Yale News

Students and faculty of the Yale School of Architecture and the Yale School of the Environment worked together this year to build a teaching and research center on Horse Island, the largest of the Thimble Islands off of Branford, CT.

The Peabody Museum of Natural History is funding a new construction project on Horse Island. The project started in the spring of 2020 with the commencement of a regenerative design seminar, continued with students designing the building and will be finalized with the 10-week construction period that is currently nearing completion. The center will allow students to have authentic, field-based learning opportunities.

“The Long Island Sound and the coastal environments surrounding it are incredible and are important ecosystems that are minutes from campus but unknown to most Yale students,” David Skelly, professor of ecology and director of the Peabody Museum, said in an email to the News. “I am hoping that the new Station at Horse Island will help more people in the Yale community learn more about these environments.”

Additionally, the building is “self-contained” and prioritizes sustainability, according to Skelly, who emphasized the thought and deliberation that had been behind the selection of building materials and the construction process as a whole. The group has prioritized mitigating environmental harm during construction.

Alan Organschi, senior critic at the Yale School of Architecture, taught the regenerative design seminar in the spring and has been overseeing the construction process with a construction management subsidiary of his New Haven-based Gray Organschi Architecture firm. The Peabody Museum’s request to build on Horse Island presented an opportunity for what he called a “proof of concept project” for the Yale School of Architecture’s Regenerative Building Lab. The Building Lab, under Organschi’s direction, will focus on contemporary building issues and experimental assemblage. The Horse Island project has concentrated on creating a circular economic building using renewable and reused materials.

“The building sector is responsible for a huge share of environmental impact, carbon emissions, waste generation and virgin resource extraction,” Organschi commented. “All infrastructure, the process of getting the materials, the operations during their life cycle, the dismantling of them at the end of their lives and landfill waste — it comprises about 50 percent of the anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.”

According to Organschi, the creation of the teaching and research center on Horse Island was a three-part process that started with his research seminar, in which students studied aspects of circular economic or regenerative buildings and came up with a master plan for the island. In phase two, the group of 10 graduate architecture students completed a six-week period of rapid building design. His firm worked with a student in the seminar to complete the permit drawings for Branford, which carried the team over into phase three, the 10-week construction period.

Heather Schneider, ARC ’22, was on both the design and construction teams. She said that the design was focused on the sustainable use of materials and she was able to use her past experience in stone masonry to contribute to construction.

“There are no nails in the entire building — only bolts and screws so that the whole thing can be disassembled at the end of its life,” Schneider said in an email to the News. “We were also conscious to maintain materials in their largest size so they can be most efficiently reused.”

According to Schneider, the skylights in the building maximize solar panel efficiency, permit passive ventilation and only let in northern indirect light, and the foundation uses the smallest amount of concrete while still maintaining sturdiness.

The building’s remote location has posed unique challenges for the group, who have been reaching the site via a 26-foot sailboat, according to Organschi. Schneider noted that the project has required a lot of logistical coordination.

“Since we prefabricated many parts of the building off-site, we had large components that needed to be shipped out to the site on a barge,” Schneider said. “The barge docked on a rock formation and it was sometimes precarious to get materials off the rock and to the site.”

Over the course of construction, the team minimized its use of resources. This intentionality contrasts with usual construction sites, which often have large dumpsters that are taken directly to the landfill several times during the process.

The challenges are part of the teaching tools for Organschi, who emphasized the pedagogical strengths of the design-build process.

“What’s really amazing is we think that design is about form and aesthetics and space, and it is all that,” Organschi reflected. “But, really, the way we solve these huge environmental problems is to try to understand the full life cycle of the building.”

With this objective in mind, students prioritized finding available natural materials as opposed to purchasing new materials for the construction of the building. For instance, students used hemlock trees that would otherwise have died for the ceiling and doors of the research center.

David Heiser, director of student programs at the Yale Peabody Museum, expressed his excitement about the center’s potential use for classes, shows, microscope use, meetings, retreats and multi-day research expeditions on Horse Island.

“We intend to work with faculty to integrate relevant activities into their curricula — the island offers excellent opportunities to investigate topics such as marine biology, botany and geology, but we hope it’s equally attractive for arts and humanities endeavors like environmental history, creative writing and visual art,” Heiser wrote in an email to the News.

Heiser anticipates that the Peabody Museum will be open to proposals of use from all instructors, student groups and local schools that have ideas for utilizing the teaching center. The museum plans to back these endeavors as resources allow.

Organschi shared that the project has been “pushing the envelope” of what is possible for building at Yale and beyond.

The team plans to complete the center’s construction in the spring of 2021.

Sydney Zoehrer | sydney.zoehrer@yale.edu

SYDNEY ZOEHRER