New Haven is known for its eclectic mix of downtown architecture, from Colonial and Federal homes to Gothic churches, Modernist experiments and 21st-century “smart buildings.” Less conspicuous is another group of distinctive buildings scattered among the city’s residential neighborhoods, mostly in Newhallville, the Hill and City Point. They’re the products of the Jim Vlock First Year Building Project at the Yale School of Architecture—35 unique homes and other structures designed and built at a rate of one per year by first-year students in the Master of Architecture program.

From its inception in 1967, when it began by constructing buildings in Appalachia, the design-build program was a radical concept, project director Adam Hopfner says. “Thinking of taking students, climbing down from the ivory tower and… digging latrines and interacting with perhaps a constituency that some of these students would not otherwise engage with—it was revolutionary, and I think in a sense it continues to be,” he says. The first projects included community centers, camp structures, park pavilions, band shells and other public buildings. In 1989, the program shifted to residential structures and, since then, has housed more than 50 New Haven families in partnership with local social service agencies. For the last three years, it has partnered with Columbus House, which will move three formerly homeless individuals or families into this year’s building in the fall.

sponsored by

The Knights of Columbus Museum

Construction for that home is well underway on Plymouth Street in the Hill. The three-story structure, clad in green insulation, is flanked by metal scaffolds as students, some of whom are still learning how to handle their tools, measure and cut lengths of gray-stained cedar shiplap and install it on the building’s exterior. On this 85-degree day, everyone is dirty and sweaty and working hard—exactly the experience they were looking for.

“I came to Yale for this program,” says first-year student Scott Simpson of Maryland, one of 14 student interns spending the summer on the build. “The whole point of this exercise is really to build empathy with the builder so that it’s not just lines on a page, but these are things that people actually have to assemble and make with their own hands.” In order to have a seat at the table when a project is being designed, Simpson says, he needs to recognize its physical ramifications, not just its design elements. “Drafting lines on a computer screen just so far removed from this,” he says.

Classmate Sarah Weiss of Chicago agrees. Unlike Simpson, who worked an administrative job in construction before coming to Yale, Weiss is new to architecture and construction. She says she’s had an aha moment pretty much every day. “You’re thinking of the way that things look here when you’re drawing,” Weiss says, “and there’s just a much more direct parallel now… I feel like it changed my brain a little bit.”

sponsored by

The 5th Annual Women's Leadership Conference at the University of New Haven

The first-year class of 59 students worked in 10 teams last semester to design proposals for the build. In April, a panel of faculty, Columbus House representatives and community members chose the winning plan, and the entire class refined it and brought it up to code. Ground was broken in mid-May, giving all 59 classmates a chance to experience laying the foundation, framing the building and topping out the structure. Over the summer, a smaller group of interns from the class is completing the build, scheduled to end in late August.

The Plymouth Street design was judged most suitable for the site in part because it best accounted for the needs of formerly homeless clients, says AJ Artemel, director of communications at the School of Architecture and himself a former design-build intern. The floor plan for all three stacked apartments is nearly identical, but it’s rotated on each floor. “People use different parts of a house in different times of day, so it helps avoid acoustical problems,” Artemel explains. In addition, every unit includes substantial outdoor space, each one oriented in a different direction. “One of the things that people who have previously been homeless report struggling with is the lack of privacy when you’re in public all the time,” Artemel says. The rotation of the floor plans allows for more privacy both for residents and for neighbors.

The design also honors the scale of the neighborhood, Hopfner says. Its 28’ x 28’ footprint is shallow compared to other houses on the street, but its facade is similar to theirs in size. That fact, along with the visual variety the rotation affords, will make the house “quite beautiful on the street,” Hopfner says. That kind of attention to both beauty and function is nothing new. Two years ago, the school’s design-build project on Adeline Street was named one of the Wall Street Journal’s best architecture projects of 2017.

This year’s project is also being built to high environmental standards, Hopfner says, with a “robust” thermal envelope and solar panels on the roof. Learning how to build a structure that’s not only attractive but also space- and energy-efficient and responsive to the real-world needs of its future inhabitants is what the Jim Vlock First Year Building Project is all about, Hopfner says. “It teaches issues of gravity, structure and building envelope performance, but it also raises issues about what it is to be … an architect within society … I think that’s why the building project has existed for over 50 years.” To keep costs down, Hopfner says he spends several hours each day begging donations and discounts from manufacturers of materials, which drastically cuts the cost of the project.

Standing in the third-floor unit, with its high, sloped ceiling and its open stairway and a large porch in the tree canopy overlooking the neighborhood, it’s easy to imagine living here. Yale students seem to be learning much that they’ll take into their future careers. But ultimately, it’s Columbus House’s clients who will benefit the most from this new place to call home.

Jim Vlock First Year Building Project
via the Yale School of Architecture
2019 Build Location: 168 Plymouth St, New Haven (map)
Open House: Monday 9/23 at 5:30pm

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1-5 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 4 features Adam Hopfner. Image 6, photographed by Zelig Fok and Haylie Chan, features the finished 2017 project at 54 Adeline Street. Image 7, photographed by Zelig Fok and Nicole Doan, features the finished 2018 project at 43 Button Street.

More Stories