Tucked away on a quiet street in Fair Haven Heights in New Haven, 14 Yale architecture graduate students are hard at work on a construction site. Their assignment for the summer was to build a home they’d designed in class, intended for early childhood teachers at the nearby Friends Center for Children.

Amid a housing shortage and strains in the child care sector, two teachers and their families will be able to live in this new home for free.

Yale faculty member and project director Adam Hopfner lifts the top floor of the model to explain the layout. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

Nearly 70 Yale Architecture graduate students, led by faculty member Adam Hopfner, have been working on this project since January. Before they began envisioning the structure, they got to know the occupants and researched the location to inform the design.

Nature was an important factor in the home’s design, explained Hopfner. The skylight in the common area adds an extra dimension of foliage and light. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

Jessica Chen, 23, said her mother worked in child care and her first job was in the field. That made the project feel “very personal,” Chen said, especially as the students sought input from the Friends Center staff who would be living in the finished home.

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“We got to see the faces of the teachers, we got to hear their personal stories, and I think that makes a big difference,” she said. “We’re not only just designing but learning and feeling and empathizing … This is not just a drawing, this is an actual home.”

Students gather for Hopfner to discuss the day’s schedule. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

Every detail was intentional. The covered walkway, for instance, might shelter an occupant who’s bringing home groceries or searching for their keys in the rain, explained Hopfner.

The extra storage under the stairs and throughout the home is critical for parents of young children — something many of the twenty-something students might not have considered before getting to know the clients, Hopfner added.

Students collaborate to lay tile. After struggling for a few minutes, they sought out Hopfner to guide them.

Peter Martinka, a 25-year-old student from San Jose, Calif., said the project felt unique because of the “specificity” of the clients. The home “is always going to have teachers in it, so you can design for teachers,” Martinka said.

Students leave the site on lunch break. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

“People expect houses to be set and then you adapt them to your lifestyle as you move in,” he said. “But this is a house that’s already adapted to teachers because it’s owned by the program. They can expect to have years and years and years of teachers in it.”

Peter Martinka, 25, finishes some work on the windows. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

Beyond the home’s utility, students took advantage of the lot’s sylvan nature. “The students wanted nature to act as a playground,” said Hopfner. Skylights and large windows throughout allow for nearly 360-degree views of trees. One healthy tree was cut down to accommodate the project, but students will pay homage by transforming it into furniture.

“We’re all here because we love design and building and making things, but we also believe that this work can help people and make the world a better place, socially and environmentally,” said Michael Brittenham, 25. “And I think that this project perfectly combines both of those inner and outer ambitions.”

Students pose for a group photo inside the construction site. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

Connecticut Mirror staff reporter Erica E. Phillips contributed to this story.

Shahrzad's role at CT Mirror is to tell visual stories about the impact of public policy on individuals and communities in Connecticut. She earned a Master of Science from Columbia Journalism School in 2023, after completing her Bachelor of Arts in International Relations at American University. She is a Houston native with roots in France and Iran.