There’s a house on the corner of Adeline and Eddy Streets that doesn’t fit in. The rest of the block is lined with soft-colored clapboard houses with peeling paint or dented siding. Many are separated from the sidewalk by wire fences, some of which have begun to lean over or cave in. But 54 Adeline Street is a dramatically sloping A-frame made out of stark-white wooden panels. Large, glossy, rectangular bay windows pop out from its sides. Its concrete porch contains a built-in metal flower bed. There’s no traditional front door; instead, an open space in the middle of the house beneath the roof serves as the entrance to its two apartments. One passing driver slows down to take a closer look. “That’s hot!” he calls, leaning out of his window.
But the house isn’t just an anomaly in appearance. It’s the final product of the 2017 Jim Vlock Building Project, a mandatory program for all first-year graduate students in the Yale School of Architecture. Last spring, students were tasked with creating a house for homeless city residents. After they submitted proposals, their professors collaborated with Columbus House, a local nonprofit dedicated to reducing homelessness, to choose a winning design. Columbus House acquired the site, a lot in the Hill neighborhood, from the New Haven Housing Authority. The Architecture students built the house this past summer.
In part, the house at 54 Adeline Street was an intellectual exercise for the Yale students, an opportunity to test out concepts they had learned in class in the real world. The assignment extended beyond just drafting plans for a house and seeing it built; students attempted to incorporate design features that would take the psychological needs of its new residents into consideration. Yet for its future inhabitants, this house will be a long-term home––perhaps their first in a while. How easily can a home built to address the challenges of this transition become part of the neighborhood?
* * *
At an evening ceremony on the first Monday of October, the sleek new house opened for the first time. Over a hundred people walked in and out of the empty rooms, running their hands across the wood of the cabinets and the thin, white railing along the stairs. A single roof extended over the gap between the house’s two units—a single-bedroom “efficiency” unit meant for one person or couple, and a family unit, which has upstairs bedrooms intended for parents and children. Each apartment has a dishwasher and washing machine. Big, spherical lights hang from the ground-floor ceilings. Only the lawn was unfinished, a plot of dirt waiting for grass.
Among the visitors were New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, Yale President Peter Salovey, and School of Architecture Dean Deborah Berke. In a speech in the backyard, Salovey praised the project as a model for the University’s mutually beneficial engagement with New Haven.
In daylight, the house looked conspicuously modern and angular, its exterior startlingly clean. But as the sky darkened, there was something comforting about it, as light filled the windows and people chatted inside. The wooden façade glowed faintly blue.
Walking inside the house, it was tempting to picture what it would look like when residents move in a few weeks later. What the bed in this room would look like, what kind of food would be waiting in the fridge. Maybe a child would discover her favorite books curled up in that window seat. Maybe someone would lie awake sometimes in this bedroom, unable to sleep. Maybe the family would play board games on the kitchen table. Maybe, when it rains, they would leave their umbrellas to dry by the door. But it could also take a long time for it to feel like a home.
* * *
In 1967, Charles Moore, head of Yale’s Department of Architecture––what would eventually become the professional School of Architecture––founded the Building Project. Moore wanted to give his students practical experience, but the project was also a response to the student activism that roiled Yale during the nineteen-sixties. Moore hoped his students would recognize their responsibility as architects to address pressing social issues like poverty and homelessness.
For Dan Whitcombe ARCH ’20, one of the student project managers and a member of the team that created the winning 2017 design, the educational aspect of the project was invaluable. “Not for a while will you be able to design houses as you see fit and then have the potential to see them built,” he said. Kerry Garikes, the other project manager, said that the assignment helped her better understand the design potential and restrictions of space. There’s a big difference, she said, between creating a room on a computer and watching it materialize on a real block.
In past years, the Building Project has collaborated with organizations like Neighborhood Housing Services, Breaking Ground (formerly known as Common Ground), and Habitat for Humanity to connect the house with a family in need of affordable housing. The current partnership with Columbus House will last for five years—one house with two units each year.
Columbus House will select the future inhabitants of 54 Adeline Street, and like the residents of the organization’s other properties, they will contribute thirty percent of their income towards rent. A resident’s income could range from anything between $25 and $700 a month, according to Alison Cunningham, the CEO of Columbus House. She added that their clients are not simply assigned a housing unit, but work with the organization to find a home that best fits their needs.
Prior to starting the design process, the Architecture students visited a shelter run by Columbus House, as well as the homes of several formerly homeless people. Over the course of the semester, they met with social workers to discuss national and city-wide homelessness, and the psychological challenges of transitioning from a shelter to a home.
The students also spoke in small groups with Columbus House clients about what they most desired in a home. School of Architecture professor Adam Hopfner who has directed the Building Project since 2007, said the clients his students spoke to expressed two primary wishes. One was security—in Hopfner’s words, “the emotional state of being homeless, the feeling of exposure and vulnerability…runs fairly deep.” The other was a connection to the neighborhood: “having eyes on the street, being able to see one’s neighbors, being able to communicate with one’s neighbors,” he said.
To create a strong sense of safety and stability, Architecture students designed a roof that extends more than a foot beyond the house’s four walls. A sheltered space that is open to the street, it creates a buffer zone between the interior and exterior of the house. The slope of the roof is visible from the inside, too; even on the first floor of the two-story family unit, the ceiling above the staircase is at an incline. “The presence of the roof is always felt,” Hopfner said.
A porch with a built-in planter will curve around the house on both Adeline and Eddy Streets, allowing residents to participate in neighborhood life from a protected vantage point.
These aesthetic considerations cut both ways, Whitcombe said. “How do we integrate this person visually into this community?” he asked. “How do we make this house a part of the community, but also account for the fact that there are definite anxieties associated with being housed for the first time?”
* * *
The Architecture students attempted to design a house that would give its formerly homeless inhabitants a pronounced sense of security, comfort, and agency. But they also wanted to create a home that would eventually integrate into the neighborhood, without foregrounding its residents’ past. “We didn’t hold back at all and make it specifically ‘homeless person-oriented,’” Whitcombe said. “I think any of us would be happy to live in this house.”
Yet the residents of Building Project homes aren’t always welcomed like any new neighbors. Since 2010, the Building Project has created homes in West River, Newhallville, Dwight, and The Hill. Columbus House originally hoped to build this year’s house in Prospect Hill, but it didn’t go over smoothly. According to Hopfner, some residents––including the local alderwoman––resisted the Architecture School’s attempts to move new residents in. They didn’t want to have “homeless” neighbors—despite the fact that, of course, their neighbors would no longer be homeless, he said. The project ended up being relocated to The Hill, next to a preexisting Columbus House property, Val Macri, which contains seventeen units of affordable housing.
Usually, Columbus House aims to offer services to the entire homeless population in New Haven, regardless of a person’s criminal background or history of substance abuse. But when determining eligibility for the efficiency unit of the Building Project house, the organization will consider a person’s criminal background, given that children will likely live in the family unit next door.
Both Hopfner and Cunningham say that the Hill has welcomed the new house with open arms. “We are excited about the build[ing] of another Yale/Vlock project in the Hill and [Yale’s] partnering with the Columbus House,” a user named “Hill Resident” wrote in an online comment on a July article in the New Haven Independent. “We look forward to welcoming the students during the build, and the tenants after the units are rented. This addition will be a wonderful addition to all the ‘good stuff’ that is happening and continues to happen in the Hill!”
Benito Romero, who lives around the corner from the new house on Adeline Street, said he has never spoken with the Architecture students and didn’t know that formerly homeless tenants would soon occupy the house. As he washed his car on the street, he said that the neighborhood is not a close-knit community. “We spend all our time working,” he explained in Spanish. Romero commutes to New York City, where he works at an asphalt company. His work day begins at five in the morning and ends at ten at night. “We hardly spend any time chatting with people because we’re not here very often,” he said. “We’re working a lot of the time.”
Keith Dowdy was sitting on a porch two houses down from the Vlock house. He watched as his nephew, a little boy who said his name was “Jacoby Flash Batman Superman,” ran back and forth between the front yard and the sidewalk. Dowdy said he had watched the house take shape over the course of the summer. “It’s a nice design,” he said. “Probably too much for this neighborhood. Like, a house with that design needs to be on a lake or something.”
The Architecture students were clearly visitors to the neighborhood, Dowdy said. “It’s part of their grade for their semester. Imagine a house in a neighborhood where all the houses are ranging from four-hundred to a half a million [dollars], and then you see that.” He pointed to a single-story house across the street, with a slightly dented metal gate. “It’s like, really? And that’s how [the new house] is, just the opposite.”
Dowdy mentioned that the School of Architecture built another house in the neighborhood—the 2010 Building Project home on King’s Place. It had looked jarring at first, but now seemed like a part of the neighborhood. “It’s older now,” he said. “It was just put up for a minute, and people lived in it. Once all the hoopla was over, it just started being a regular old house.”