This House Got Built After All

Thomas MacMillan PhotosAfter an 83-year-old architecture professor was attacked at the Lilac Street building site of a Yale-designed house, the university pulled up stakes from Newhallville. A year later, the home was completed and drew a crowd—including the professor.

The professor, the now-84-year-old and recently retired Paul Brouard, was one of dozens of guests who showed up for an open house at 32 Lilac St., the house that almost didn’t happen.

The event — featuring Michael Jackson hits blasting from speakers outside and an avant garde art show organized by Yale students inside — marked the redemption of a building project that last spring became a flashpoint in town-gown relations as well as a spark for grassroots neighborhood revival.

The house at 32 Lilac St. was initially supposed to be built last summer by Yale architecture students as one of their annual design-build projects. Every summer, Yale students put up a house that’s then sold to a low-income buyer.

Last May Brouard was at the site for excavation work when someone hit him over the head and took his wallet. After that, Yale decided it couldn’t have students and faculty working in the neighborhood. The university moved the project across town to Greenwood Street .

The incident, on a street that has struggled with crime and blight, sparked soul-searching in the neighborhood and the university. It went to the heart of New Haven’s complicated relationship with Yale, where privilege and need often intersect — with mixed results.

After Yale left Lilac Street, Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS), the housing development agency that partners with the architecture school on its building projects, stepped in to finish the job.

Then-Mayor John DeStefano called then-Yale President Rick Levin and suggested they support NHS’s effort, and the city and the university each offered up $62,500 toward the construction of the house.

The result, a beige, vinyl-sided, 1500-square-foot, single-family house, was on display on Friday afternoon. NHS used the design that Yale architecture students had originally come up with for the lot. Jim Paley, head of NHS, said the house cost about $250,000 to build. NHS is looking to sell it to a qualified buyer for $140,000.

“It’s great to have an additional presence on Lilac Street,” Paley said, standing outside the house on Friday. Lilac Street is one of several spots where NHS is practicing a “cluster”-based approach to redeveloping Newhallville housing stock in groups of properties near each other.

Paley pointed out five other houses or lots on the block that NHS has renovated or is planning to renovate or build from scrach. A few doors down from 32 Lilac is a vacant lot where Paley hopes to build a house using the same Yale-designed plan once more.

“It’s great to see,” Brouard (pictured) said when he showed up to the house moments later. He said he’s happy the students’ single house design led to a couple of completed buildings. “They got two houses out of it!”

“I’m thankful that it’s built, that’s for certain,” said Adam Hopfner (at left in photo, with Paley), a Yale architecture professor who helped students design the house. “I still have huge regrets that we were not allowed to continue” in Newhallville.”

“I like the fact that they took the design and adopted it so it’s affordable,” Brouard said. The same design, as built by Yale students on Greenwood Street last summer, features top-end building supplies donated by manufacturers eager to get their products into the hands of future Yale-educated architects. The Lillac Street version, in contrast, is a more basic, no-frills building.

Neighbors were complimentary of the new house. Linda Gist (pictured), on her front porch across the street, pronounced it “beautiful.”

“This house is just going to uplift all the other houses,” she said.

“It’s pretty good,” said Nicole Moore, who recently moved in two houses down. She said she thinks NHS is on the right track: “Fixing up the old, bringing in the new.”

Luis Santana (pictured), who has three kids, said the neighborhood is “kind of shoddy right now.” He said he worries about his kids’ safety. He said the new house is a step in the right direction.

“I like to think of this as the beginning of the resurgence of Lilac Street,” said Paley.

“First Residents”

Friday’s event wasn’t just an open house, but a kind of gallery opening as well. A gaggle of Yale art students occupied the house, exhibiting their work.

The art show was organized by Yale senior Justine Yan (pictured chatting with local preservationist Anstress Farwell).

“I was interested in how the domestic elements of a house could frame art in a different way,” Yan said.

She was also interested in the university’s history at the site. “This started out as a Yale story,” that was left unfinished, she said. “This is an effort to continue that story.”

“We’re sort of like the first residents of the house,” Yan said.

The show featured nine artists, each assigned to a different room.

In the living room, Martina Crouch had assembled a blanket fort, populated by stuffed animals, which was a hit with some of the open house’s younger visitors.

In the little downstairs bathroom, Jaime Sunwoo (pictured) was interacting with passersby in the character of a 12-year-old girl who introduced herself with her YouTube handle, “Lolapop13.” Wearing a bright blue wig in a bathroom festooned with tween paraphernalia, she breathlessly explained that she was filming a video of herself singing a Nicki Minaj song.

“It’s hard, because I have to twerk at the same time,” Lolapop13 explained. She said she was having trouble keeping her voice steady for the video while her butt was shaking.

Cast black forms marked the floor of the upstairs hallway. In a bedroom, a blanket lay on the floor, and a distorted video projected overhead.

In the darkened basement, members of an experimental theater troupe called Control Group were wrapping up a performance. Tim Creavin, a shirtless junior, was putting his boots back on next to an assemblage of leftover building supplies.

“We’ve been iterating actions that we determined before coming down here,” he said. Sophomore “Luke [Johnson] was working with physical gesture. I was working with movement. We wanted to iterate, in a grotesque, deconstructed way, what’s happening upstairs in the domestic area, to create a negative, or anti-space.”

The art show was scheduled to be up through the weekend.

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on April 28, 2014  8:21am

It may look good now.But wait for that tax hike that is coming.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on April 28, 2014  8:26am

Wow, it’s great the house got finished, but ... the “art” exhibit?  How to really beef up town/gown relations—a Yalie performance artist pretending to be a 12-year-old girl twerking in the bathroom.

And this marvelously coherent and inclusive comment:  “We wanted to iterate, in a grotesque, deconstructed way, what’s happening upstairs in the domestic area, to create a negative, or anti-space.”

And ... “We’re sort of like the first residents of the house,” Yan said.

Right.  Sure you are.

I’d have gone and played in the blanket fort too.

posted by: alexey on April 28, 2014  8:47am

First of all, congratulations to everyone who worked on this to make it happen.  But. There’s always a “but.”

I’m concerned about the economics of this project.  Why did the house cost $250k to build?  I’m not an architect or a builder, but the figure of $100/sf is firmly implanted in my mind.  Maybe that’s old, or not applicable to the New Haven market.  That would be about $150k, just a bit more than the target sales price.  As it is, this works out to $166/sf.  (It is unclear whether the architectural fees are waived, included or imputed.  They would typically run 10-to-15 percent of the cost)

A better challenge for architects, builders and supporters of affordable housing would be to design and build a house for the targeted $140k.  Okay, maybe a bit more if you want to build in a bit of a subsidy and some sweat equity and voluntarism. 

Is that unrealistic?  I have no idea.  But, it would be a great service to develop sets of house plans with proposed materials and construction methods that could be replicated at a lower cost, or at a cost that more closely matches the “value” of the finished property.

Wouldn’t that spur the development of affordable housing apart from the pace allowed by the annual School of Architecture project and the resources of NHS?

posted by: robn on April 28, 2014  9:00am

Thanks Paul for years of hard work and community service. And thanks to this community who stood up and refused to let violence stop constructive progress in their neighborhood.

posted by: robn on April 28, 2014  11:39am


Because labor is really really expensive in CT. This is the counter narrative to the “unions build a middle class” narrative.

posted by: TheMadcap on April 28, 2014  12:37pm

$250,000 is rather normal. $100sq/ft is like the extreme low end of the scale.

posted by: William Kurtz on April 28, 2014  12:40pm

What’s the difference between ‘working with physical gesture’, ‘working with movement’ and just plain old-fashioned ‘moving’?

posted by: ChrisTheContractor on April 28, 2014  7:53pm

I am a remodeling contractor, not a new home builder. A home that size would sell for $250,000 including land, realtors fee, developers profit and a lot more bling.
It is a very nice, basic house. No dormers, expensive finishes etc.
$140,00 seems about right.
It is not the cost of labor in Connecticut. There are some other numbers in there that you don’t see.

posted by: robn on April 29, 2014  7:51am

Labor typically comprises almost 45% of the construction cost of a residence (materials and equip another 45%, the general contractor would charge 10% overhead and 5% profit). This is why “case study” houses built by university programs and Habitat always look so affordable on paper; they’re subsidized by volunteerism.