First-Year Masters Students Build Homes

Forty years on, The Yale Housing Project is still forcing students to get down and dirty

The Rural Studio, Brian Mackay-Lyons's Ghost Project, the UVA “Shure Studio,” Dan Rockhill's Studio 804 at University of Kansas—the number of design-build projects for students continues to expand, but they weren't nearly as commonplace in 1967, when Charles W. Moore and Kent Bloomer founded the Yale Building Project. Yale University Press will commemorate the fortieth anniversary in spring 2007 with a volume written by Richard W. Hayes and edited by Nina Rappaport.

Moore and Bloomer decided to get students out of airless studios and to teach architecture’s social value by building for the poor. From its first year, when Moore and the students lived in rural Appalachia, the project has focused on affordable houses. Working with Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS), today each crop of first-year Master’s students design and build a new, affordable home in New Haven in less than six months.

“People ask me, Why do you do this to your first-years?” Robert A.M. Stern, dean of Yale’s School of Architecture, said during the open house for the 2006 Project. “I say, let them rub up against these realities right away: tight budgets, demanding clients, difficult sites. You’ll end up with better buildings.” Paul Brouard, the project’s 35-year director, concurs: “Some students are skeptical. But [as they work] they realize this is an intellectual and a physical activity.”

Student Leo Stevens shows off his class’ handiwork. With a $90,000 budget plus donated materials, the 1,500-square-foot, 3-bedroom, 1.5-bath house slopes handsomely through a double-lot graced with old maple trees: “This lot was vacant before, just trash and this old van with a Chihuahua inside, going crazy.” Hand-built kitchen cabinets echo built-in shelving in the living room. The house fills easily with light from long horizontal windows; clever site orientation plus 1.6-kW solar panels on the roof boost the house’s energy efficiency. An outdoor patio is paved with retaining-wall stones salvaged from Yale’s library construction.

James Paley, executive director of NHS, advises students about homebuyer’s wants and needs. He steered one group away from casement windows because they precluded window air-conditioners. He also nixed a raw concrete kitchen countertop; “It may be chic, but it’s perceived as a cheaper material than Formica,” he says. Paley sees a deep reserve of education still left in affordable housing for students: “We’ve done this so many times before, but the students always come in fresh. After all, this is the only time they’ll do a Yale Housing Project.”

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