but the roof may leak. Loos flat; puddling ya know.

  • bsimon

    “adding that 25 percent of all veterans today are homeless” is not true. 25% of all homeless are veterans, not the other way around.