Yale Architecture Students Break Ground for 40th First-Year Building Project

For the first time since the Yale School of Architecture began its First-Year Building Project (FYBP) 40 years ago to give students hands-on experience, this year’s architects-in-training were given the particular challenge of creating a building that meets the American Disabilities Act’s  (ADA) standards for accessible design: a home for a disabled war veteran.

Typically, the FYBP begins as a competition among all first-year students at the School of Architecture to design a residence at a specific site within certain dimensions and for a modest budget. Working in five teams of about 10 students, the groups present their designs to critics, clients and neighborhood residents at the end of the term. The models are judged by such criteria as user-friendliness, suitability for the neighborhood and elegance and economy of design.

This year’s scenario changed somewhat as the students — in addition to confronting such time-honored challenges as fitting a contemporary house in a neighborhood of traditional, early 20th-century homes, getting companies to donate essential materials not covered by the budget and building according to “green” and sustainable principles — had to design an accessible home on one level conforming to ADA standards. This year’s teams had another challenge never confronted in the history of the FYBP: They had to design an attached rental unit.

This year’s winning model, which will be built by the students on a double lot on Kossuth Street in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, was chosen above other contenders for its fluid design and its chameleon-like capacity to blend in unobtrusively with the rest of the block, according to Karen Rizvi, a first-year student. “It looks like it lived there,” she says.

Adam Hopfner, who is a graduate of the Yale School of Architecture and oversees the Project, commented on the way the model’s “sinuous plan allows for both a generous public presence and an intimate relationship with private outdoor space.”

For the past 27 years, first-year architecture students have been building residences in local inner-city neighborhoods as part of the FYBP. The clientele for the projects have been non-profit agencies serving first-time homebuyers: Habitat for Humanity, Neighborhood Housing Services and, more recently, Common Ground. Typically, the agency sells the house at cost to a family who could not otherwise afford to buy a home.

Working with the Veteran’s Affairs Office, based in West Haven, Common Ground, which describes itself as the “nation’s largest not-for-profit developer of supportive housing,” has expressly targeted female veterans for the type of two-family owner-renter residence the Yale students have designed. The addition of a rental apartment is meant not only to help the new home owner meet monthly mortgage payments, but, according to Hopfner, “it also provides dignified housing to a vet who might not yet be at a stage (financially, emotionally, socially) to purchase a house.” It is hoped, Hopfner adds, that the New Haven project will serve as a prototype for similar Common Ground ventures throughout the country.

Pointing out that one-quarter of the Nation’s homeless are veterans, Hopfner says he is particularly gratified that Yale architecture students are working on a project of timely social significance. “The experience gives currency and immediacy to architecture as a way to address social issues,” notes Hopfner.

The FYBP is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. As their first project in 1967, students built a community center in Appalachia. At the time the program was developed under Charles Moore, then dean of the Yale School of Architecture, the FYBP was the only “reality” course combining training in construction, design and contracting. Although other schools offer students practical opportunities, Yale’s pioneering project is considered a model, and architecture students often cite the project as the reason they chose Yale.

Rizvi notes that she and about half of the other members of her class did not have an architectural background before coming to Yale. Although the FYBP drew her to the School of Architecture, she confesses to being somewhat intimidated by building a house. She says she picked up some knowledge and skills just by working with other students on the FYBP, and she marvels at how “intensely collaborative” the process has been. All first-year students will work on the new home in New Haven until the end of June, then 14 students will stay on and spend the entire summer constructing with their own hands a house they designed collectively with their classmates.

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Media Contact

Dorie Baker: dorie.baker@yale.edu, 203-432-1345