Beta

One house at a time

2014-04-18 coverb

The sixth floor of Rudolph Hall smells of Elmer’s glue. The atmosphere is at once playful and serious—last minute sketches are scribbled in the corners of notebooks, heads are huddled over rolls of tracing paper, and sleepless students scurry about. Springtime every year, architecture students are constantly rushing to get their designs ready for their next pin-up presentation. While their immediate attention is occupied by their handiwork, they all wrestle with a vaguely existential question: what does it mean to dwell? In this project, they are charged with the task of designing a minimal dwelling in the form of an affordable double-unit house, which they themselves will build right here in New Haven.

The Jim Vlock First Year Building Project, affectionately known as the BP, is a required spring-term course for first year graduate students at the Yale School of Architecture. At the beginning of their first semester, students are assigned a particular New Haven site, and throughout the semester, in partnership with a community housing organization, they iterate numerous designs until they reach consensus on what scheme to build. At the end of August, New Haven has a brand new, buyer-ready, affordable house. The project aims to provide the students with the rare opportunity to take a building project from conception to completion, while addressing the broader issue of dignified affordable housing.

A bike ride around New Haven might pass by some of the previous projects peppered throughout the city: Newhallville, the Hill, and West River are home to previous BP houses. Some stand out—flat roofs, asymmetrical windows, protruding terraces—playfully juxtaposing themselves against the urban grain. If you ride by at night, you will see lights in their windows. Once merely sketches in student notebooks, they are now homes.

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This year’s site is a tiny gap-tooth lot on 179 Scranton Street in the West River neighborhood. Flanked by two big houses on either side, it is only wide enough for two parked cars. One of hundreds of the city’s empty sliver lots—the technical term for a seemingly unusable pieces of urban land—it is undesired by developers because of its narrow, in-between status unyielding to industry design standards. This year, with the initiative of Erik Johnson at the Livable City Initiative, the program aims to design a “microhouse” that can be adapted to serve as a prototype for the vacant sliver lots that dot the city.

“The program was vaguely described as having a two-unit dwelling, one of which could accommodate up to two people, and a second that could accommodate one person, with the presumed square footages of 500 and 300,” explained Adam Hopfner, ARC ’99, building project director. Given these restrictions, all 54 students designed and presented their own houses before spring break, in a marathon review that took two days. At the end of the review, seven of the 54 designs were selected to be further developed. A clear articulation of core principles, variety, and feasibility were all sought in the selection period, explained Alan Organschi, ARC ’88, a critic at the school who oversees the design process. But here is the catch: if your design is among the selected few, it no longer belongs to you. The students are split up into teams, and each team is charged with the task of perfecting and solving the structural issues of the design they were assigned. In a matter of weeks, each group presents its design in a well-attended final review, at the end of which the winning scheme is selected. But when you think it’s over, it’s only just begun—not a week later, and the students are at the site, hardhat-clad, breaking ground.

The microhouse is only a recent development in the storied history of the BP. Every year since 1989, when the it readjusted its focus onto affordable housing in New Haven, a project would be built in partnership with a community housing organization, which included Habitat for Humanity, Common Ground, and Neighborhood Housing Services. The 2012 BP house measured-in at 2700 square feet. (“It was too freaking big,” says Katie Stranix, ARC ’14, one of the student project managers for her year.) The 2013 BP house slimmed down to a smaller 1500 square feet. This year, it is almost half that size, at 800 square feet: an all-time low.

“This is the first time, having now coordinated the studio for seven years, that I felt like we were doing research that can be built upon over several years,” Organschi said. Before, in partnership with Neighborhood Housing Services, the project was built on a regular-sized lot. This year, with a new community partner, NeighborWorks New Horizons, as well as the protection of HTP Ventures LLC, a private equity firm interested in mass producing micro-dwelling units, the project is experimenting with a more compact model of housing. In Johnson’s vision, the replicability inherent in the conception of the new direction of the BP can take part in the broader urban renewal of New Haven. By providing affordable housing options for students coming back to the city, and for a portion of the population that is typically overlooked by the high-end architectural community, these spaces engender a new type of housing that can cater to different sections of the housing market.

One such section is recent young, low-income college graduates looking for a place to settle in New Haven. With the recent creation of the New Haven Promise program, which gives promising high schoolers in New Haven the opportunity to go to college for free, the need for housing stock for young professionals is poised to grow in the near future. But with the current housing market flush with old houses designed for single families, that have largely fled the city for the suburbs in recent decades, it is hard for the city to incentivize students to settle within the city. “You get out of graduate school, you’re excited to work in your new job and you now need to buy a house. What you’d really like is a new house that is super efficient that might be able to adapt as your family grows and changes,” said Organschi. If the microhouses are made available to those returning to New Haven, they could be filling an important gap.

The schemes that the students are developing now are tight, clean, and extremely efficient. Instead of having a separate living room and bedroom as in most single-family homes, for example, these houses combine sleeping and living quarters in new space-making solutions. To optimize the limited space, some of the furniture gets incorporated into the designs from the very beginning. Ideally, the scheme that will be selected at this year’s final review will lend itself to be replicated to fit into other sliver lots, to hopefully partially alleviate the city’s shortage of affordable housing.

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At the time that it was founded, in 1967, the Building Project was a pioneering venture in architectural education. The very idea of going off into what was then the countryside to build something for the poor was a revolutionary break from the Beaux-Arts tradition of creating lavishly rendered drawings for large scale projects, a practice prevalent in the architectural academies of the time. “The project became quite famous because no schools did that,” said Kent Bloomer, ART ’61, who helped initiate the Building Project almost 50 years ago, together with Charles Moore, the dean of what was then known as the School of Art and Architecture. “In architecture schools, you worked in your school, and architecture students didn’t build buildings—that was for the workers to do. The architects, they designed buildings,” Bloomer added.

Dean Moore and Professor Bloomer thought otherwise, and they did their best to get the students out of the drafting room and into the world. “He was one of the pioneers in the U.S. against orthodox modernism,” Bloomer said of Moore. Convinced that both the advent of the International Style and the professionalization of architecture had pushed aside something vernacular American design sensibility, Moore, rather romantically, wanted to take the students “blueroading” around the country.

This search landed Moore and his team of students in New Zion, a small town in eastern Kentucky, at a time when Appalachia was ground zero for President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. At a time of much political upheaval on Yale’s campus, and specifically within the Architecture School itself, Moore decided to build what would ultimately turn out to be a community center far away from the turmoil within the Ivory Tower. “In schools like Yale, there was so much protesting going on that you couldn’t get any work done,” said Bloomer. The Building Project became a way to get the students away from campus and to focus on their work by serving a community in need.

“The expression of [the sixties] was, ‘Don’t trust anybody over 30,’” said Robert Stern, ARC ’65, dean of the School of Architecture. He was a student at the Yale School of Art and Architecture during the deanship of Paul Rudolph, before the Building Project was conceived. “Young people wanted to feel that they were doing something real and important—socially engaged,” he added. Even before the project was initiated in the school, it wasn’t uncommon for Yale students to take a semester off to work on independent projects. The most notable of this bunch was David Sellers, ARC ’65, who took time off to build a series of houses in Vermont, and got quite a lot of publicity at the time. “There was definitely a sense that studio-based education would be enriched by hands-on experience,” said Stern. “It was in the gene pool of the school.”

For several years, with the help of federal financial backing, the project continued to build communal spaces in rural areas. However, when federal funds for these undertakings dwindled, the project switched its focus to New England—on building everything from community theaters to camp houses for public schools to medical centers to basketball courts.

As we sat on the terrace of Rudolph Hall, leisurely flipping through Richard Hayes’ book, The Yale Building Project: The First 40 Years, Paul Brouard, ARC ’61, spoke about each individual project documented within its pages. At 84 years-old, he retired from the position of director of the BP only this year, after a 40 year tenure. Notable details from 40 years worth of projects stand out in his mind. For instance, the complicated trussing for the community theater in Bridgeport, Conn. 1987; and the minimalistic design of a BP-restored historic Niantic, Conn. barn from 1988 are some of his favorites. While some of these projects were less socially driven than others, they all managed to somehow benefit the community.

However, it wasn’t until 1989 that the Building Project began its commitment to New Haven’s affordable housing problem. “At the time that the project started, New Haven was known as the model city,” explained Herbert Newman, ARC ’59, BP project coordinator. “We didn’t see the problems that were right underfoot, right here in our own backyard.” As the ruinous effects of closing the Winchester Repeating Arms factory along with the suburban sprawl associated with Urban Renewal came to the attention of the New Haven public, it became clear that there was important work to be done within the Elm City.

When Brouard had the opportunity to partner with Habitat for Humanity to address the affordable housing issue in New Haven, the project made a decisive turn that is has sustained 25 years later. “What we’re doing is adapting to the needs of the time,” Newman said. “It isn’t that one is a better program. It’s that the community’s, the nation’s, and the students’ needs are different.”

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Fifty years since its original founding, the project has sustained its essence. “You learn by doing and that ethos holds true today,” said Hopfner, who was once one of Brouard’s students. Design-build programs such as the one at Yale are not as uncommon as they used to be, but the fact still remains that architectural education is mostly limited to the studio.

“Throughout the academic architectural environment, we are by and large image makers,” Avi Forman, ARC ’12, said, who is currently helping the design teams finalize their proposals. “If we don’t know what we’re drawing, it ceases to be relevant.” Forman’s comment points to a major existential crisis within the architectural discipline. Nestled in between the increasingly growing industries of development and construction, the professional practice of architecture today struggles to maintain its grip. As the majorly profitable real-estate development and construction industries empower themselves with the tools of design, the role of architects is being reduced a purely advisory function. “It’s only insofar as we can start to participate in the needs of our clients more directly and participate in the logic of assembly for construction that we can really establish ourselves as vital members of the building industry,” Forman argued.

It is at the heart of this industrial shift that the Building Project becomes so relevant. “It’s a wonderful moment when a student gets to the building site with a drawing that they themselves produced only to realize that it doesn’t have the information they need to build it,” Forman said. There is no experience more valuable for architecture students than testing their own designs against the reality of the building industry to get an insight into what their careers might be like. Hopfner, who was a carpenter before he became an architect, agreed that knowing what goes on within the building site is an empowering experience for the students: “If I’m sitting at a table with the builder and the client, I’m not just some third party,” he said. “I’m an equal to the builder on the job.”

Almost equally as important as its social mission and its relevance to the changing dynamics within the construction industry is that the project requires students to work within a group—a practice so essential to success within the field. Even though the process starts out with each student designing their own entry, in the end, there is only one result, built with everyone’s sweat and blood. “Architecture is in fact not a profession of the sole genius,” said Hopfner. “It is actually a very collaborative profession, so the idea of authorship really gets suppressed.”

Perhaps most important to the ethos of BP is its pedagogical agenda of instilling ethical consideration into architectural practice. “When you’re designing at Yale, or any other architecture school, you can become over-focused on your own development, and you start to see yourself as the client,” Newman said. “That’s what’s so great about the Building Project: it demonstrates to students at a very formative time in their education that in fact architecture provides shelter for others. That’s what we do: we serve.”

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Since last summer, the Project’s deep commitment to the community has been called into question. After last year’s design was finally selected, on the morning of May 9, 2013, Brouard went to survey the project site at 32 Lilac St. When he got out of his truck, he was attacked and robbed in broad daylight. He spent the night in the hospital. After the incident, there were valid concerns about the safety of students who would soon be working on the site daily. And as such, the Yale administration along with the New Haven Police Department made the decision to withdraw from the site. Almost a month into construction, with the foundation already dug out, 32 Lilac Street was left without a building crew, and the students, without a site.

Yale’s decision to pull the plug certainly didn’t help the general perception of the neighborhood. “There were expectations that we were going to be committed and it was really hard for me personally and for the students and for the community, to have the rug pulled out,” Hopfner said. Neither he nor anyone else involved with the project had been consulted prior to the decision to drop the site. Jim Paley, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS), was also disappointed with Yale’s decision to move out of Newhallville: “[The administration] was warned about it not being a safe neighborhood, and as a result, if there had been another incident, I think that they felt that they would be leaving themselves wide open to a lawsuit,” he said.

Despite the hardship, the project was completed at a different site. “Everybody really stepped up,” said Hopfner. Johnson helped them quickly find a replacement site, and NHS showed a lot of trust and goodwill in letting the team start building at 116 Greenwood Street, even before they had title. With the help of Yale and the city, NHS was able to construct the student design, but with its own construction team, not students. Meanwhile, the students’ claim of replicability was put to the test as they had to adapt their design to accommodate conditions within the new site.

Especially in light of last year’s incident, it is easy to construe the BP as the unwelcome intrusion by the Yale in New Haven, but the faculty and students’ commitment to the project’s social agenda destabilizes these criticisms. Last year, the students’ efforts to engage the Newhallville community had begun long before the construction, explained Meghan Lewis, ARC ’15, one of the Project Managers from last year’s BP. In Newhallville, the team had organized a block party, attended community meetings, started working with the kids of the neighborhood, and went as far as to make sure that they had met everyone on the block before they began construction. But after moving sites, the team continued their work with the Newhallville community and even conducted activities with the neighborhood’s children.

“It’s very interesting to see: each year, presumptions that are made both by members of the community towards the architecture students and vice versa, and how those things change throughout the 16 weeks of construction,” Hopfner said. Everyone involved in the project agrees that the social interactions with the residents and the friendships made on-site are some of the project’s most rewarding outcomes. Important insights are gained on both ends.“The people at a community meeting were arguing about which BP house was their favorite. I think sometimes the project is portrayed as not having a good relationship with the community, and that meeting completely changed my opinion,” Lewis said. Everyone I spoke to said that the students every year are surprised by how receptive the residents are to the experimental attitude they bring to the table. This is one of the things that keeps Hopfner coming back to the project each year. “At some point in time every year, all of a sudden, somebody in the neighborhood will be in the heat of the argument with the students about whether a reveal should be a quarter of an inch or a three eighths of an inch—and that’s wonderful,” he said.

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Regardless of how many of its microhouses decorate the city in the next few years, Yale’s architecture school is not going to come close to solving New Haven’s myriad social and economic problems. However, by continuing the commitment to the city each year, the BP engages within the broader debate on how to best transform and revitalize neighborhoods of dense poverty. King’s Place, a street that has three building projects from years past adjacent to each other (“the BP deathrow,” as Lewis jokingly called it) has seen reduced levels of crime, and neighbors have even observed the resurgence of children playing again in public. Newman described this as a catalytic effect: “It’s a mixed bag—sometimes a neighborhood is going down and there isn’t too much you can do about it but in many instances, it helps increase the real estate values of the neighbors’ and it also gives them hope,” he said.

In the 45 years of the Jim Vlock First Year Building Project, close to 2,500 students have had a chance to experience architecture as a social act, as well as an act of art and making. On Thurs., April 24, at the end of a final review that will bring dozens of critics to the pit at Rudolph Hall, the winning design for this year’s Building Project will be determined. At the end of August, New Haven will have a brand new house, ready for buyers, but it will at the same time have produced a crop of socially-conscious architects.