Beyond the drafting table: Building project benefits students and city

For this year’s Vlock Building Project, students designed and built an apartment in the yard of existing home, supporting New Haven's affordable housing goals.

On a sweltering morning in early August, Yale students Emma Sherefkin and Noah Silvestry installed cabinetry in the kitchen of a new home in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood. Silvestry held a door steady as Sherefkin fastened its hinges with a power screwdriver. A sliding glass door beside them was opened wide to the sticky summer air.

For the two master’s students at Yale School of Architecture, the cabinets were among the final touches to a months-long collaboration they’d undertaken with classmates as part of the Jim Vlock First Year Building Project. The annual project, which is a major aspect of the curriculum for first-year students in the professional architecture degree program, enables students to design and build a house within the city, a first-of-its kind program that is now emulated by many other architecture schools.

For Silvestry, the opportunity to transform a drawing into a dwelling where people will live was invaluable.

As architects, we spend a lot of our lives making detailed drawings, but very few of us have the opportunity to really know in a material way what it means to translate those drawings from paper to reality,” he said. “That’s something that excites a lot of us about the building project.”

Emma Sherefkin and Noah Silvestry
Emma Sherefkin and Noah Silvestry, master’s students at the School of Architecture, participated in the Jim Vlock First Year Building Project, in which students design and build a home for a member of the New Haven community. (All photos by Allie Barton)

Sherefkin, who previously worked in housing construction in New Orleans, said the building project is what attracted her to Yale.

It’s one of the most important parts of the education,” she said. “It’s important to understand how what you’re drawing and what you’re seeing on plans will come together physically on the site. I think a lot of students who had never done any construction work were surprised by how different it is to work on site and actually put together all the details that they had drawn over and over on a computer.”

This year’s building project offered a twist. Students were asked to design and build an accessory dwelling unit — a small one-person apartment located on the same lot as a stand-alone home — behind a three-unit house completed as part of the 2019 building project. The city recently amended its zoning regulations to allow the construction of these types of dwellings on lots with existing houses to increase the amount of affordable housing.

For the sixth consecutive year, the School of Architecture partnered with Columbus House, a local non-profit organization that provides shelter, housing, and social services to individuals who were recently homeless. Columbus House, which functioned as the students’ client, will select a tenant for the new home.

Two men installing cabinets.
Construction on the home began in May and was just about completed by mid-August.

The School of Architecture will host an open house at the new home, located at 164 Plymouth Street, on Sunday, Oct. 2 from 4 to 6 p.m. The event will feature a celebration of the life and memory of Paul Brouard, who led the building project for 40 years and who died earlier this year. (The school will provide shuttle service to the site from 180 York Street to avoid parking difficulties.)

The Vlock building project program began in 1967 when the late Charles Moore, who directed Yale’s Department of Architecture from 1965 to 1971, sought to address students’ desire to pursue architecture committed to social action. In its early years, students traveled to sites in Appalachia to build community centers and medical facilities. In recent years, the project has focused on building affordable housing in New Haven.

This year’s accessory dwelling unit proposal presented students with tricky design challenges, said Adam Hopfner, a critic at the school and a leader of the project since 2006. The structure is sited in the backyard of the existing house with the Metro North and Amtrak rail lines running directly beside it.

The students put a lot of effort into providing a sense of privacy both for the people living in the existing home and the occupant of the new dwelling,” said Hopfner, the founder of Hopfner Studio, a design-build practice based in New Haven. “Given the structure’s proximity to the railroad tracks, the students thought about how to minimize the noise pollution.”

Adam Hopfner
Adam Hopfner, a critic at the School of Architecture, has directed the building project since 2006.

To dampen the rumbling of passing trains, the new home’s back wall has no doors or windows and is thickened by cabinetry and storage. The windows and sliding glass doors at the front and sides are triple glazed to block noise.

The 450-square-foot unit features a spacious combined kitchen and living space. A short hallway leads to a bedroom with floor to ceiling built-in cabinets and closet space. Natural light pours through a large skylight in the bathroom, which is located off the hallway between the kitchen and bedroom.

The exterior is encased by a rainscreen of cedar cladding. A small front porch has a shed-style roof that is slanted sufficiently to offer privacy from the 2019 house. The doorway forms the porch’s right end. Cedar scrim screens its left end, providing additional privacy.

Everything about the house’s plan, from the location of the bedroom to the slope of the roof, and the use of the scrim, was geared toward maximizing light while allowing the occupant to feel safe and enjoy privacy,” Silvestry said.

The students began work in January by selecting the location. Then they were divided into teams that each developed design proposals.  Eventually they presented these ideas to the client — Columbus House — and the city. Once a design was selected, the students broke the work down into a set of construction plans. They broke ground in mid-May. All students worked the site through the end of June. A group of 12 students, including Sherefkin and Silvestry, stayed on in July and August as paid interns to complete the build.

A skylight fills a bathroom with natural light.
A skylight fills the bathroom with natural light.

What I enjoy most about directing the project is watching the light bulb go off among the students as we’re discussing various technical issues, like acoustic decoupling or the building’s thermal envelope,” Hopfner said, standing in the kitchen and living space. “Once we’re out here in the field, you can see all those things we were talking about really start to register with the students as they put the structure’s components together.”

The experience teaches students that details precisely described in a set of plans might not come together so easily once a build is underway, Sherefkin said. The cedar rainscreen is a case in point. Students assembled the rainscreen’s four panels offsite. But when they began attaching them to the exterior walls, components didn’t quite line up as described in the drawings.

We had to make extra cuts on site and gap things a little bit more than we expected,” she said. “I’m proud of the way it turned out.”

Sherefkin and Silvestry had the chance to help make the apartment’s cabinetry — a new experience for both. They visited Leetes Island Woodworks in Guilford, one of many community organizations and local businesses that support the project through in-kind donations, to cut the lumber for the cabinets.

The new home will serve as prototype for future accessory dwelling units, Hopfner said. A group of student interns is working with the city to create a toolkit for anyone interested in pursuing a similar project.

Emma Sherefkin
Sherefkin said the project helps students better understand how their designs come together once construction is underway.

Aside from gaining construction experience, Silvestry appreciated the opportunity to collaborate with his classmates on a design-build project addressing the issue of homelessness.

Working in a team and learning from your peers is very rewarding,” said Silvestry, who graduated from Yale College in 2019 with a degree in architecture. “Everybody is coming into their first year from vastly different backgrounds, both academically and socially, and brought radically different and inspiring ideas about how to attack the challenges of homelessness and providing people shelter. That experience was really valuable.”

The students also have the satisfaction of knowing they designed and built an attractive, comfortable home for someone who has lived without one.

This is a home that I would love to live in,” Sherefkin said. “And I think that’s the best mark of workmanship, building a house that meets your own standards for a nice place to live.”

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