On Horse Island, students take regenerative design ‘off the grid’

Yale architecture students are building a teaching and research center “off the grid” on Horse Island, a 17-acre property in Connecticut’s Thimble Islands.

On a foggy October morning, a crew of students from the Yale School of Architecture assembled the wooden frame of a one-story building on Horse Island, a 17-acre property off the coast of Branford, Connecticut.

The whir of power drills accompanied the growl of a generator. A skid-loader beeped as it reversed. But amid the noisy construction, one sound is curiously absent.

No hammers,” said Louis Koushouris, a second-year master’s student at the School of Architecture.

The students are building a teaching and coastal research center for the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, which owns the island — the largest of the Thimble Islands, an archipelago located on Long Island Sound, about 12 miles from Yale’s campus.

The crew used screws and fasteners to assemble the building’s components, which were prefabricated this summer at the university’s West Campus and transported to the island on a barge, Koushouris explained. The screws make it easier to disassemble the rectangular, 750-square-foot building, should the need ever arise to relocate or repurpose it.

Theoretically, you can take this building apart the same way that you put it together,” he said during a brief break at the construction site.

Easy disassembly is central to the “regenerative” philosophy behind the building’s design and construction. The structure is the inaugural project of the School of Architecture’s Regenerative Building Lab, which teaches students design and building techniques that reduce a building’s environmental impact during construction and throughout its existence.

construction on Horse Island
(Photo credit: Laura Pappalardo/Yale School of Architecture)

The new facility will expand opportunities for Yale faculty and students across disciplines to visit the island, which the university acquired in 1973, for any number of purposes: studying the coastal ecosystem; discussing Thoreau in a serene setting; drawing artistic inspiration from its natural beauty. The hope is to make the island a special part of the Yale experience, helping students to understand that Connecticut posseses rich, beautiful natural resources worth savoring and protecting, said Peabody Director David Skelly.

“Horse Island is a resource and an experience we want to share with the Yale community,” said Skelly, the Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology at the Yale School of the Environment. “We’re fortunate to partner with the School of Architecture to develop a state-of-the-art facility that meets the needs of researchers and educators while respecting this unique ecosystem and landscape.”

The regenerative approach

When Skelly contacted the School of Architecture about the potential for building a research center off the grid on the island, he received an enthusiastic response. 

We said, ‘that sounds really cool,’” said Alan Organschi, director of the Regenerative Building Lab and a senior critic at the School of Architecture.

Since 1967, the Jim Vlock Building Project has offered first-year architecture students the opportunity to design and construct buildings in New Haven, including affordable housing. Skelly’s proposal, while not a good fit for the Vlock program, provided the opportunity to offer students new challenges in an ecologically sensitive site through the new Regenerative Building Lab, said Organschi, a partner with New Haven-based Gray Organschi Architecture.

In May and June, Organschi led a six-week seminar in which his students worked closely with professional consultants and Peabody staff designing the building.

The project team initially considered renovating the Clark House, the former home of a Standard Oil executive who once owned the island. But renovating the house, which was built around the turn of the 20th century and is the island’s only existing building, would require the skills and expertise of seasoned carpenters, not architecture students learning on the job, Organschi said.

Designing and constructing a building from scratch, Organschi noted, better suited the regenerative approach, which carefully considers every aspect of a building’s construction and purpose with an eye toward reducing its carbon footprint. Typically, it aspires to use non-toxic, renewable resources and materials, and restore the surrounding ecosystem.

Horse Island skylight
(Photo credit: Laura Pappalardo/Yale School of Architecture)

It’s not enough to put solar panels on your building,” he said, standing at the construction site with the building’s frame behind him. “You have to think really systematically about the building’s entire lifespan from the production stage and the extraction of materials through its operation. And finally, at the end of its life, you need to account for what happens to all the materials.”

The building will feature a 30-foot-by-16-foot classroom equipped with projection screens and will be enclosed by large, sliding barn-style doors. When opened, the doorways will frame a view of Long Island Sound and Outer Island — the outermost Thimble Island, which is part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. A smaller section of the building will house a kitchenette, toilet, and two bunks so that visiting researchers can stay in the building overnight.

This phenomenal new teaching pavilion allows us to reimagine the outdoor learning experiences we can offer the Yale community, from student internships and residencies to course visits and field trips that far exceed simple tours of the island,” said David Heiser, the Peabody’s director of student programs.

Solar arrays will generate the building’s electricity, hot water, and heat. “It’s completely self-sustaining,” Organschi said.

The restroom will feature an incinerating toilet, which burns waste into ash. A rainwater collection system will provide water for washing. (Systems that use filtered rainwater for drinking are not currently up to code in public buildings, Organschi noted.)

There won’t be any effluent waste,” he said, explaining that water used for washing will be filtered and reintroduced into the environment.

The building’s wood was salvaged and repurposed from various sources. For example, cross-laminated timber floor decks were acquired from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which had utilized them in tests for using heavy timber in tall buildings. The building’s ceiling and barn doors are made of hemlock culled from the Yale-Myers Forest, a 7,800-acre forest in northeastern Connecticut, due to a woolly adelgid blight.

Rather than let them die on the forest floor, and essentially be re-emitting carbon dioxide and methane, we’re using them and storing their carbon in the building,” Organschi said.

Coming to fruition’

The project team chose a site that offered a nice view of the water and the island’s coastline. It is somewhat removed from the central portion of the island where the Clark House stands and where at least a half-dozen other structures once stood. The idea was to let those disturbed areas return to nature and make the teaching and research center a place where people congregate, Organschi explained.

The construction site with a view of the coastline
The construction site with a view of the coastline (Photo courtesy of Odeh Engineers)

Once construction was underway, the work crew applied brute force to haul the prefabricated components from the barge, over a granite outcropping on the shoreline, and up a slope to the build site. They used a winch and cart mechanism that resembled a medieval siege engine, Organschi said.

The students appreciated the opportunity to get their hands dirty. Firsthand experience of the effort and planning needed to transform a design into a building is valuable, said Katie Lau ’20 M. Arch.

It’s a really great opportunity to do something fun right after graduation and learn a little bit more about design-build,” said Lau while perched on the structure’s roof installing tapered duckboards. “When you’re working as an architect, you’re proud to design a building and see it come into fruition. But to build it yourself is even better.”

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Media Contact

Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,