Village Voices: Jason Forney and Jason Jewhurst (part 2 of 2)

In the first “Voices from the Village” conversation with Bruner/Cott partners Jason Forney and Jason Jewhurst in January 2023, the architects provided a behind-the-scenes look at the process of applying for the 2015 feasibility study that would propel the Living Village into its concept- and schematic-design phases. The business partners reconvened several days later in January to discuss the next stage in the project’s evolution, for which they had teamed with Living Building Challenge founder Jason F. McLennan as a design partner; McLennan had served as an advisor to Yale Divinity School during the feasibility study.

Jason Jewhurst: Some time passed after the study was completed, and in mid-2018 there were conversations about a new request for proposals that would be issued for two phases of the Living Village—by which I mean a community hub and residence hall located on the western side of the hilltop, followed by a second phase involving both new residences to the east and decommissioning of the existing graduate apartments. We really understood what YDS was asking for, but we could not rest on our laurels. We were not the only ones to submit a response to the RFP, and we wanted to show that we were a world-class team that could do this.

I would say, too, that when you move into a design-focused RFP, there are facilities and planning executives attending the interview. You do have to calibrate to that. So, although we knew we were going into a friendly, thoughtful room, we had to give a more professional presentation.

So, it was out of the question to start the presentation with a question, as you had in your previous interview?

JJ: We felt a little bit like the gorilla on the commission’s shortlist: we understood the project, we knew the client. Still, Jason and l spent two weeks to prepare for this interview. We turned everything else off. After all, there are a lot of feasibility studies that go nowhere, and to see YDS taking this next step was very exciting.

And when you learned that you got the job?

Jason Forney: We were super-excited. Jason, did I lay on the floor?

JJ: We ran around the building.

JF: The commission aligned so many new directions for us. We were redefining the firm with new owners, we were shifting our practice to focus more clearly on higher education facilities, and we were pushing environmental leadership. The Living Village represented all that growth at once.

Previously, you had said that YDS was interested in the architectural language of the Living Village going all the way back to the feasibility study conducted in 2015—how the new building would relate to the Sterling Quadrangle, in particular.

JF: The questions of architectural language—size, shape, orientation, materiality—were all open, because a feasibility study shouldn’t answer them. Even so, something else I remember from the feasibility-study interviews was this widespread, thoughtful understanding of the YDS campus as very beautiful, and a desire for the Living Village to be distinctive and reflective of the campus simultaneously. That shared understanding would naturally lead to concern about expression.

The feasibility study does include a hint of design, because the final report issued in 2016 features a recurring site plan showing the western and eastern phases of building. 

JF: We studied how tall the buildings could be and how their orientation could be optimized according to the criteria of the Living Building Challenge, so there was some work done in terms of massing and layout. We concluded that the buildings need to be two and a half stories to achieve the necessary environmental performance, for example.

JJ: I would say, though, that we were awarded the design contract in 2018 because we had ingrained experience of the YDS campus—and simultaneously because we were ready to drop all preconceptions of what the Living Village should be. We thought that any new construction should be two or three stories tall and that, thanks to a tight building envelope and other techniques, it would use resources so efficiently that all energy and water could come from the site itself. But we also knew we needed to prove it. What if everyone’s showers blew through our water budget? We were prepared to handle those developments.

On campus there is this palpable desire that, in addition to beauty, the people who use and visit the Living Village must feel changed for that experience. That they leave YDS spearheading environmentally ambitious building, renovation, or agricultural projects in their communities, for example.

JJ: Yet I don’t think people would say, “I live a regenerative life in my housing at YDS.” We’ve placed breadcrumbs throughout the project in which design is telling stories about living within the means of a site’s water and energy resources—users will have a heightened sense of awareness of their behavior and building performance, and the impact of both on resource use.

The wider experiential goal we’ve shared with the YDS community is that users of the Living Village will feel happy, because the Living Village maximizes their access to daylight and views without glare and heat. That they will enjoy a beautiful outdoor scene, in part because they are aware that the landscape feels cooler for the vegetation and water elements chosen for it. This also reflects feedback we collected on campus going back to 2015, in which people wanted the environment to touch their lives less didactically and more in a profound way. We had gathered insights like, ‘I want to feel like I never leave the outdoors when I’m in this building,’ or a desire for a space that fosters understanding of one’s place and purpose in relationship to the Earth.

We also acknowledge that the places where YDS students go after graduation can be far different from New Haven. They might settle in places where there is persistent drought, or insecure potable water. The Living Village might not have grappled with those specific problems, but its residents will have experienced a mindset of stewardship and problem solving at the Living Village that gives them the tools to be successful in different circumstances. I’m excited about the stories these graduates will tell.

Its residents will have experienced a mindset of stewardship and problem solving at the Living Village that gives them the tools to be successful in different circumstances. I’m excited about the stories these graduates will tell. —Jason Jewhurst

JF: There are two schools of thought on expressing environmental stewardship within architecture. At Hampshire College, where we completed the Living Building Challenge–certified Kern Center, the community was interested in a certain rawness in which every building system could be seen. At Yale, there has been a desire to make the Living Village integrate into the normal campus fabric, but to explain to users what’s going on behind the scenes. There is a desire for people to understand, fundamentally, that the building works differently, but without making every pipe visible.

JJ: I think you’re right, Jason. Hampshire did have a no-frills stance, while at YDS there is a certain level of polish in which stewardship is reinforced through spatial design rather than exposing, say, a concrete rainwater cistern.

In your feasibility study, each goal includes a notation about how achieving Living Building Challenge–level building performance may or may not dovetail with the infrastructure and policies of the wider Yale University campus. How did those predictions play out during the design phases?

JJ: We’re still navigating some of those touchpoints between the Living Village and the university campus. Yale has very consistent utility connections, technologies, and standards by which it makes buildings.

Take Yale’s backup power system, which is a cogeneration [heat and power] system powered by natural gas. That’s extremely efficient, and an excellent way to provide uninterrupted emergency power at the scale of Yale. And while the university plans to phase out fossil fuels in the future, that’s not happening as early as next year—and our project can’t necessarily demand that Yale changes its backup source to wind or green hydrogen right this moment. Our project had to negotiate with that trickling in of fossil fuels, because Yale wants its campus buildings to connect to the campus grid with the same plugs, in the same manner.

We have a clear path with [Yale’s backup cogeneration] in terms of complying with the intent of the Living Building Challenge. Now we’re working through the water connections: how much of that goes on campus on site and how much of that can be diverted to sustainable water systems within the region. Even today we’re confirming and clarifying our path toward the Living Building Challenge, which was a similar issue with the Kern Center. That project didn’t have a residential component, so there wasn’t the same concern about having enough water on site to fulfill demand. Rather, and this is what’s similar between Hampshire College and YDS, the Northeast can get as much 50 inches of precipitation per year. Ecologically managing all that water is different from past conventions; there’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to be embedded in the ground to capture stormwater and to treat, divert, and drain water after use.

Our last talk briefly explained how architects and clients pair up for a project. In that spirit, let’s begin again with that subject, namely the misconception that Bruner/Cott’s authorship of the feasibility study gave it a lock on the Living Village’s early design phases.

Are you optimistic that the water infrastructure will be sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction?

JF: We came out of the feasibility study and said that Living Building Challenge full certification was possible. And it is. While there may be conflicts with Yale standards or New Haven regulations or even Living Building Challenge criteria, these organizations can come together and find a resolution.