The Yale Building Project, Week 1: Chaos and Trust

The first installment of our weekly blog by students in Yale’s annual design-build program

Every Monday until August, first-year graduate students at the Yale School of Architecture will be blogging about their progress building an affordable, accessible owner-renter residence in New Haven. In this first installment, Matthew Zych reports on the rocky transition period between the selection of the winning student design and the start of construction.

Dean Robert A. M. Stern leads a lively discussion during the design selection. Images: courtesy the Yale Building Project

The phase “revisions to winning design” sounds entirely too innocent. The weeks following final design reviews in architecture schools are generally characterized by a welcome reduction in pace and panic of the students—and yet here we stand a week after a crowd packed into a final studio review to watch our critics and clients select a student-designed house to be constructed for the 2009 Yale Building Project, and the anxiety in the studio has not tapered in the slightest. As we work on revisions to the chosen scheme, the “we’re done!” feeling we so long for after a final semester review has been absorbed by the sobering reality that we now need to bring 48 ambitious and diverse students to a consensus on how to move this project from paper to a building. It gets better: we break ground in one week.

Left: Studio critics Peter de Bretteville and Bimal Mendis, with Building Project director Adam Hopfner, meet with students during an in-class design review. Right: The large crowd of faculty, students, clients, and visitors during the final review and design selection

The scheme that the client chose has numerous virtues, most notable a construction system that relies extensively on structurally insulate panels (SIPs), an enormous time saver on site that should, in turn, allow manpower to be spent on more specially crafted installations. While the payoff will come in a few weeks, when we will hopefully breeze through erecting our exterior walls, the new building system requires more advanced planning for the ordering of the panels, intensifying the pace of our work.

The staggering amount of design finalization and specification that needs to occur within a week’s time forces students to hone in on a specific topic or scale, and to surrender control of other areas to a different team of students. To expedite the completion of our drawings and detailing, we are divided into seven specialized groups, resolving specific issues of structure, building systems, landscaping, window and door placement, and other construction issues. Each group is meeting among themselves yet converses regularly with the others to ensure coordination between all parts of the project.

A physical model of the selected design. The program called for a fully accessible first-floor owner’s unit and a second-floor rental unit, both aimed at housing female veterans returning from wars overseas.

The interior of the house is to be built with traditional stick framing, while the exterior will be clad in structurally insulated panels (SIPs).

No longer students yet not quite professionals, we are in a wonderfully chaotic middle zone between education and practice. Our class is responsible for the construction documents and permit sets to be submitted to the city zoning board and all shop drawings that will be used on the construction site. This presented the responsibility—a first for many of us—to resolve with complete certainty the grey areas of the building process we often try to ignore in school. (A vague response to questions about codes, building systems, and budget will not fly anymore.)

One constraint in particular has proven tricky since we were first introduced to the project over a month ago: the inherent lack of hierarchy among our students. In a practicing office, the chain of command follows a clear professional structure, with each player understanding his or her responsibilities and position on a project team. In our studio, with a group of 48 equals, we are presented with the challenge of every student wanting to express his or her desires for the project, combined with a schedule that mandates extremely rapid decision-making and design turnaround.

The front facade (left) and a sectional perspective of the selected scheme. (Click for larger images.)

While ideas and updates to the project oscillate regularly among our seven groups, there remains a considerable amount of decision-making at the discretion of each team. This working model will eventually be carried over to the summer construction period; we work in four shifts during the week, meaning that up to three entire days of progress may have elapsed before one team returns to see what the others have completed. Since on-site decisions are routine, we will again be forced to surrender the normal position of
designer-in-chief, relying on the judgment of our peers to make sound decisions that move the project forward.

It’s a lesson in trust. Contrary to the cherished portrait of the architecture student as conquering design hero who embraces every opportunity for total design, our experience with the Yale Building Project is exposing the importance of choosing one’s battles—knowing when to voice concerns and opinions, and when to trust your peers to do their job and do it well. And such trust is mutual: never before have I felt the pressure of completing a job flawlessly than when given the task to spec windows that must be exactly right, lest the entire team suffer come installation. That this project encourages its student participants to place faith in other talented and dedicated thinkers is to its highest credit, and is one of the most realistic and applicable lessons one can absorb in design education.

A conceptual diagram of the selected scheme. (Click for a larger image.)

It wasn’t until last week that I spoke to someone who immediately understood the heart of the problem. I was on the train to New York, sitting next to a younger adult, and we ended up in a conversation on our experiences in New Haven. I was halfway through explaining the Building Project, complete with the normal pitch of what a wonderful experience it is, how we’re helping the community, what we learn about architecture, etc., when he interrupted me, a concerned expression on his face, and asked, “But how do you get an entire class to agree on a single house?” Bingo. And therein lies the real lesson of the Yale Building Project.

The Building Project broke ground over the weekend. Check back next Monday for the students’ report on the first week of construction. For more on the program—which, for the record, was recently renamed the Vlock First Year Building Project—visit its Web site. As with last year, the 2009 Building Project is partnering with Common Ground, a national supportive-housing developer, and the Connecticut Veterans Administration to build affordable, fully-accessible housing for female veterans.

Recent Programs