Village Voices: Eric Höweler

Eric Höweler founded Höweler+Yoon with Meejin Yoon in 2004. From an invited shortlist of five firms, the design studio was chosen to shepherd the Living Village from schematic design to construction drawings and completion, as part of a team that includes Boston’s Bruner/Cott Architects and Philadelphia-based landscape studio Andropogon Associates. Over several February 2023 conversations conducted from Höweler+Yoon’s workspace in Boston, Höweler describes the design evolution of the Living Village between team formation in 2018 and the building’s imminent groundbreaking. He also contemplates the project’s role in Höweler+Yoon’s evolution as a firm, as its mission expands from critique to healing.

Congratulations on being within arm’s reach of groundbreaking.

It’s an incredibly ambitious project, and we can congratulate ourselves for getting it to where we are. The Living Building Challenge is not just a performance-based standard. It folds in so many more factors, more completely, than other certification programs.

We’ve known one another now for about two decades. And when I think back to our first conversations—about Meejin’s Defensible Dress project, namely—I didn’t necessarily envision a project like the Living Village on your long horizon.

In our early years, Meejin was at MIT and immersed in a kind of techno-affirmative culture. Our early work used technology and responsiveness to expand what’s possible, especially if it allowed architecture and design to talk about cultural and social norms. Yet a lot of that has been absorbed by culture and is no longer radical. Since then, we’re working more with actual material like stone. But we talk about those materials like media—the stone has been conceived of and arranged using computation tools. In a way media and computation is infused in everything we do.

When you think back on the Höweler+Yoon’s evolution, was there a moment when technology became less primary in your approach to society and culture? 

The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at UVA was a tipping point. While we had done a technically sophisticated memorial prior to this project, the UVA project introduced a completely different set of questions. The extent to which UVA was built on slavery was not something they were broadcasting, and in the studio, we would have conversations about the kind of work we wanted to do—on the memorial itself and beyond. There was a shift from our enthusiasm for technology. We still aim for social commentary, but now we were thinking more deeply about history and the way architecture can obfuscate or reveal history.

Over the course of reporting “Voices from the Village,” several interviewees have praised the Living Village design process as transparent—and as receptive to stakeholder feedback that other institutions may treat more dismissively. There are many reasons for this community engagement, starting with the worldviews of the Yale Divinity School and the Living Building Challenge. Would you reflect on this more personally?

At UVA, there was a six-month engagement process before the design could start. We tapped into a network of community engagement that was already embedded in Charlottesville. We undertook an incredible process, presenting in churches and high schools and meeting people on their front porches. We did not expect people to come to the UVA grounds, so we went into the neighborhoods and met with descendants of slaves to listen to them. There were contradictory visions of the end product, but it was eye-opening to see how those engagements turned into a set of principles, which turned into a design, which then had legitimacy within the community because people saw themselves within the project.

When the opportunity to work on the Living Village arose, did you see the project as an opportunity to lean into this new trajectory?

When we started with YDS, José [Almiñana of Andropogon Associates] told me that we don’t just want this project to be nice, but to transform us. At first, I thought the comment was a bit poetic, but thinking about it further, José was right. A meaningful project should transform us, just as we were transformed by UVA.

What was your initial impression of the Living Village at its schematic design phase?

At the time of our interview, the site had been organized as a series of extended pavilions. We thought it was a very nice response—in fact, at the interview we asked aloud, “How do we add to something that’s complete?” Later, the design review committee showed us otherwise, as Bob [Stern, former dean of the Yale School of Architecture] countered that the pavilions were bleeding over the site instead of defining an outdoor room. At the same time, the cost estimates were off the charts, and at that moment we realized we had to do something radically different—to take all those bar volumes and rotate them into the U-shaped building you see in renderings now.

In retrospect, was the critique correct?

It was. Right now, the Living Village is much better defined spatially. It retains some porosity compared to a traditional U-shaped building, thanks to its opening up at the corners. Creating welcome and belonging in architecture is a super-nuanced conversation.

To that point, the courtyard of the revised Living Village isn’t exactly and cut-and-paste Yale courtyard.

Bob told us to be better students of Yale. But simply emulating historic Yale with its cloistered arrangement of residential colleges reproduces structures that can be interpreted today as exclusive and problematic. How, then, do you emulate but also evolve? We spent a lot of time looking at those cloisters and measuring them, and then drawing relationships between those beautiful spaces and this new outdoor room that is neither enclosed nor gated. It has the spatial recall of a Yale courtyard, but it’s organizationally open.

Would you say more about the cost estimation that was taking place at the same time as internal design review?

The committee’s desire for change was ideological, but we also just couldn’t afford the project laid out according to the pavilion logic. The separate foundations, the water treatment, was so expensive. But by consolidating into one building, we could have one set of elevators and one set of exit stairs. It tied everything up, while still holding possibility for future phases.

In starting over the massing of the building, how did you square a semi-enclosed courtyard shape with the requirements of full certification through the Living Building Challenge?

When we consolidated from a bunch of two-story buildings to a more compact three-story building, our ratio of roof area to floorplate wasn’t meeting our energy requirements. Living Building guidelines are designed for rather low densities, or for programs that are low-energy-intensive. But residential facilities use a lot of energy. Certain types of buildings and certain uses lend themselves to sustainability metrics more than others, and here the Living Building Challenge’s demand that a building use only the energy it produces on site was exerting pressure on the design.

How did the design respond?

Energy demands are tied to efficiencies of geometry. Seen from the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle, the Living Village sports a recognizable roof gable. Behind that point, we folded the ridgeline so that the roof would face the sun; there is no roof surface oriented to the north. Half of the roof faces east and west, which can still generate electricity photovoltaically, and 50 percent faces south.

This is super compelling, because it evolves a familiar typology into a forward-looking typology. There has been an ongoing conversation about the Living Village engaging in dialogue with SDQ. I certainly understand Bob Stern’s appreciation for listening and deferring to a place’s historic fabric, but you also have to consider Greg Sterling’s desire for an architecture that’s turning toward the future—a different future. Greg doesn’t just want the building to do good, he needs it to look like it’s doing good. The roof geometry represents multiple lines of inquiry.

Let’s spend a moment reflecting on the iterations of design, and the pitfalls that could have stymied its realization. As you said at the start of our first conversation, it is no mean feat to have gotten this far.

Greg talks about building a community that is just, equitable, and regenerative. He talks about the Living Village not only as an experiment, but also as a model, a template, that we would all like to see seeded elsewhere. I love this idea of propagation.

Architecture is a great way to make manifest those things we talk about theoretically or philosophically. Of course, a practical matter like the right place to install a downspout is compelling in its own way, but architecture is powerful—its meaning is super-charged—because it is so tangible and didactic.

It’s so exciting to think our architecture may play a role in changing people’s outlook on the world.

In the history of building, Gothic architecture may be the most persuasive of vocabularies. Its relationship to light, its acoustics—everything about it compels us to believe. Yet the Living Village has the same tangibleness, and the same persuasive capacity. You can put your hand on it. You can feel the materials. Greg senses that: the Living Village manifests his mission in the medium of stone and extruded terracotta. Not all of our clients are mission-driven, and not all of our architecture can enhance or advance mission. It’s so exciting to think our architecture may play a role in changing people’s outlook on the world.

Do you feel changed by this project?

Earlier in our careers, clients would ask prospective architects to show them something great. Now they want architects to design a process and listen to users.

So, the ways of YDS and the Living Building Challenge are becoming integrated into mainstream design process.

Yes. But as a studio we’re just more willing to listen and transform today than before. Our job is to incorporate difference into a kind of ensemble and, when supported by people like Greg and his YDS colleagues, that work makes for a richer community.