Homebuilders have never had to think before about the design challenges presented by someone like Brendan Marrocco, the first surviving quadruple amputee to come home from Iraq. He and now dozens of other severely wounded veterans like him—triple and quadruple amputees and soldiers paralyzed by IEDs—compose a new population in America created by the particular weapons of these wars and the medical advances that have saved them. And they need new kinds of homes.
It’s tremendously daunting, though, from a design perspective, to think about how the limitations of severe war injuries change the way someone goes through their most private, mundane movements. Wheelchairs, for instance, are much harder to use on carpet. From the seat of one, bathroom mirrors become useless. A veteran in a wheelchair with the use of his arms, or prosthetics, might be able to stir a pot on the front burner of a stove. But he can’t see what’s inside of it.
The Gary Sinise Foundation and the Tunnel to Towers Foundation have been trying to build a new generation of smart homes for severely wounded veterans since Marrocco first came home. Sinise, a longtime advocate synonymous with veterans since playing one in the film Forrest Gump, first met Marrocco at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington after Marrocco was injured in 2009.
Sal Cassano, New York City’s fire commissioner, later asked Sinise to help the community raise money for a new home for Marrocco on Staten Island. Then, while plans were underway for a fundraising concert with Sinise’s Lt. Dan Band, word of another quadruple amputee arrived. And then a third. There was need for not just one home, but a new kind of home, which would be individually tailored to the needs of each wounded veteran, heavily lined with technology on the back end, and controlled from tablets and smart phones. The two foundations ultimately paired to create a program, Building for America’s Bravest, that’s now aiming to construct dozens more smart homes similar to the one Marrocco moved into in the summer of 2011. Each one costs about $500,000 to build, although they’ve so far been constructed with tens of thousands of dollars of donated labor and material.
These homes speak to a modern confluence of technology and war. America has never had a class of returning veterans quite like Marrocco. But before now, it also hasn’t been possible, technologically speaking, to build such homes for them.
"They’ve given pieces of themselves, and they are going to be remembering for the rest of their life what they were like before this injury and before their service," Sinise says. "When they get into these houses, we want to give them independence, which will give them a shot, a chance. Having your own home is where everything begins."
Every veteran will require different touches and amenities, and so the foundations and the builders working with them must reinvent the smart home each time. Some of the veterans have amputations low enough on their legs to wear and walk around on prosthetics; others will be wheelchair bound for life. Tyler Huffman, a veteran in Missouri, is paralyzed from the waist down but still has full strength in his upper body.
In thinking about each of these new homeowners, Sinise is motivated by the memory of the Vietnam era, when, he says, no one cared for the veterans who came home. "That was shameful for our country to treat our warriors that way," he says. "That made life very, very difficult for our Vietnam vets. Not only did they have to go and struggle with the memories of losing buddies and losing parts of themselves, and the trauma of war, but they had to come home to a divided country that treated them like crap. That weakened our nation."
It’s almost impossible to imagine such a reaction today, in a country now divided over just about everything but the treatment of veterans. In Jefferson City, Missouri, Huffman’s new home was made possible by people who had never even met him. He grew up about 30 miles outside of the city, but when the community learned about his injuries, the local high school wanted to raise money for him. Then an elderly couple he did not know donated the plot of land next door to them to build him a home. A local homebuilder, Scott Schaeperkoetter, said he wanted to work on it, and a St. Louis-based foundation, the Joshua Chamberlain Society, vowed to pay his utility bills for life.
The community ultimately connected with Building for America’s Bravest to construct the home. And Schaeperkoetter and his designer sat down for the awkward task of asking a severely wounded veteran about the most personal uses of his dream home. "Sensitive stuff, like how do you use the bathroom, how do you navigate around the bathroom?" Schaeperkoetter says. "Because we wanted to set up things like that perfectly for him."
Huffman, in fact, was waiting for them with a blueprint he’d drawn up on a piece of graph paper. In all the time since his injury in Afghanistan—time spent at military medical centers, then at his father’s home, then in a rented house with no real disabled amenities—he had thought about what he, his wife, and their 3-year-old son would want. The builders broke ground in May. Then Huffman’s family took the key on Veterans Day weekend to a 3,100 square-foot single-level home where the lights, the front doors and the furnace are controlled by an iPad, where the bathroom mirrors tilt down and the stovetop itself lowers to Huffman’s level. All of the cabinets have pocket doors to enable Huffman to wheel around them. And the appliances are stainless steel to ensure that he doesn’t cause damage bumping into them in a wheelchair. Schaeperkoetter can control all of the technology from his home, too, on his own iPad.
Schaeperkoetter had to anticipate all of these needs and even ones Huffman didn’t foresee. "What’s Tyler going to be like in 10 years, in 20 years?" Schaeperkoetter asks. His upper body is strong now, at 24, but will he really want to chop wood when he’s 40 for a wood-burning fireplace? These are questions—built on the premise that Huffman will live in this home indefinitely—that don’t come up for other homeowners preoccupied with resale value.
The great challenge with all of this technology isn’t necessarily incorporating it into the homes, but masking its presence. "I didn’t want someone to come in and it look like a physical therapist’s room in a hospital or a rehab center with all this weird equipment mounted on the walls, with a lift here and bungee cords there," Huffman says. "I wanted it to look like any other home driving through town. And they pulled it off amazingly."
Huffman was injured in Afghanistan in December of 2010, nearly five months into his first combat tour. He was shot with a bullet that just missed his body armor by half an inch, striking his lung and his liver and destroying the lower nerve system in his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down. He was a Marine corporal, and had actually been planning to re-enlist after returning from that very patrol. Now he figures, if he ever moves out of this home, it’ll have to be another Marine who moves in. There are Marine emblems designed into the floor of the garage and on the concrete in front of the front door.
"I’m going to stop short of saying he’d be a fool ever to leave that house," Schaeperkoetter says, "but it is very custom tailored to almost every one of his needs and wants."
In many cases, it will be impossible to anticipate what these veterans will need and want until they come home and their old routines bump up against the new limitations of their injuries. Implicit in these smart homes is the acknowledgement that these veterans will need lots of help, even if the goal is to make them feel as if that’s not constantly the case.
"I guarantee they’re not going to ask for help," Huffman says. "They’re not going to show that they want it, they’re not going to show that they need it, because the military instills in you ‘do it yourself, be all that you can be.’ But they still need help."
He hopes that people will insist on giving it to them, a prospect that can now entail much more than installing depressing grab bars.