At the open house for the 2019 Jim Vlock First Year Building Project, Yale School of Architecture students unveiled their recently constructed three-unit house in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood. The home was built in collaboration with Columbus House, an organization geared towards providing solutions for homelessness.

The Jim Vlock First Year Building Project is a required course in the spring semester for first years at the Yale School of Architecture. The class spent this past spring formulating possible designs for the house, and a jury of faculty members, clients and members of the community selected the final design. The entire class spent the first six weeks of the summer working at the job site, and 14 students chose to stay through August. The open house on Monday, Sept. 23 was a congratulatory night, and many focused on the positive impact the project would have on Columbus House’s clients.

The theme of the night was “gratitude,” according to Cynthia Fox, interim CEO of Columbus House.

“This is a collaboration of so many people who have come together and they’re all thinking about how to build and create affordable, safe housing for people who don’t have homes,” Fox told the News. “And at the end of the day here, there’s three people who wouldn’t have a home, who now have a home.”

The Jim Vlock First Year Building Project began in 1967 as an annual opportunity for architecture students to participate in the design and construction of a project that has social impact. Recent years have been in partnership with Columbus House and tackle issues of affordable housing and urban infill in New Haven.

Columbus House selected the site of the house and will conduct a search for the future tenants of the house, which has three one-bedroom units, according to Chief Development Officer for Columbus House John Brooks. The tenants are selected through a housing list from the Coordinated Access Network, a Connecticut coalition of homelessness service providers.

Students in the class said that working on the Building Project was a unique learning experience. Through the project, they were able to see the physical outcome of their design plans. Scott Simpson ARC ’21, one of two student project managers, said that a benefit of the project was the “feedback loop that [allows] you [to] understand that your designs have consequences.”

Students conducted group interviews with some of Columbus House’s clients to ask what they look for in a potential home. It produced interesting and unexpected feedback, Simpson said. He spoke about the assumption that many architects have, that clients will want spaces that are “open, bright, airy,” but that Columbus House clients were looking for something “a little bit cozier, a little bit darker.”

Interacting with people who have experienced homelessness “creates a level of empathy,” according to Adam Hopfner, a professor at the School of Architecture and the director of the Jim Vlock Building Project.

“A key to a door is an incredibly potent item to someone who has been sleeping under a bridge,” Hopfner told the News. “The capacity to control one’s own space is incredibly powerful.”

Specific design considerations were made to suit the house’s future tenants. In particular, this year’s design tried “to balance both a sense of privacy with a connection to the street,” Hopfner said.

Changes were also made to the final design to better accommodate the project’s neighborhood. The initial plan for the house didn’t have a front porch, but one was added after discussion of the “porch culture in New Haven,” according to Simpson.

“As you drive down the street, you see a lot of families gathered on the porch in the evening,” Simpson said. “It’s a big part of the social identity of the street.”

The Building Project was warmly received by neighbors on Plymouth Street. Leonard Moret, a resident of an adjacent house, said the house was an excellent addition to the community.

The Yale School of Architecture was established in 1916.

Serena Lin |