Vlock Building Project: Yale School of Architecture provides hands-on learning

October 1, 2012

“What was the best part?” 

Jonathon Meier answers the question without hesitating. “The first wall going up.”

“Oh yeah,” Sheena Zhang chimes in. “It’s like a symbolic moment when everyone comes together and pushes the wall…”

Zhang and Meier are second-year students at Yale’s School of Architecture, whose Vlock Building Project requires all first-year students to build a house. For the class of 2014, students constructed a house for Neighborhood Housing Services, a New Haven nonprofit dedicated to affordable housing development.

During their first spring semester, the students drafted possible designs for a house, one of which was selected by a team of studio critics, the dean of the YSOA, and representatives of Neighborhood Housing Services.  Instead of leaving for the summer recess, the class began their summer by constructing the house they had designed. 

“For most of us, no one had ever built anything that we had designed,” Zhang says. “So I think it was a very useful experience in that we realized the real-world problems that come up when you’re designing a house.”

Problems largely due to the students’  inexperience with building. Zhang describes having to learn how to use certain equipment for the first time and constructing entire walls incorrectly. They learned how to build the house while on the job. For example, they learned that since plywood comes in 4x8 sheets, it was practical to plan the house with dimensions divisible by four. In addition to making the building process easier, this also reduced the amount of plywood wasted.

Other elements of the building design highlighted environmentally conscious practices. Instead of using virgin hard wood to make the kitchen’s cabinets, the students used Medium Density Fiberboard, compacted powder sheets made from scrap waste. The house’s siding was made from cedar instead of vinyl, which is renewable and less toxic to the environment. Additionally, the house was built to maximize natural lighting, which reduces residents’ dependence on electrical light, and their utility bills. The owner’s unit and kitchen receive sunlight in the morning and the living room and dining room receive natural light in the evening.

Sustainability is one of Zhang’s and Meier’s priorities. The two are at the forefront of efforts to promote sustainability at the School of Architecture. They worked with the school’s Digital Media Office to have an AutoSleep function installed on YSOA computers, which were once left on twenty-four hours a day, in order to reduce the amount of electricity the School uses. Meier and Zhang noticed that Architecture students throw away a substantial amount of material used for assignments—expensive materials that could easily be re-used or recycled. They are currently working to appoint a material waste coordinator to redirect those scrap materials to Architecture students who can re-use them.

Though the house was meant to benefit the local low-income community, Zhang says local residents were skeptical of the project at first. The lot that the house was built on used to be a basketball court frequented by kids in the neighborhood. “[People in the neighborhood] just saw us digging a giant hole,” Zhang says. “Because they hadn’t seen the final product, they were like, ‘What are these kids doing taking away a basketball court?’” Later in the summer, though, the attitude of the neighborhood shifted. People driving past the house began to stop and ask about it, and now recognize the benefit to their community.

The completed home will now house two families: that of the owner and that of a tenant. This living arrangement is part of what makes the house affordable.