Coming Home

The air was chill and the sun bright as the guest of honor, Marine Staff Sergeant Travis Green, slipped his wheelchair into the front row at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for his new house. A toddler snuggled into his chest, oblivious to the sergeant’s evident scars of war. The father of five lost both legs in combat in the Sangin district of Helmand Province, one of the bloodiest places in Afghanistan. Green was luckier than many who have returned home. While undergoing rehabilitation, he and his family were installed in the first accessible home designed expressly for wounded veterans, called Freedom, which is located at Virginia’s Fort Belvoir. Green declined to be interviewed, but sent his reaction through a military spokeswoman: “It’s the nicest home I’ve lived in. It’s very easy to get around.”

Freedom is the vanguard of the U.S. Army’s experiment in accessible housing, the Wounded Warrior Home Project, whose first homes were unveiled in November. The Army’s mission was to provide safer havens for injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the effort has produced two of the most intensely considered dwellings for the disabled ever undertaken. Clark Realty Capital, the developer, took the extra step of enlisting two design heavyweights: the consultancy IDEO, for a deep dive into the human experience, and Michael Graves & Associates, whose titular lead designs world-class architecture from a wheelchair. The teams worked independently, but arrived at a similar conclusion: trading minimum standards for maxi-mum humanism can produce homes that help people heal.

Their formula goes well beyond removing obstacles and ensuring dignity. At Fort Belvoir’s Woodlawn Village, two single-story cottages, one red and one yellow, stand out at the end of a long line of gray military housing. Their peaked roofs and picket fences suggest the home-sweet-homes of coloring books. Built at grade, the houses require no entrance steps or ramp. Green’s house has a nifty octagonal wing with oculus windows. The other house, called Patriot, which will serve as a model home for six months, has a genteel, columned porch. Either would be welcome in a typical suburb. “We very much want houses like these to be built all over the country,” Graves says.

Since 2001, more than 47,000 military service men and women have been wounded in combat, according to the Department of Defense, a number that includes catastrophic injuries such as the loss of limbs, spinal cord damage, burns, and blindness. The Surgeon General estimates that more than 86,000 service members have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Advanced battlefield medicine has enabled wounded soldiers to survive, but military housing often falls short of the soldiers’ needs back home. The civilian housing sector is no better equipped for a wave of disabled individuals. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2030, there will be 72 million seniors, many of whom would benefit from accessible housing options. “We want to use these two houses to influence public building,” Graves says.

The Wounded Warrior houses grew out of a public-private partnership between the Army and Clark to upgrade 40,000 family housing units on bases across the country. Five percent must comply with the requirements of the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards. Clark’s project director, Casey Nolan, toured Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and soon realized that the bare-minimum standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would not provide a suitable quality of life for bodies shattered by roadside bombs.

Nolan called IDEO after remembering a business-school encounter with the firm’s innovative approach to redesigning a grocery cart. He felt IDEO could “leverage design to go beyond ADA.” The consultancy immersed a team in the world of wounded soldiers before delivering its vision for houses “that rebuild lives.” Project leader Altay Sendil visited Walter Reed and “I walked away thinking, ‘I want to create a positive impact through design.’ It was definitely very personal.”

There was no guidebook for addressing the scars of war or their paraphernalia. IDEO interviewed caregivers, including one identified only as Wendy. She told IDEO’s team that “We find some of our residents sleeping in closets, or under their beds—they feel more secure. These are the guys that stand with their backs to the wall, and have their escape route already planned.” Sendil met a double amputee who kept ten high-tech prosthetic legs propped against the bedroom wall. “They didn’t have their own home,” the designer noted. Keeping them charged overloaded the electrical socket.

Research insights were distilled into seven “dualities,” intended to inspire the eventual home design. “Social privacy,” for example, indicated a desire to be with people but also to be able to retreat; “uniquely normal” reflected the need for a house to look like any other, but to incorporate special features. Other concerns involved the desire to feel connected to the outdoors even if confined inside, and wanting a secluded cocoon with the 360-degree visibility of a watchtower.

“In our mental construct, we’re assuming if someone is home with their family, it’s safe and welcoming,” Sendil says. Soldiers responded to early prototypes by asking, “Can someone penetrate the roof or come in from the alley?” The duality of “old self, new self” suggested to IDEO the potential for “an architecture that encourages that recovery, no matter where or how far it takes [veterans].”

“These people have an extremely heightened sense of optimism and drive and motivation, so when you talk to veterans coming out of or growing from an injury or disability, they really don’t want to be catered to,” Sendil says. “They do want to live a normal life. But they do need a few unique accommodations.”

IDEO delivered its analysis to Clark along with a detailed house plan. Practical proposals such as adjustable kitchen counters found their way into Graves’s designs for the Patriot and Freedom houses. Lifestyle concepts, such as mood-lighting controls on a showerhead and a wired “zipper wall” that would light up the path to a midnight snack, did not.

When Michael Graves & Associates won Clark’s architectural competition in November 2010, it seemed like a natural fit. The Princeton, New Jersey, architect was paralyzed from the waist down by a rare viral infection in 2003. “This is the first time I ever had an advantage in my chair,” he says. Working with senior associate Mark Sullivan, Graves plotted both houses with a key conviction: wheelchairs would have the 60 inches needed to make a full turn anywhere in the house. “When people don’t have the disability, they don’t understand,” Graves says. “Nobody should have the experience of hitting every wall in his apartment because the space wasn’t designed for a wheelchair.” The architects’ mantra became “ease of living,” whatever the affliction. “Every disability is different,” he says. “The house is flexible enough to accommodate other disabilities.”

The 3,728-square-foot Patriot home feels glamorous at Fort Belvoir, where typical four-bedroom houses measure 1,800 to 2,000 square feet. Ease and grace are achieved with nine-foot ceilings, five-foot-wide corridors, and open-plan living and dining areas. Essential features include quarter-inch to half-inch thresholds; durable, nonslip vinyl plank flooring; sliding interior doors with fixed-lever handles; and oversize windows framed by trellises, to enhance garden views. A cordless phone linked to an intercom allows occupants to answer the door remotely. Voice alerts sound when doors and windows are opened or closed. The heating and air-conditioning system has 12 separate zones, a feature of special interest to burn victims and people in wheelchairs. “When it’s cold for you, it’s freezing for me,” Graves says.

A circular decal was positioned on the model kitchen’s floor, to show that a wheelchair could make a full turn between the sink and cooktop. Like the Greens’ sink, the one at Patriot home can be regularly lowered to sitting height, with the removal of an under-sink cabinet. The break-fast bar adjusts from 30 inches to 40 inches at the touch of a button. The induction cooktop, chosen because its surface remains safely cool to the touch, sports a Graves-designed teakettle.

Graves did not base the architectural program on IDEO’s research, which he described as “pre-conceptual.” Still, IDEO’s duality of “uniquely normal” is apparent in the spacious master bedroom, which is sized to accommodate a lift beside the bed. The walk-in closet can park two wheelchairs, plus prosthetics, and has two electrical outlets. The roomy master bathroom has a curb-free shower with a linear drain, which allows for a level floor. Walls are lined with anchored towel bars that double as grab bars. Nonslip mosaic floor tiles (in Graves’s signature blue) are warmed by electric heat mats.

There is literally a healing space: an extra bedroom has been designated as a “therapy room.” A flat-panel display will eventually link to a virtual medical system. A special-needs van will fit in the extra-wide, climate-controlled garage. Not all problems, however, are resolved. The under-sink cabinet in the kitchen lacks casters, and is laborious to remove. While the cooktop adjusts for height, the architects were unable to solve the problem of heat coming from its underside.

On opening day, Alvin Shell, Jr., a retired, 35-year-old U.S. Army captain, moved eagerly through the Patriot home in a business suit. In 2004, Shell suffered third-degree burns over 30 percent of his body, sustained while saving his platoon sergeant from an exploding fuel truck during an ambush in Baghdad. It took him years to walk and talk again. His rehabilition experiences helped focus IDEO’s research.

“When I was recovering, there was not even the concept of the concept of a place like this,” says Shell, who now works at the Department of Homeland Security. His domestic obstacles became “daily physical therapy.” He remembers losing his balance in a bathroom and ripping the towel bar off the wall as he fell. In the model home, Shell took note of the ample windows. “For someone who can’t go outside and run around with the kids, to be able to look through the kitchen and see your kids running around for you, that’s therapeutic.”

The concept houses cost about $200 per square foot. Clark will refine the prototypes as it completes 21 additional accessible houses at Fort Belvoir. Meanwhile, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research is funding a five-year, $4.75-million study of the red and yellow cottages by the University of Buffalo’s Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access. Military research has influenced much of modern life, and the lessons learned here are likely to be shared. Green has already signaled that high baseboards, which protect walls from wheelchair bumps, are a welcome feature. “There will always be questions, like whether or not it’s important to have counters that go up and down,” says Graves, roaming the Patriot home in his iBot wheelchair. “I’m just struck by the generosity of the rooms. We got it right.”

That’s good news. Combat in Iraq and Afghanistan may be winding down, but a long, graying line of baby boomers is forming.

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