The project’s innovative architecture allows the forward-thinking home to fit beautifully into its surroundings.

Yale Student-Built House Offers High Design at Low Cost

The project’s innovative architecture allows the forward-thinking home to fit beautifully into its surroundings.

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    Courtesy Yale School of Architecture

    The house at 456 Orchard Street strikes a pose on its New Haven, Conn., block, but its scale and proportion fit with the rest of the neighborhood.

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    Clad in cedar shingles and a standing-seam metal roof, the house features a narrow driveway and a small front porch leading to the owner’s unit.

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    The second-floor rental unit is accessed by a steel and wood staircase that’s covered by a wood-clad canopy.

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    Custom plywood cabinetry throughout the home, including the entry foyer, warms the space and provides ample storage.

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    Courtesy Yale School of Architecture

    The “Chinese puzzle” configuration of the house creates two interlocking ell-shaped layouts, resulting in double-height spaces in both units.

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    Courtesy Yale School of Architecture

    The students specified built-in storage in the bedrooms.

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    Interior staircases leading to upper living areas.

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    Courtesy Yale School of Architecture

    The great room of the second-floor rental unit is highlighted by a large combination living room, dining room, and kitchen.

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    The students used bamboo floors throughout the house.

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    The simple baths feature ceramic tiled floors and water-saving plumbing products from Kohler.

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The building at 456 Orchard Street in New Haven, Conn., doesn’t look all that different from the other houses in the neighborhood, but behind the seams lie some answers for how builders can provide well-designed homes for an affordable price.

Part of the 44-year-old Vlock Building Project at Yale School of Architecture, 456 Orchard Street is a student-designed and student-built project for the Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven (NHS), a local non-profit affordable housing development agency that commissioned the house. The group’s mission is to provide housing for qualified low- to middle-income buyers, but it also hopes the home will serve as a catalyst for neighborhood renewal. “A guiding principle of the project is that one new house sets off a chain reaction of home improvement in the neighborhood,” the school says.

This year, Neighborhood Housing’s project brief called for an owner-occupied, two-family house measuring 2,500 square feet, with 1,600 square feet for the owner and a 900-square-foot two-bedroom rental on the second and third floors. “The design for the two-family house takes seriously the notion of affordability to create spaces that are both intimate and luxurious within a small building footprint and tight envelope,” says the school.

“The students’ theme this year was minimalism—using the minimal amount of architecture to maximize space and reduce construction time and cost,” says Cortez Crosby, a project manager on the home and a second-year master of architecture candidate. But the overall dimensions of the building were a challenge to the designers, who had to fit the whole structure into a narrow lot, while keeping the height within zoning restrictions.

The students solved the problem, says Adam Hopfner, the project’s director, by creating a kind of “Chinese puzzle,” configuring the upper-level portion of the owner’s residence and the rental unit into two interlocking ell-shaped layouts and rotating the gable of the house. “From the outside, only a slight torque of the skylight-studded roof betrays the ingeniously configured spaces nestled beneath,” the school says.

Reflecting the scale of nearby homes, the pitched-roof building fits into the neighborhood nicely. A main street-facing entrance leads to the first-floor owner’s residence, while a side staircase leads to the second floor rental. “The sections reveal that the second floor is split—half for the owner and half for the tenant,” Crosby explains. “The third floor is [also] for the tenant.” The configuration, Crosby continues, results in light-filled double-height spaces that make the home seem bigger.

Priced at $55 per square foot (not including free construction labor from the students and more than $100,000 in donations), the home is energy efficient thanks to foam insulation low E windows, and a precast insulated foundation, but it's also stylish, clever, and adaptable for large families. The wall separating the owner and tenant unit on the second floor near the stair landing can be removed to create a contiguous single-family house, Crosby explains.

The take-away for mainstream builders is that a little bit of unconventional thinking can result in a home that is well designed, spacious, and affordable. “The students learned that you don’t have to sacrifice good design for affordability,” Crosby says. You simply have to challenge the standard notions of design.

A potential buyer should be closing on the house later this month.