The Yale Building Project, Week 11: Taxonomy of Decisions

A variety of decision-making strategies—from sleep deprivation to straw polls—has shaped this year’s house.

Every Monday until mid-August, first-year graduate students at the Yale School of Architecture are blogging about their progress building an affordable, accessible owner-renter residence in New Haven. Click here to read the previous posts.

Voting slips from exterior-cladding pattern decision, Type C / June 20. Photos: courtesy the Vlock First Year Building Project

The unfinished shell of the house stands before us, a testament to the many decisions that have been made and those that still remain. It seems silent, waiting for the materials and colors that will define and bring life to the frozen form. I am sure that each of us walks through with a different image in our head even six weeks from completion, but that is part of the beauty of this open organizational structure. The initial pressure in decision making from the SIP shop drawings back in early May has faded, and without a cut-and-dry standard we continue to make our way toward determining the design of our house.

Material applications underway this week: (from top) Kipp helping the roofers install the standing-seam metal roof; a group effort to stain the hundreds of cedar shiplap siding boards; installing plywood sheets on the tenant living room ceiling

To me, the most interesting parts of the Yale Vlock Building Project are the interpersonal dynamics and the group process of determination. As one of two project managers, my role is to be a peer-organizing element and a conduit to Adam, our project coordinator. Conflict is inevitable when the varying passions and perspectives of 49 classmates intersect. Keeping a hand on the pulse of the class is essential to maintaining a positive and cohesive flow forward. Together in the same room, our class is notorious for being quiet; but, individually, each person has a lot to say. Take the typical project-management role, times 49
(students) in coordination, times ten (in quantity of ideas) for project meetings, and add a large amount of asymmetrical hurdles (other classes and responsibilities), and you get my job this summer.

An early team meeting in the sixth-floor classroom

In this process, decisions have been both inherent (researching and doing what is sensible given economic constraints, constructability, etc.) and subjective (individual to group determinations). What follows is a reductive taxonomy of the subjective decision making that has shaped this year’s house.

[Type A] Via Sleep Deprivation
May 3-4, 6 people: SIPs

The SIP shop drawings were multiple nearly-all-night affairs, and an early determinate of everything from volume to window placement. This was a leap forward in decision making and helped us focus on individual spaces much sooner than the typical schedule. If we had ten million options before, now there were only one million left.

[Type B] Consensus by Atrophy
May/June design meetings, 12 to … 2 people: “Jimmy”

Working through countless iterations and ideas, the design meetings were productive and often long, resulting in strong debates ranging from concept to detail. Once we got into a groove, ideas would be worked back and forth until, eventually, we reached a common decision.

[Type C] BBQ Campaigning
June 20, 30 people: Exterior cladding patterning

The weekly barbecues marking the Wednesday transition point were a great way to achieve majority opinion and dispense updates on all developments. We tried this method at the end of May, pulling together various cladding mock-ups, scale models, and full elevations for a blind vote.

[Type D] The Straw Poll
Late-June design meetings, 5-10 people: Kitchen layout, tenant entry, etc.

This type may seem the most peculiar in a design process, but it had its rightful place and reasoning. First implemented by co-project manager, Hilary, this non-binding vote was meant to cut out options that didn’t have wide appeal and advance meetings without needless discussion.

[Type E] The Binding Vote
June/July, 14 interns: Cladding color, tenant bedroom/bathroom window

Direct voting is not the best collaborative tool but sometimes it’s necessary, especially when days of debate don’t yield a solid direction. This was the case with the tenant bedroom/bathroom window this week, where we ended up doing mock-ups out of cardboard scraps and then tallying votes for the winning solution.

[Type F] Final Call
Various points on site, 1-5 people: Detailing issues, dimensions

Last-minute decisions are part of design-build process, and as we figure out that one method doesn’t work, it’s immediately on to sketching another one, using whatever’s handy–the ground and a stick, Tyvek and a pen, etc.

The summer interns met in the tenant bedroom to vote on cardboard mock-ups for the window condition. Desk or no desk?

Countless nights I’ve walked back from the studio or biked from the site, exhausted from the debate, riled up by the conflict. But then I head out for a run, reconsider, and remember that this is the process. Collaboration in this context isn’t cut-and-dry. An evolving part of the Building Project course is learning about team dynamics and project delivery. In my mind, this is crucial and a much under-engaged part of architecture: how the many parts of the process work together to achieve the best possible result. Compared to the typical scenario, the building project throws 90 percent out the window, because we all have to agree on what that window is–type, size, exterior color, and interior finish (and then agree on how to install it correctly).

A view from the street of the current state of the house

Since the beginning of the project, people have been asking me, What makes your house unique? I struggle to answer them in one sentence, because it is both the concept and the people–and both are constantly evolving. It is the SIPs, the interior/exterior “Jimmy” concept, and the site responses from solar to programmatic organization. But more importantly it is the people and the process; that is what really makes this house unique. I hope the future owner and tenant can see at least some of the sweat that has gone into this process (and we will see if the form comes to life as we apply the finishes in the coming weeks). Decades of team training and group analysis could not solve the intricacies of this dynamic, but that is the fun of it. Collaborative design is an uneven process of decision making and discovery.

The Vlock First Year 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. Check back next Monday another installment of the students’ weekly blog for Metropolis.

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