WASHINGTON -- Who would have guessed that some of the most innovative designs in accessible housing would be developed at Fort Belvoir?
Goodbye, dreary exteriors of standard military units. Hello, vibrant colors and crisp white trim. Circular accent windows, angular roof lines and window trellises give these homes a strikingly contemporary look.
The cheerful curb appeal is intentional: These homes have been created for severely injured active-duty soldiers returning from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of them have injuries that will require lifelong accommodations and have chosen to stay in the service.
Rather than telegraphing "a wounded soldier lives here," though, these one-level, three-bedroom, single-family homes incorporate subtle accommodations far beyond basic disability standards in an aesthetically pleasing manner.
Through the public-private Wounded Warrior Home Project, Clark Realty Capital teamed with well-known architect Michael Graves to create state-of-the-art homes and amenities for wounded soldiers. The first two of 21 planned houses were completed recently at the suburban Army post.
Graves was selected through a nationwide design competition, along with IDEO, a design firm. Beyond his 47 years of worldwide architectural experience and creative line of consumer products at Target, Graves brings a first-hand understanding of the challenges involved in accessible design.
Almost a decade ago, an illness left Graves paralyzed from midchest down.
"The goal is to help individuals with life-altering injuries become as independent as possible," he said. Maintaining the soldier's dignity is a top priority.
For example, ramps are nonexistent; wide, level patio entryways lead to automatically controlled doors, which remove the need to fumble with doorknobs or keys.
Blending the indoors with outdoor visibility and accessibility is key. Each home has a 4-foot-wide walkway around it so residents can go from the private back patio off the master bedroom to the front yard without navigating through the house.
Wide garages with an 8-foot-high clearance ensure that vans with wheelchair lifts can enter and park beside another family car while still allowing space between for maneuverability. "Garages are an integral part of these homes," said Casey Nolan, Clark Realty Capital's project director. "They're not a room forgotten."
Soldiers aid design
Also consulted on design were those living with severe injuries, such as Army Col. Greg Gadson (also known for inspiring the New York Giants during their run to the 2009 Super Bowl) and retired Army Capt. Alvin Shell, both injured in Iraq.
In 2007, Gadson lost his legs and had severely damaged nerves in his right arm from the explosion of a roadside bomb. Shell had third-degree burns over 33 percent of his body when he charged through a fire to rescue a member of his unit after a 2004 rocket attack.
Both men live off post but returned recently to tour the model homes. "Basic (accessibility) codes are just a starting point," Gadson said.
For instance, typical codes require only that pathways within a house be wide enough to get a wheelchair through in one direction. The Wounded Warrior homes offer 62-inch-wide hallways and a 360-degree turning radius in the kitchen, bathrooms and master closets to allow for opening cabinets and navigation within each space.
With 3,000 square feet, these houses have an open flow that minimizes sharp turns and incorporate surfaces that require minimal maintenance. Instead of hardwood floors, a luxury plank vinyl with a wood look is used. Borders along hallways have contrasting tones that present visual cues to those with impaired vision or traumatic brain injuries. Sliding interior doors open with the lightest touch.
There's no template for the severely injured, Graves noted. Accommodations must be adaptable to different needs because the active-duty tenants will change about every two or three years. The functionality of the house must work for all family members, not just those with injuries.
"Everyone is different in abilities and the way they want to do things," Graves said.
For example, Shell lauded the removable cabinets under counters. "A lot of my buddies have to turn their wheelchairs to the side in order to work in the kitchen," said Gadson, director of the Wounded Warrior Program, the official U.S. Army advocacy arm, and a separate organization from the Wounded Warrior Home Project, designed to assist in all aspects of life for wounded soldiers and their families for as long as help is needed. "Being able to roll right up to the counter brings you back into the family fold."
To address variations in height among residents, kitchen counters, sinks, work islands and the stove top include motorized lifts that operate with a button.
Large closets in the master bedroom can store extra wheelchairs and offer electric outlets for charging wheelchairs and prosthetics. Zoned heating and cooling systems allow for personal preferences as regulating body temperature can be difficult for the injured.
Graves said he originally wanted a dedicated therapy room to be near the family room, but "others wanted it as far away as possible, to be used as a private retreat," he said.
The room's rubberized floor provides cushioning and better traction during rehabilitation exercises.
Digital technology within the therapy room enables interaction with doctors or physical therapists at on-post medical facilities, minimizing travel and waiting time or child-care concerns. The room easily can be converted to another bedroom or a home office.
The Wounded Warrior Home Project is part of a $700 million development project at Fort Belvoir.
Each prototype house costs about $600,000 to build; Clark Realty estimates the cost of future homes will decrease to about $500,000 through economies of scale and lessons learned.