The Yale Building Project, Week 5: Good Morning, New Haven

A student-builder describes life on the early shift.

Every Monday until 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.

The house at the start of a recent morning shift. Photos: courtesy the Vlock First Year Building Project

It’s 2 a.m. My back hurts. My calves hurt. I’m so exhausted that I can barely keep my eyes open. These are all clear signs that I’ve come to end of another long week on the Yale Vlock Building Project. This dark, cold hour of the night, when the streets of New Haven are already deserted, used to be the peak of activity in the studio. But now the studio is empty, and my morning routine begins when many an all-nighter was just ending, at 6 a.m. Actually, I don’t mind the early hours. There is something beautiful about waking with the first light of the day and walking to the site in the chilled morning air. I am starting to see a different aspect of New Haven, a city we first-years have lived in for nearly a year, yet still hardly know. The school buses are making their rounds, and other construction workers (I say “other” knowing I can barely call myself a manual worker of any kind) are starting their shifts.

Fearless students start the day on the second floor

The street where our house sits is quiet at this hour, the silence broken only by the neighboring roosters (oh yes, New Haven has it all!) or the rumble of a motorcycle (two of our TAs like to arrive in style). Every morning we see how the house has grown since our last shift, note the handiwork wrought by the previous afternoon’s crew. Today we arrive to find a porch, and the stairs leading to the second floor.

Stairway to our heavenly second floor

Getting started in the morning is always a little slow, but on sunny days the crew remains cheerful and productive. Of course there is always the manual-work-phobic student who cowers curmudgeon-like in the shade, counting the minutes until the coffee break—but I really can’t speak much better of myself. Although my intentions are good, I am embarrassingly afraid of heights; until some walls go up on the second floor, I’m stuck with porch construction. But I think everyone is at least a little excited about getting some color and life back into their cheeks. For the first time in a long while, our main source of direct light comes not from the glow of a computer screen but from the actual sun.

Students working and students watching other students work

The design period of the project—although frustrating and difficult, given that we had to work in such large teams—had some pedagogical merit. But being out on the site, making, sawing, gluing, lifting, is the real strength of the Building Project. I have personally never worked on construction drawings, let alone done manual labor on a job site. Physically being there, watching the floors and the walls take shape, experiencing the space as it is being created, says more than any drawing could. Sure, it’s tiring, but there are lag periods as well (given that there are always more people than the number required to complete a job). Feeling aches in muscles I didn’t even know existed is a refreshing change from the sedentary and insular lives we had previously been living in studio, with our eyes glued to the computer screen, clicking away on CAD, only our index fingers getting a proper workout.

Our professor shows off some serious skills as he single-handedly bangs a SIP into place.

My initial shyness with the power tools has completely dissipated, the chop saw now being my tool of choice. I am not much help when it comes to lifting a SIP twenty feet off the ground to meet the edge of the roof (as our professor did today, hammering it in from the top of a ladder, swinging Paul Bunyan–style.) But hand me a chunk of wood that needs sawing, and I’ll be happy. I’m also the proud owner of a pair of used overalls I bought online strictly for Building Project purposes, and each week it shows new signs of wear. I am particularly proud of a large smudge of adhesive running across the knee patches, the result of a grueling day last week in SIP mounting.

But we’re only into the third week of construction. I hope to see many more stains by the end of June.

Students celebrate a job well done.
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 for the sixth installment of the students’ weekly blog for Metropolis.

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