Small budget sparked students’ architectural inventiveness

Just as necessity is the mother of invention, economic austerity became the muse of the first-year Yale School of Architecture students who designed and built the two-family home at 12 King Place, which was dedicated on Monday.

Challenged by unprecedented budget constraints and confronted with rubble from a previous building buried in the front of the property, the student-builders in the 2010 Vlock Building Project were inspired to be especially inventive.

The 43-year-old program is responsible for some 15 student-designed homes in New Haven. Inevitably, says project manager emeritus Paul Broyard, every new project draws comparisons to its predecessors - this year all the more so, since this year’s house is the third (and last) project to be built on three contiguous King Place lots.

The three-story house at 12 King Place stands in stark contrast to its two-story neighbors. It is clad in dark cedar siding, with large plate-glass windows dominating its front façade; its shape is box-like and its roof flat. Most dramatically of all, it is set far back from the street, with an expansive front yard fronted by a three-foot-high brick partition. The 2008 and 2009 houses, consistent with the rest of the neighborhood, are flush to each other and close to the street.

The unique situation of the house addressed a challenge the students discovered early in the design process, notes architecture student Ilsa Falis, i.e., the buried remains of a preexisting building. Rather than trying to excavate the rubble to lay the foundation for the new house, the winning design team decided to place the whole house at the back of the property.

The brick wall, which is about 20 feet wide, relates this house to the others, observes Shuo Zhai, a member of the team whose design was chosen for this year’s project. The line in the front of the yard, he explains, continues the line of the façades of its neighbors. It’s kind of a visual trick, he says.

The lower budget meant that students had to think small. While the overall surface of the two-unit home had to be around 2000 square feet, the 2010 designers managed to keep the footprint of the building to around 900 square feet. The smaller footprint meant a more affordable foundation, Falis explains.

The owner’s residence occupies the first and second stories, while a rental unit, to help the owner pay the mortgage, occupies the third floor. The two units are configured so the removal of one wall can make them into a single family house.

Deciduous trees were left in the back of the house. They will provide shade and cooling during the summer, while sunlight and heat will pour through the house’s huge windows, in winter. “When you sit in the third floor, you feel like you’re in a tree house,” says Fallis. “It’s like an aerie.”

“We wanted to create a design that could go up quickly,” says Fallis. In fact, the students ended up with a full week of time to lavish on landscaping, allowing them to add another distinctive touch: a row of planters filled with wild flowers bordering the path to the entrance of the house.

The various constraints surrounding this year’s project, notes architecture critic and project director Adam Hopfner, forced the students to focus on the simplicity of their design, as they never had before.

The teeming rain that drove the dedication ceremony indoors on Monday serendipitously provided the project with an icon. The building team had installed an open rectangular metal drainpipe on the side of the building at the suggestion of School of Architecture faculty member Peter de Bretteville, who had seen something similar at an adobe mission church near Tuscon.

The rainwater flowing through the metal pipe along the dark cedar siding became a kinetic water sculpture — just one more example, those on hand agreed, of the understated elegance and beauty of this most recent design-build by first-year students at Yale School of Architecture.

— By Dorie Baker

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Dorie Baker:, 203-432-1345