Launching the Annual Architecture School Building Project

In the end, it came down to a contest between the houses they called “the bulldog” versus “the pajama room.” The former had a spunky, tough look on its face; the latter, a cozy area overlooking the kitchen where children could say goodnight before heading off to bed. Both were scale models for a single-family house that the Yale School of Architecture’s first year class will build this summer. The problem? Only one of them could go up on the empty lot at 50 Derby Avenue.

The atmosphere was tense in the crowded room on the seventh floor of the Art and Architecture building on April 28, and the participants were growing weary. For hours, architectural critics and community members had been arguing back and forth, weighing the pros and cons of the models designed by teams of first year architecture students. Many designs had been eliminated during earlier sessions, and two of the final four entries had been set aside reluctantly. Now it was crunch time for the eight voting jurors.

The process started a month earlier, when students in the Master of Architecture program were given specifications for the annual Building Project. Initially, each of the 44 students submitted an original design. In a series of juries, designs were eliminated, combined, and improved. For the final competition, the class was grouped into four design teams.

Each team had to respect the same limitations. The overall square footage was set at a modest 1,500 – far smaller than the usual architect-designed house. Despite the fact that this will be a one-of-a-kind show-piece, it is not a luxury project. When construction is finished, the house at 50 Derby Avenue will be sold at cost by Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven, a not-for-profit agency, to a low-income family. The project stipulates three bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths, an eat-in kitchen, living room, and preferably den and dining room. Floors must be vinyl composition or carpet, and all windows have to be standard sizes. Most of the labor will be donated by the architecture students, who will build the structure from foundation to roof, from frame to finishing details, learning the realities of their profession every step of the way.

The house will stand on a triangular lot on the corner of Derby and Winthrop avenues in New Haven. Across the street is a Seventh Day Adventist Church that was originally a synagogue. A little park, double-decker wood-frame houses, and a couple of small apartment buildings complete the neighborhood.

A model version of that same neighborhood dominated the center of the jury room on decision day. Scale models with cutaways, technical drawings, and artistic renderings of the final four designs lined the walls. The jurors, a mix of architecture faculty, architectural critics, and community members, placed one model, then the other, onto the empty lot. They raised questions, criticized and defended what they saw, and finally, cast their votes. After a lot of agonizing, the “bulldog” house won by a single vote.

The winning design has an open first floor with unusual interior angles. One wall is made of large, square, wooden panels topped by a border of lucite bricks. The triangular kitchen is galley style, and the living/dining areas invite flexible use. A combination of very large and very small windows are arranged in geometrical patterns. There is a two-level shed roof, and a front porch and facade that look – well, a little like a bulldog. This is Yale, after all.

“The house engages in a great dialogue with the park across the corner,” comments assistant project manager Jennifer Smith, who will graduate from the Architecture School this spring. “The overscaled windows, the spacious interior, and the doubled height give this house a feeling of spaciousness.”

“We can build it. We are working with a very competent team of students and faculty,” says project director Paul Brouard, who has been guiding students through this process for 27 years.

Members of the “bulldog” design team were Kara Bartelt, Pete Brooks, Tarra Cotterman, Russell Davies, June Grant, Kenya Hannans, Melanie Kiihn, Lori Pavese, Edgar Papazian, Brian Ramer, and Grace Tsao.

All the proposals and their originators received high praise from the jurors, who complimented the creativity and thought that went into each project. “They all have substantial virtues,” said James Paley, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services.

“It isn’t a matter of winners and losers,” said Herb Newman, project coordinator and architectural critic, to the assembled first year students who filed into the jury room to hear which design had been selected. “Because of the nature of the process, all of the ideas here belong to the entire class.” Despite that reassurance, some of the students looked decidedly more jubilant than others.

The site was surveyed the next day, and before the end of the week, the foundation was excavated. The entire first year class began working in rotating shifts of 11, starting with the rough construction. They have made a six-week commitment to do physical labor at the site. After June 14, a crew of eight students – with some local high school interns – will complete the project, working through the summer.

The hands-on approach has been part of the Architecture School’s program since 1966, when students were assigned community building projects in Appalachia. In the 1970s, urban Connecticut became the beneficiary of the program. Projects have included a community center, bandshell, library extension, and several one-family houses.

“An offering unique to Yale, the Building Project allows students to experience, with their minds and hands, the critical relationship between conceptualization and realization, between design and construction,” says Fred Koetter, dean of Yale School of Architecture. “With the completed project, the students gain a tangible and unforgettable sense of how their efforts have contributed to the positive interest of their community – how their work may have a direct and meaningful effect upon the lives of others. The Yale Building Project stands as a small but important commitment by our school to demonstrate that, in the end, the architect must be a responsible and active member of the community.”

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