Case Study: Designing the Ideal Home for Wounded Warriors
Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2012 “Justified” competition, in which an esteemed jury identified submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. It serves as an example of how to explain design thinking to clients, students, peers and the public in general, based on specific metrics.
Most injured U.S. servicemen and servicewomen returning from war must adapt to a home, even if it doesn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines. These soldiers find workarounds to cope with their surroundings based on individual capabilities and preferences. Clark Realty Capital believed there had to be a better solution. The Virginia-based real estate firm, which partnered with the U.S. Department of Defense on more than $4.7 billion of privatized housing for service members, collaborated with our design firm on a new model for building accessible homes on military installations.
Truly designing for accessibility necessitates a deep level of understanding and inspiration. Using a human-centered design approach, the team began by conducting contextual inquiries with 10 civilians and 20 soldiers who had suffered a range of injuries. These injuries included post–traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injuries, single and multiple extremity amputations, third-degree burns, and vision loss and impairment. The designers also immersed themselves in a variety of relevant and tangential environments, and met with nearly two dozen experts to dive deeper into the spaces of rehabilitation, military family life and residential development and construction.
Halfway through the engagement, the design team visualized sacrificial concepts as provocations to present to a group of wounded warriors and their respective family members. The participants of the workshop were encouraged to role-play, criticize, tear down and build upon the shared concepts in order to confirm or challenge hypotheses and intuitions, ultimately strengthening the ideas early enough in the process, where anything still goes.
One of the early stories from the field that inspired the design team came from a paraplegic civilian. This civilian was wheelchair-bound, and despite opportunities to drive a large van that could accommodate easy ingress and egress as well as loading and transportation of his chair, he insisted on driving a red Mustang. The painstaking process of getting in and out of his Mustang was a small accommodation of discomfort to pay for an uncompromised, emotionally-fulfilling driving experience that was reflective of how his life used to be. Stories like this one are one reason why, in the final implementation of the homes, Michael Graves & Associates ensured that wheelchairs would be able to make an uncompromised full turn anywhere in the house, enabling full interaction for all potential inhabitants—and the luxury of wide corridors for ambulatory individuals. The notion of going beyond minimum accessibility requirements and envisioning an aspirational home for all—regardless of capabilities or challenges in life—was the team’s intrinsic goal.
The challenge was to visualize and design the ideal home for soldiers injured in the field. The effort included floor plans and amenities that would not only meet or exceed ADA standards, but would also be versatile enough to accommodate varied physical and psychological needs. Clark commissioned Michael Graves & Associates to develop architectural plans for two concept homes that needed to support family dynamics and rituals and needed to be able to evolve over time and with technology.
The design team took an in-depth look at accessibility issues, interviewing and observing 10 civilians and 20 injured soldiers with different needs, meeting with their loved ones and getting feedback from nearly two dozen experts. The team asked questions that shed light on how active duty service members resume civilian life after debilitating injuries; what could make their experience more dignified and healthy; and what might reconnect them with family, close friends and the world. Ultimately, we went well beyond understanding soldiers’ physical limitations, considering their cognitive and emotional challenges and needs as well.
Listening to everyone’s stories, the team coalesced around the idea that there isn’t one collective experience, but rather seven dualities or contrasts that define the complex needs of disabled soldiers and their families. These dualities gave the design team direction and inspiration for developing an adaptable home for specific physical, mental and emotional needs that also fit into the context of everyday life. The dualities are:
- Well-Defined, Undefined Spaces. A home is never set in stone. In a household, roles shift, preferences change and, most importantly, physical and mental impairments dictate an evolving set of challenges. This demands a flexible design that allows for both defined and undefined space.
- Mobile Roots. It’s difficult to sink down roots when they’re yanked up every few years. The constant flux of transient military life places extra demands on a family. People don’t want to feel they’re just passing through—short-timers skipping from base to base. They want home to feel like they’ve finally arrived at their destination.
- Inside Out, Outside In. Poets, explorers and rehab therapists all know the immense healing powers of nature. It’s a tremendous gift for anyone suffering wounds, physical or mental. The outside world, or even the back patio, is a deep-breath metaphor for freedom. Nature is a force of nurture. This duality is about bringing the outside experience inside the home and, equally important, making sure the journey outside is short, effortless and joyful.
- Visible and Invisible Security. Trauma, post-combat stress, reduced mobility—these are issues that make it hard to feel safe and secure. People want the protection of their hidden cocoon but also a total, 360-degree visual awareness of their surroundings. It’s about providing security through concealment and reduced exposure, yet also creating security through visibility, instant communication and control of their environment.
- Social Privacy. Sometimes people view their home as a sanctuary, a retreat, a place of privacy and introspection. Other times, people see their home as a gateway to the outside world—to social and cultural connections that determine well-being. A home must be a restful oasis and a place for raucous good times, both equally therapeutic.
- Uniquely Normal. Here are two distinct and contrary requirements. First, the desire to live a normal life despite significant physical and, often, mental wounds. Normal in the just-like-everybody-else sense. No special treatment whatsoever. Second is the obvious need for specific accommodations that dramatically improve a wounded warrior’s quality of life. In the home, the goal is to strike that balance: a wheelchair-friendly dream home, but one that appears ordinary.
- Old Self, New Self. Healing is a long and winding road. The early stages are about repairing the damage and rebuilding what was lost. Over time, wounded warriors’ determination drives them toward self-improvement and transformation. This calls for an architecture that encourages that recovery, no matter where or how far that journey takes them.
National Public Radio (NPR) and other major media outlets highlighted the homes when Clark Realty Capital unveiled them on November 30, 2011, in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
The National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research is funding a five-year longitudinal study of the two prototype homes by the University of Buffalo’s Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access. The intent is for these homes to act as living laboratories in order to generate feedback and answers to questions such as: How customizable should each unique space within a home be? How might kitchens and social spaces be leveraged by different members of a wounded warrior household? Over time, Clark hopes to gain insights that will inform future development efforts. The idea is to scale appropriately—leveraging advances in rehabilitative technologies, construction and the findings of the families actually living in these homes—in a truly evolving, agile development process.
Clark has also proactively socialized their learnings and efforts around designing for accessibility. This transparency has opened doors to experts, and to engagement from all who desire to be a part of the larger mission of helping people lead happier lives.
Visit the website: www.woundedwarriorhome.org