A Lot Of House Envisioned For Little Lots

Thomas MacMillan PhotoJang TysonThird of three stories on filling in Newhallville’s empty spaces.

If someone decides to build a house on the above Read Street lot, it might look something like ...

... the model of the house at left.

It could look that way if the builder decides to use free plans drawn up by a Yale architectural student, rather than pay for a new set of plans.

Erik Johnson hopes someone wants to build on that lot at 101 Read St., or on many of the other 30-plus vacant lots the city owns in Newhallville, one of the biggest neighborhood-development challenges facing New Haven right now. (Click here and here to read previous stories about that.)

So Johnson, who grew up in Newhallville and today runs New Haven’s neighborhood anti-blight agency, the Livable City Initiative (LCI), challenged a Yale architectural professor to produce hundreds of innovative designs for potential builders to grab online.

These aren’t just any lots. They’re skinny plots of land, as narrow as 29 feet. They all used to have houses on them—built decades ago, before New Haven zoning laws changed. Today you can’t by right build a house on land that’s less than 50 feet wide. But the laws grandfathered in lots like those in Newhallville that previously had houses. You may build there, if you find a way to squeeze the houses within a set of complicated mathematical parameters.

Johnson believes the neighborhood needs more homes, needs vacant spots filled in, without requiring public subsidies or high purchase prices. Homes for working families, young people out of college, people who put down roots, take care of their property, keep eyes on the street.

That’s a great challenge for a neighborhood that’s fighting to revive from decades of absentee slumlord neglect and fraud. And that’s a great challenge for budding architects looking for real-world applications for their academic training.

A Tight Squeeze

Paul Bass PhotoThe Yale architecture professor, Alan Organschi (pictured), accepted Johnson’s challenge with gusto. He chose 10 of the addresses and had the 50 first-year students in his “Studio 1012B” class each design a home for one of those lots. He plans to do that four more years. In the end he expects to have 250 prototypes ready, available free online, to entice potential builders to build up Newhallville.

“Erik’s trying to get that density back again,” Organschi said. “I have no doubt that it can be done.”

For the past eight years Organschi has advised Yale’s annual Vlock Building Project, in which architecture students design and construct a new house in a low-income New Haven neighborhood. (This year’s project on Lilac Street in Newhallville ran into some trouble.) The beauty of Johnson’s challenge, for Organschi, lies in the potential to lay plans for private builders to make a bigger impact on a single neighborhood.

While each student designed a house for a single lot, Organschi also had them modify details to adapt the design to other Newhallville lots as well—for instance, to enable a design for a mid-block house to work on a corner, or to adjust to different sunlight exposures.

To squeeze in as much house as possible, the students often designed asymmetrical houses. That’s because zoning law limits them to different maximum heights on different parts of the building depending on factors such as set-backs from the streets.

The Newhallville lots fall into “RM-2 (high/middle density residential)” zones. That means buildings on the lots may not cover more than 30 percent of lot area; rise more than 45 feet on average, and have front yards of at least 17 feet in most cases and rear yards of 25 feet.

Also, they must leave a minimum of eight feet of space between one side of each house and the property line, 10 feet on the other side.

That leaves a total of, say, 16 feet of width for a house on a 34-foot-wide lot.

Like the lot at 101 Read St. (pictured at the top of this story), for instance. One of the designs from this spring semester’s class came from student Tyson Jang, who designed a home for 101 Read. (Remember: The idea is for the designs to work for other lots, as well. Some of these lots currently have thriving community gardens or idyllic greenspaces.)

Tyson stacked three bedrooms at the front of the house. He envisioned three generations living in them: grandparents on one floor, parents on another, kids on the third. He pushed the communal spaces toward the back of the house, opening onto a private back yard enclosed for privacy and including a garden shed for tools. The owner would park a car in a partial carport, rather than a garage, and enter the house through a side kitchen door.

Click here to view Tyson’s full plan, including several drawings.

Thomas MacMillan PhotoThe project that served as the basis for this year’s Vlock Building Project House was student Jack Wolfe’s plan for 93 Shepard St. (pictured above), a well-tended neighborhood oasis that is also 34 feet wide.

Wolfe designed a common “hearth” space in the middle of the house that to some extent rises to the roof to form an atrium. People would hang out in the hearth space, cook there. He included a big skylight. The house would not include a chimney; the emphasis would be on sunlight.

Jack WolfeClick here to review Wolfe’s entire project and view its other drawings.

In his written charge to students for the project, Organschi told them to pay attention not just to the dimensions of the lots, but also to how they relate to the neighborhood around them: “A historical weave of social, cultural, economic and political forces, often originating far outside the boundaries of each individual lot, have had significant, if less quantifiable, impacts on the character of the neighborhood.  As you begin to familiarize yourself with this place, test the feasibility and capacity of building within its open spaces, assess the climatic stresses and benefits of its location, and begin to understand the social interactions and behaviors that have become embedded in its architectural context, you must consider the degree to which the information you gather is critical to your understanding of this urban habitat and instrumental to your design of dwelling space there.”

Avoiding Gentrification

Jim Paley, who has overseen the restoration and sale of beautiful old Newhallville homes as chief of the not-for-profit Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS), called the Organschi project “an interesting idea.” He also sounded notes of caution.

Sometimes other uses are preferable to houses for the vacant lots, Paley argued. Also, he said it’s costing NHS a whopping $275,000 to build the new 1,500-square foot home on the vacant Lilac St. lot that the Yale building project abandoned; that’s how much it generally would cost to fill in these lots with new homes, he said. (Yale’s project saves up to $100,000 through donated materials, he said.) Given that high cost, Paley said, he questions whether new builders could keep costs low enough to avoid gentrification without public subsidies.

It costs around the same $275,000 to renovate the old homes NHS takes on, according to Paley. Unlike with the vacant lots, he argued, housing is already the “only option” for those properties.

LCI’s Johnson said he agrees with Paley that not all lots should have houses built on them. He said he also agrees that $275,000 is too high a construction cost.

“A $275,000 per unit cost is neither affordable or sustainable for a working class family. My goal is to find a way to develop an in-fill housing type that can be constructed for a least half of that amount,” Johnson stated. “Developments can no longer expect that there will be large amounts of public subsidies available and buyers of all income levels want access to reasonable price housing without sometimes onerous deed restrictions that limit who can buy these properties, how much equity a person can earn and how properties are resold.

“That product may not exist today, but working with Yale School of Design, Alan and others collaboratively, I think we can figure something out.”

Previous stories about Newhallville’s turnaround efforts:

Brick By Brick, Winchester Vision Takes Shape
Gardeners Prevail; Vacant-Lot Challenge Remains
After Crash, Neighbors Seek Fix For Blind Corner
Newhallville Confronts A Mega-Landlord
Newhallville Bounces Back; House Will Get Built
Levin To Newhallville: “We’ll Be Back”
Newhallville Up For “Historic” Boost
Cops Make Arrest In 83-Year-Old Prof’s Mugging
Harp Probes The Newhallville Conundrum
“Let There Be Light” (Emitting Diodes)!
Arts Serve As “Scaffold” For Neighborhood Revival
“Serenity” Takes Root On Shepard Street
Bird Garden Fights Blight
Yale Flees Newhallville After Prof’s Mugging

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posted by: swatty on July 19, 2013  3:51pm

What is it about New Haven and building buildings on top of each other? Of course it can be done. But it is humane? Is it a livable city? Apartments are one thing. Condos another, but so much of New Haven is single and multi-family homes sitting toilet paper sharing window to window next to each other.

I’m disappointed that the Yale professor who asks his students to remember how the lots or houses relate to the neighborhood around them isn’t sharp enough to see that this lot is too small and too costly to build on.

Ivory tower bunk.

If you can’t sell the thing at fair market value - and not have $100k of materials donated - don’t build it!

posted by: anonymous on July 19, 2013  4:12pm

Swatty, is it humane to force our low income working people to continue moving to Waterbury, Derby, and Branford, and taking horrifically-crowded buses to New Haven, never to see their kids, simply because there are no affordable housing units left in New Haven? 

The cost of subsidizing a unit at $100,000 is probably an order of magnitude less than the health costs created by this situation. It’s also inhumane.

It’s too bad that Newhallville’s State Senator leadership has consisted of further deep cuts to the bus system and no meaningful investments in neighborhoods like Newhallville (other than tax breaks for slum housing owned by people who they happen to be related to).

posted by: Hill Resident on July 19, 2013  5:08pm

I have the wonderful pleasure of owning a Yale Vlock project home. Anyone who is fortunate to own one would not have an issue with the way the houses are designed because they make absolute effective use of space. The homes are open, well lit, functional and beautiful, inside and out. Providing affordable housing to homebuyers within the city will only enhance the quality of living for the neighborhood. Homeowners are stakeholders, whether it’s a new house or one that has been standing for decades. And there is nothing wrong with planting a jewel of a home in neighborhood that could stand to see something beautiful. Beauty attracts beauty. Keep up the good work Erik and Alan. And congratulations to the lucky homeowners that will benefit.

posted by: David S Baker on July 19, 2013  6:23pm

It looks like “Home” from ‘A Clockwork Orange.’

I question the pitch of the roof especially after last winters snowfall. 

Just because a plan is free or innovative does not make it a good idea.  This is classic form before function.  Meanwhile proven designs are available for less than the price of a sheet of plywood with footprints that can accommodate any oddball lot size.

posted by: Stephen Harris on July 19, 2013  6:28pm

“They all used to have houses on them—built decades ago, before New Haven zoning laws changed”. The current zoning regulation dates from 1963 (50 years old). Time for a change, eh? just sayin’.

“Also, they must leave a minimum of eight feet of space between one side of each house and the property line, 10 feet on the other side”. The height of a building is also regulated by its distance from a lot line. A building can two feet in height for every foot from the the side lot line. This house would need a height variance as well. Yet another reason to re-write the rules.

I agree with Jim that there are probably better uses for lots with very narrow widths. Redevelopment into townhouses would be a better idea IMO.

posted by: robn on July 20, 2013  9:07am

Standard housing construction costs about $200/ct. If mr Johnson wants to pay half that he should move to Texas or just ask local contractors to half their prices. And forget about prefab shipping container housing which could only get cheaper with a huge commodity of scale. The numbers for most case studies are cooked with donated labor and materials.

posted by: urban ed on July 20, 2013  9:43am

I drive by 7-10 seemingly abandoned houses on my in-city commute to work every day. I don’t necessarily disagree with Anon, but I’d like to see existing, un- or under-utilized housing stock prioritized first before we start gobbling up the open spaces, food-producing community gardens, the little places that make life in our challenged neighborhoods a little more pleasant.

posted by: HhE on July 20, 2013  10:35am

In the photos, I see two beautiful green spaces on two of New Haven’s toughest streets.

posted by: TheMadcap on July 20, 2013  12:37pm

There’s nothing inhumane about having houses close to each other. If it’s “inhumane”, than the entire concept of a city is inhumane. Density is good for the street, good for the tax rolls, and more importantly, good for anyone trying to add more housing stock to a city that barely has any room left to build on.

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 20, 2013  5:06pm

David Baker,

I hate the shed roof, too. 

Architecturally speaking, A New Orlean’s shotgun-style house would blend nicely in the neighborhood.

posted by: Walt on July 21, 2013  5:43am

I see the same surprisingly well-  kept little properties in the photos which were cited by HhE.

If I were from that area I would much prefer those little spots of greenery to having ugly new buildings squeezed in.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on July 21, 2013  3:36pm

Having either open space or a new house is a false choice - you can have both. Outside of the downtown there are very few lots in the city that were developed without at least some front, rear and sideyard setbacks. For concerns about light and privacy, these designs were developed specifically to address those issues, did you read the article? That wasn’t something that was merely considered - it was precisely the design issue that was addressed through this exercise.

For examples of what Bill Saunders is talking about, I suggest people head over to Hudson Street off of Goffee to check out some of New Haven’s shotgun houses - they’re a very dense, livable and affordable housing typology that allows for both rear and back gardens.


I also find it a little strange that people think a vacant lot with some landscaping is more beautiful than a new family being able to move into a new home AND having the option to landscape their yard, thereby taking nothing away from the neighborhood only adding to it. That’s not so much inhumane, as just anti-human. People like what they have, but don’t want anyone else to have it too.

posted by: Morris Cove Mom on July 21, 2013  6:15pm

I think the city should partner with an already established small house specialist, like Tumbleweed Tiny Homes, and build houses starting tomorrow. A house can be built for less than $100,000. If you visit the Tumbleweed website or Facebook page, or even one of its competitors, you can see dozens of designs that are 2-4 bedrooms, and affordably built. It is what my husband and I hope to build one day, after we figure out a way to sell our house in New Haven, after the kids have moved out.

posted by: HhE on July 21, 2013  10:23pm

For what it is worth, I am not opposed to these lots being developed.  I am just impressed with the civic mindness of those who maintain them to such a high standard.  I honor them, who ever they may be.

I am opposed to the many blighted vacant lots, and favor their converstion to something productive.

I would also urge caution about cheep houses.  While there are many efficenticies that can be used, at the end of the day, cheep materials and slap togeather construction results in nothing better than land fill bait.  As I heard Warren Buffet say, “A house ought to last longer than the loan to pay for it.”  (He was talking about manufactored homes, but the idea holds.)

posted by: Wikus van de Merwe on July 22, 2013  9:35am

The city has a number of vacant lots in their possession?

Have they reached out to sell the parcels to the adjacent property owners?

I think it’s a horrible idea to build new houses in between the decrepit old lead and asbestos saturated structures that already exist.

posted by: Curious on July 22, 2013  10:30am

Morris Cove Mom, I agree 100%.

Don’t forget though that New Haven isn;t a city, it’s also (and maybe mostly by now) Yale’s sandbox, a place to test out theories on real life people without worrying about having to get consent.

posted by: Morris Cove Mom on July 23, 2013  7:57am

@Curious: Thanks, I just don’t see the point of reinventing the wheel so that some students can have “practice” when there are needs to be met in the community.

I’ve recently come to realize that most cities are not run properly, thoughtfully, or efficiently. And living in New Haven, it is hard not to be upset by this every day. Especially during the money when I pay my car taxes, which has increased yet again, on two cars from 1999.