"Innovation" is still the byword for decades-old student building project

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“Every year, the project is a little bit better than the last one,” muses Paul Brouard, the former director of the Yale School of Architecture’s (YSoA) First Year Building Project, as he primps the newest student effort at 456 Orchard St. for its official dedication. The not-quite-retired project director probably knows the Vlock Building Project, as it is now called, better than anyone.

Brouard got his architectural degree from Yale in 1962, five years before the design-build program was inaugurated, and he has been shepherding fledgling architects through the construction of buildings they designed themselves for more than 40 years.

The rules of the non-elective course have hardly changed since the project started to focus on affordable housing in New Haven in 1989: First year students compete in teams to come up with the best design for a house of specific dimensions to fit a pre-selected site in a distressed neighborhood within a budget that is not enough to cover essentials. As soon as the winning team is chosen in April, all the students in the class break ground, and they continue to work on the construction until late June. A dozen or so stay on and work until the house is finished at the end of August.

Brouard reckons the house on Orchard Street — a two-unit residence of 2,500 square feet — is the 19th contribution that first-year students at YSoA have made to the affordable housing stock of New Haven.

While the dual purpose of the project is to give future architects a chance to learn construction and contracting while making a meaningful contribution to people’s lives, it is also an opportunity for the designers to improve on the efforts of their predecessors. New materials and products are developed, while certain goals, such as conserving energy and addressing the comfort of future residents, remain the same. Brouard sees the effort to use innovation to answer the perennial needs of homeowners as a steady trajectory of improvement.

“Every year it’s a challenge to make the house a little better, make it more efficient, more green,” he says, noting that even though the first multi-family house students built in New Haven was designed along the same principles as the newest venture, the two are a world apart. “The houses are improving all the time. It’s an upgrade each year.”

This sentiment was reinforced by the present director of the Vlock Building Project, Adam Hopfner, who, as a 1999 graduate of YSoA, is an alumnus of the program. Hopfner enthusiastically endorsed the closed-cell spray foam insulation system that was used in the construction of the house on Orchard Street. A state-of-the-art thermal conservation system, the discrete modules of foam are the perfect example of an innovation that moves the first-year building project ever closer to home construction Nirvana, Hopfner says. The system, coupled with a “tight building envelope,” he notes, “ultimately reduces the energy consumed within the house, which is obviously the final goal here.”

Another feature of sustainability mentioned by Hopfner is the locally resourced white-cedar siding of the house. Not only does the use of material made from indigenous trees eliminate the carbon footprint of long-distance transport, but the blond-wood cladding also helps integrate the new house with the clapboard-sided early 20th-century homes that dominate the neighborhood.

Most of all, though, Hopfner extols the Vlock Building Project as boot-camp training in contracting for future architects. According to Hopfner, there is a trend in architectural practices to combine contracting and design, which marks a realignment between two branches of the architectural profession that were for many generations separating from each other.

“The essence of the Building Project is to bridge the gap that exists between architecture and construction,” he says, noting that the unique skill Yale students get building their own project from the ground up will be an invaluable commodity in their profession.

By Dorie Baker