Isabelle Lin

This past fall, first-year students at the School of Architecture completed the construction of a three-unit home in New Haven in partnership with a local nonprofit that fights homelessness.

The Jim Vlock Building Project is an opportunity for architecture students to contribute to the New Haven community. First-year students compete to have their design chosen and built, with construction representing a rare summer internship opportunity for those enthusiastic to gain hands-on experience. Past partnerships have included organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Common Ground and, most recently, Columbus House, a local nonprofit organization tackling homelessness in New Haven. This year represents the fourth year of a five-year partnership with Columbus House, with seven individual units already completed.

Columbus House Chief Development Officer and Head of Fundraising John Brooks described the collaborative design process as one that brings students and residents of Columbus House together.

“Every year, the students come and meet residents currently homeless and those recently housed,” Brooks explained. “They get both perspectives … they take this and incorporate it all into their design discussions. They really get an understanding of who we serve, what their needs are, what their fears are and what they’ve gone through. It is a really fantastic partnership.”

Born from a wave of student unrest in the 1960s, the project was established by the former head of the School of Architecture, Charles W. Moore, in collaboration with faculty member Kent Bloomer. It aimed to provide students with experience in socially responsible projects across Connecticut and highlight the positive impact their work could have on local communities. The project is now in its 52nd year, and last year’s completed housing units are about to be filled.

“These are permanent supportive housing clients with case managers working alongside them, firstly to help keep them housed, but also to help address any issues that led to their homelessness in the first place,” Brooks said.

The design process is a fully collaborative process between clients, students and the community. At the helm is Jim Hopfner, the long-standing director — the project was one of the factors that originally brought him to Yale University. For him the project is an example of where architecture and design can “actively participate in societal issues.”

The rate of people experiencing homelessness in Connecticut has been declining since 2012, with Columbus House playing a central role in not only providing shelter and supported housing, but also tackling issues that lead to homelessness. Student involvement has not been limited to just design and construction, with some students also getting involved in fundraising activities like the annual “Rock to Road Earth Day Ride” — a bike ride in support of Columbus House’s Green Initiatives.

“[This project allows students to] engage in the realities of understanding what forces shape architecture other than ones’ pen or pencil,” Hopfner said. “There are both physical forces like snow and rain but just as importantly there are political and societal forces at play … it exposes the students to the realities of design and construction.”

Hopfner said he appreciates the importance of community support when undertaking a project like this. It involved mitigating challenges by being a consistent presence at community alder meetings, facilitating “deep dives with students into an analysis of the site” and ultimately “trying to engage with the neighborhood as much as possible,” he added.

This commitment to understanding the wider impact of the project has so far led to the success of three buildings, with construction scheduled to resume on the fourth this summer. The long, iterative process towards the final design has begun, with students preparing to present their proposals this week. A select group of 14 students will then be chosen to undertake a paid internship over summer to complete the build.

“Whether on site or in the studio, architecture is in a constant state of flux where there is almost always room for improvement,” said Sarah Weiss ’21, one of the interns on the 2019 project. “We never stopped designing, which made every day fun, engaging and anything but predictable.”

Partnership for Strong Communities, a nonprofit advocacy group aimed at ending homelessness, reported that over 24 percent of renters are severely burdened by cost through rent — spending more than 50 percent of their monthly income on their housing. Connecticut has some of the lowest rates of new affordable housing being built in America per a recent state-wide report from the Connecticut Health Foundation.

In 2018, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported that the United States has a shortage of over 7 million affordable rental homes.

Judith McCartney | .