Excavation Begins for Student-designed House in New Haven

Every spring since 1967, first-year students at the Yale School of Architecture have put down their pencils and picked up hammers to build a house from foundation to roof, from framing to trim.

Excavation began on May 1 for the hands-on student project at 23 West Read Street in the Newhallville section of New Haven. Construction is scheduled to begin on May 4.

This year’s First Year Building Project is a three-bedroom, one-family house in a modest residential neighborhood. When finished, it will be sold at cost to a first-time homeowner by the client, Neighborhood Housing Services, a local non-profit organization.

“No other graduate school of architecture has this kind of program,” said first-year student Victoria Partridge. “It’s why I chose to come to Yale. This has been extremely challenging, and extremely rewarding. You think you understand the process, from drawings and observation of construction, but to actually do this will be enlightening for me.”

Only four of the 38 students in this year’s class have done any construction work in the past. By the end of their six weeks on the site, they will have gained the kind of practical knowledge that will make them better at their profession.

“This is a tangible way of approaching architecture,” said first-year student Bimal Mendis, who transferred to Yale so that he could participate in this program. “My only construction experience so far has been in making models.”

“It’s highly unusual for architecture students to see a project through from start to finish,” Mendis added. “When we work as summer interns, we only see a small piece of the process. It’s really important for us to get this kind of experience early in our careers.”

Faculty member Paul Brouard has served as project director for the past 30 years. “I’ve had over 1,000 students out in the field, building their creations,” Brouard said. Despite that, the process hasn’t grown stale for him. “It’s still exciting to see the students come along. Each class views the project differently. They generate vital energy in learning how to build.”

“The First Year Building Project is unique to Yale,” said Dean Robert A.M. Stern. “It invites students to experience the critical relationship between conceptualization and realization, between design and construction. Every step of the way, students gain skills and insights and increase their commitment to architecture. They come to see how their work has a direct and meaningful effect upon the lives of others. The Yale building project demonstrates that the architect must be a responsible and active member of the community.”

Over the years, Yale students have erected about a dozen houses in transitional neighborhoods of New Haven. “These fragile neighborhoods benefit from interventions,” said Herbert Newman, architectural critic at Yale and a coordinator of the First Year Building Project since its inception. “These are not isolated buildings – they have a beneficial effect, helping make people more conscious of renewing their neighborhoods. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

The house on the corner of West Read and Watson streets will have a modified gable roof and a large, welcoming porch that faces west. The first floor will have 10-foot high ceilings, an eat-in kitchen, living room, dining room and a half bath; upstairs there will be three bedrooms and a full bath. The overall square footage will be about 1,500 – far smaller than the usual architect-designed house.

The back yard has a mature willow tree, and “The house jogs in the middle about eight degrees to address the tree, embrace the side yard and provide a partial front to Watson Street,” said Mendis. “The roof line makes a gesture to greet the corner. The highest point of the house is angled toward the corner of the site.”

Newman, who is principal of his own architectural firm in New Haven, adds, “The house has a distinct sculptural quality, and it works to resolve a difficult corner.”

This year’s project will use ENERGY STAR®-approved materials, when possible. ENERGY STAR® is a voluntary program run by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency along with product manufacturers, local utilities and retailers. The program encourages use of energy-efficient and environmentally friendly materials.

The students will work in rotating shifts through the next six weeks. In mid-June, a crew of eight students – with one local high school intern – will continue the project through the summer, until the house is finished. Teaching assistants Oliver Freundlich, Julianna Chittick, Sam Tyler and Jeff Goldstein will work with the first-year students.

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Media Contact

Gila Reinstein: gila.reinstein@yale.edu, 203-432-1325