Architecture students build one of nation’s first homes using CLT

The exterior of the new home, created as part of this year’s Jim Vlock First Year Building Project.
The exterior of the new home, created in partnership with Columbus House as part of this year’s Jim Vlock First Year Building Project. (Photo credit: Zelig Fok and Nicole Doan)

Students at the Yale School of Architecture have been breaking ground — literally — for decades while building structures they designed during the summer after their first year. Students participating in this year’s Jim Vlock First Year Building Project also broke ground in another way — creating one of the first structures in the nation built with cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels, an innovative and sustainable wood product.

Founded in 1967 by Charles Moore as the first academic design-build program in the country, the Yale Building Project created community centers and campgrounds in Appalachia and New England in its early years. Since 1989, the project has created homes for over 50 New Haven families.

Working in partnership with Columbus House, a New Haven-based homelessness services provider, this year’s students designed and built a two-unit home in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood. This home, clad in shingles, makes extensive use of CLT panels for structural and insulated vertical and horizontal surfaces. The panels were trimmed offsite and then craned in, continuing experiments in prefabrication that began in last year’s project.

It’s important that students have an opportunity to work with new materials and new methods of building,” says Deborah Berke, dean of the Yale School of Architecture. “I hope the use of CLT panels pushes forward our conversations around sustainability.”

Home home’s interior.
The home’s interior. (Photo credit: Zelig Fok and Nicole Doan)

Because the home’s structural elements were prefabricated, students were able to spend more time working out details in the house, including a long row of skylights along the ridge of the roof, which bring natural light into the double-height spaces of both living units. A sliding interior window shutter in an upper-floor bedroom allows a range of natural lighting and view options for residents. These apertures contrast with the exposed natural wood surface of the CLT panels, which aim to bring warmth to the interior spaces; cove lighting along the top of the CLT panels bathes the underside of the pitched roof. Eventually the roof will host an array of solar panels installed by New Haven Community Solar.

First-year students formed into design teams in the spring of 2018, each proposing a different scheme meeting the same material and site demands. The winning proposal was selected by a design jury on May 1 and then was refined by students into a drawing set. The students then spent the summer trimming CLT panels at Yale’s West Campus and assembling the structure on site in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood.

This year’s house is the second built in a five-year collaboration with Columbus House, and the two units will welcome two formerly homeless New Haven families. “The Yale School of Architecture/Columbus House partnership has a far-reaching impact. The students learn their craft, of course, but they learn so much more by being in conversation with their clients — in this case, people who have experienced homelessness. And for them, having the keys to their new, beautiful home is the answer to their hopes and dreams,” says Alison Cunningham ’84 M.Div., CEO of Columbus House, adding, “Helping people resolve their homelessness is an honor for us all.


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