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Custom Homes Set New Standard for Injured US Soldiers

A pretty, yellow house in a residential suburb of Northern Virginia may look like a typical American home from the outside. But inside, it's anything but.

Almost every aspect of this light and spacious model home has been designed for U.S. soldiers, with severe disabilities, who are returning to Fort Belvoir army base.

An open floor plan, with long, wide hallways, allows easy movement for a wheelchair. Vinyl floors provide a smooth rolling surface. Cabinets are equipped with shelves that pull out, bathrooms have sturdy grab bars, and almost every room has a sliding door.

The home was constructed by Clark Realty, a real estate development company that, together with the U.S. Army, collaborated with IDEO, an international design firm, and renowned architect Michael Graves, to create homes for wounded warriors.

More than 300,000 U.S. soldiers have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan with physical and emotional disabilities. Fifty-seven million Americans have some degree of disability. So the homes could be models for civilian homes as well.

Golden features

The Wounded Warrior Home Project has multiple objectives.

One is to surpass the minimum standards set by the U.S. government, according to Casey Nolan, a project director for Clark Realty, and “to create a place where anyone wants to live.”

In the kitchen, for example, the sink moves up and down with a touch of a button, and so does the stove top. The counter overlooking the kitchen can be adjusted for any family member.

Another appealing feature is the spacious closet in the master bedroom, which provides a private area for extra wheelchairs and prosthetics.

Award-winning architect Michael Graves feels uniquely qualified to design homes for injured soldiers. In 2003, a rare infection left him paralyzed from the waist down.

“We intended, when we started this project, to make houses that didn’t look as though they screamed ‘a disabled person lives here,’” he says. “We wanted to make normalcy.”

While he and his team have designed more than 350 buildings worldwide, this project was special to him.

“I’ve been able to do for them all the things that I would have done to my house," Graves says, "if I’d known before I was paralyzed.”

Hidden wounds

While many soldiers come home in a wheelchair, many more return with other hidden disabilities.

Retired Capt. Alvin Shell was injured in Iraq while rescuing a fellow soldier from a burning truck. He suffered third-degree burns over 30 percent of his body.

“On my right side, from just under my shoulder all the way down to my ankle,” Shell says.

Soldier Alvin Shell, who was wounded in Irag, served as an advisor on the houses designed and built to accommodate injured veterans.

Soldier Alvin Shell, who was wounded in Irag, served as an advisor on the houses designed and built to accommodate injured veterans.

He also has vision loss and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Because of his multiple injuries, the Wounded Warrior team asked Shell and his wife Danielle - who's provided strong support throughout his ordeal - to serve as advisors on the house.

One of Shell’s recommendations was to incorporate large windows and glass doors, to let in therapeutic natural light and provide a sense of security. Touch pads installed near the doors help burn victims like him open doors more easily.

Also, since Shell's burns make it difficult for him to regulate his body temperature, he suggested multiple thermostats throughout the house.

“I really hope that the concept of this house becomes contagious throughout the army and all of the military,” Shell says.

Michael Graves hopes it will extend beyond the military. “Those houses that we’ve done for Belvoir would work all over the country for people who are disabled or simply arthritic, or obese or just elderly.”

Two Wounded Warrior homes have already been completed. There are plans for more homes to be built at Fort Belvoir in the coming years. In the meantime, the two prototypes have influenced the design of about 50 additional accessible homes in other parts of the country.