Hyperlocal Home-Raising

Courtesy Duo Dickinson The Yale Building Project has a relatively new name: The Jim Vlock First Year Building Project. Don’t let the new branding fool you: not too much has changed about it, except a widening and progressively hyperlocal focus. And that’s a good thing.

This program, intended to get Ivy League School of Architecture students into the nitty-gritty work of construction, has been around since since 1967. At Yale, it’s mandatory for all first-years. The project now results in a single-family house in an economically depressed neighborhood.

But few students, and perhaps fewer New Haveners, know the origins of the program. Founded by former dean Charles W. Moore and faculty member Kent Bloomer, it was meant to get pasty-faced academics out of the studio and building something. Moore saw the project as a way for students to commit to positive social action by building for the poor.

But “the poor” didn’t always have an eye towards New Haven’s low-income neighborhoods. The earliest projects were outside of the city, and included community centers in Appalachia and a series of park and folly structures in Connecticut. Then, partnerships starting with Habitat for Humanity, started creating donated structures for deserving families in New Haven. That grew to Neighborhood Housing Services, Common Ground, and NeighborWorks New Horizons.

Thirty years ago, those first four houses with Habitat for Humanity New Haven were both experimental and revealed how architects, homeowners and building technologies could be at cross-purposes. At the time, Yale and Habitat worked together, and Habitat New Haven did only renovations and used a variety of volunteers to do that work, along with donated materials to create a few places to live in existing neighborhoods, preserving existing housing stock.

Yale wanted to mesh with that mission, but wanted to have the students design new homes in competition within the class, creating multiple designs that residents reviewed. But seeing models and drawings usually meant that the occupants were simply grateful for a home, and did not put a fine critique to the home’s utility. In short the problems of use, community fit and maintenance meant the relationship ended in the early 1990’s with Habitat creating a committee to generate a easy to build prototype based on factory workers housing. What replaced the student-designed buildings was a simple echo of the 19th century Winchester Arms workers’ housing.

About 80 new Houses have been built in the 20-plus years since Habitat separated from Yale. About 20 houses have been built by Yale students during that time. The original 4 Yale/Habitat houses have all undergone post-occupancy renovations, one involving fair radical surgery. the 80 Habitat prototypes have evolved in their technological execution and evolved with changing codes, but are, in truth, a,aging successful in their communities.

These good works are literal gifts: but in the world of rarified Ivy Grad School Aesthetics, Habitats vinyl clad boxes are simply irrelevant to the mission of aesthetic exploration, and the Yale homes for Habitat did not stand up to Habitats mission of low maintenance houses that fit into the neighborhoods Habitat is committed to reviving, one house at a time.

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posted by: jim1 on August 31, 2016  1:35pm

Nice house.  Looks like someone did not spend a lot of time coming up with this plan for it.
This is what they learn in Yale how to put up a sq. house! Now some plants would be nice.

posted by: MsLaur on August 31, 2016  1:46pm

One can read about the history of the building project here: http://yalebooks.com/book/9780300123166/yale-building-project
The houses are truly distinctive, and to my understanding, most of them are still occupied by the original owners. 
The program itself is rare.  Within the industry there is a great divide between architects and builders.  This program helps to bridge the gap by giving architects real world experience.  To my understanding the students can also design and create architectural elements.  There is a house on Henry Street with a stunning laser cut wood panel near the entrance. 
Thanks for the article, Duo.

posted by: Renewhavener on August 31, 2016  3:46pm

@Duo,  Thank you for this article and the many others you have produced for NHI.

Appreciate the amount of personal and professional sacrifice that has gone into and seems poised to continue to go into this program.  Also appreciate the inherent goodness that this project embodies, and which persisted in spite of set backs between organizations, as your article illuminates, or setbacks between communities and individuals, as this article did:
http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/professor_mugged_yale_flees_newhallville/

I do not work for Yale, but often come to their defense in these comment forums as I feel that programs like this include a quality so beneficial and so consistent with the human spirit that one could never hope to calculate it, let alone monetize it into a timely pilot payment.

Wish that when the likes of Dillon, Harp and Looney speak breathlessly about Yale paying their ‘fair share’, they at least stop to consider this.

@jim1, Frankly, these are not skilled trades executing the work.  Not in Yale’s case certainly, and only insofar as one might volunteer in HFH’s case.  The scope of work had best be simple in either case for the project to have a better chance of success, right?

@MsLaur, “Within the industry there is a great divide between architects and builders.” 

Agreed.  Sadly so.  This divide is a conscious choice however on either end of the spectrum in my observation.  The program does help bridge the gap, but it is a cultural change that the industry must grapple with in order to cross it or meet somewhere in the middle. 

It will take more than one experience like this, but rather a commitment to continue to value the experiences and experience of others as much as our own as we each become more specialized along our journey. 

I for one hope for that ongoing commitment and mutual trust to persist as this program has.

posted by: Hill Resident on September 1, 2016  12:17pm

I am an owner of a Vlock Building Program house built in 2008, one of 3 Vlock houses built on one lot. My home, to say the least, is unique in its design and did not at first appear to belong in this neighborhood. But it was the design that moved me to buy it,  my first home, in a neighborhood that I never thought I would live in. And I became ‘more’ than a resident homeowner, I became a stakeholder, an investor. I believe that these homes can do as much for the neighborhoods they are built in as they can for the students building them and the people that purchase them - mostly first time homebuyers like myself (life long New Haven resident, also employed in New Haven) I consider my home a gift because of how much thought, planning and effort was put into its building, and there is none like it and it is mine. And because of the gift I received, I must reciprocate in my community (participate in CMT meetings, neighborhood beautification efforts, establish block watch, build community garden, and just being a good neighbor). If you have the opportunity to visit a Vlock build site (they start building in May and complete the project in September), I encourage all to do so. I think all would walk away encouraged by how it positively changes the atmosphere of the neighborhood.

posted by: indabridge on September 1, 2016  4:58pm

Are you kidding me. Noble goal but there are absolutely spectacular 19th and 20th century homes in New Haven rotting. Please use your talents and funding to rescue these grand homes that have real details, real trim, real oak floors. It’s a pitty that Yale only does what seems good for their PR machine and not what’s good for the city.

posted by: Hill Resident on September 2, 2016  9:25am

@ indabridge: I can appreciate your wanting Yale to use its talents& funding to restore the older grander historical homes in New Haven. But I would argue that building newer modern homes IS actually good for the city too. Before buying my Vlock house, I lived in a 2 bedroom one bath apartment in one of those older grander homes, which had original subway tiles in the kitchen, plaster and slat walls,  a cast iron farm sink in the pantry, 12 foot high ceilings, solid oak floors and a 6 foot long 2 foot high tub. It cost almost as much to heat the place in winter as was the rent. To renovate a home like that means strip it to the bare bones, replace the slat/plaster walls & ceiling with drywall, rewire the knob& tube electrical, replace copper plumbing with PVC, rip off layers of old roof and replace it with a new roof, & install new flooring. The cost of this rehab would put the sale price so far out of reach for the average home buyer. Neighborhood Housing Services does this type of work very well in New Haven (pouring in $350k-450k into the rehab) with the assistance of government subsidies to offset the rehab work, thus making it affordable for middle income first time homebuying folks. My VLOCK home is brand new, energy efficient (sky lights & solar panels), built with sustainable products (reclaimed lumber staircase &bamboo; floors), is handicap accessible, and is IN the Hill, not ON the Hill. And I can afford it. So what’s wrong with Yale building a brand new house in the ‘hood’ that I can afford to buy and live in? The new Yale house does as much for the students and neighborhood as it does for the owner ... who will live IN New Haven and pay property tax ... which is ‘good’ for the city. If Yale gets good PR for having provided me and my neighborhood with this NEW HOME ... then I and the other Vlock home owners say thank you Yale and students, and keep doing what you do! And it AIN’T about gentrification so don’t even try to go there!