Clark Realty Capital and the Wounded Warrior Home Project

MHN talks to A.J. Caputo of Clark Realty Capital about the Wounded Warrior Home program, working with architect Michael Graves and IDEO, and designing beautiful and functional living spaces for disabled individuals.

Arlington, Va.—Just because a solider is injured does not mean his or her quality of life has to diminish. The Wounded Warrior Home project, started by Virginia-based Clark Realty Capital, provides homes specifically designed for disabled soldiers. Currently Clark has developed two such homes in Fairfax County, Va., in Fort Belvoir. MHN talks to A.J. Caputo of Clark Realty Capital about the Wounded Warrior Home program and how to design beautiful and functional living spaces for disabled individuals.

MHN: Describe the Wounded Warrior Home project. How did it come about?

Caputo: About 10 years ago, the military made the decision to get out of the real estate development construction of family housing on their bases across the country, and they decided to privatize it. They partnered with private companies like Clark, and others, and we in turn are the majority owners of these ventures. We design and develop family housing for the military across the country. One of these spaces is Fort Belvoir, located in Fairfax County, Va.

The project leader for Fort Belvoir, Casey Nolan, and I had the opportunity to take a tour of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and it had a very dramatic impact on both of us. Then a few days later I was doing a site tour with Casey, and as we were walking through, he raised a very profound question: “I wonder if the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) meets the need of a wounded warrior?” It was a very simple question, but it had a profound impact. One of the drivers behind what we do on a daily basis is to always do things differently—how can you make what you did yesterday better today? So we took a look at the ADA, and then we started thinking, well, what are the needs of a wounded warrior? And, to be blunt, we didn’t really know.

MHN: Do you have any military experience yourself?

Caputo: No, neither of us do. But through the process of redeveloping housing on military bases, we’ve become good friends with many military members. It’s just a different world. So we didn’t have a subtle understanding of the [housing] issues. One of the things we were determined to figure out was what are the needs of a wounded warrior, not just from his perspective, but from his spouse’s perspective, his children’s perspective and the perspective of various caregivers. Realizing our own limitations, we reached out to a friend of ours who is at a design firm called IDEO, which specializes in product design. We wanted someone who could watch, listen and learn, and they are very good at that. In many cases, the people who we are dealing with, if they are newly injured, don’t know what they need yet. IDEO and Clark spent months watching and learning from people with various disabilities in order to get that point of view. We also spent a lot of time talking to family members and caregivers. After that it was time to go and find an architect.

We sent out a proposal to different architects, and one of our associates suggested sending a proposal to Michael Graves—who is arguably one of the top three preeminent architects today. I didn’t think we had a chance. But what I didn’t realize is that about eight years prior, Mr. Graves came down with a virus that attacked his spinal cord and left him paralyzed, and he [has] spent the last eight years in a wheelchair. And, unbeknownst to us, he has dedicated his life to focusing his efforts on providing better architecture for people with disabilities. So, sure enough, he came back to Clark with a proposal to do two prototype houses.

One of our goals behind [the Wounded Warrior Home project] was not just to design a house for someone with disabilities, but also to raise awareness in the real estate world to what these needs are and what some of the solutions are. Because, at the end of the day, some of what we came up with that are embodied in the two prototype homes don’t cost a nickel to implement if you think about them in advance of putting that first nail to that first piece of wood.

MHN: Does it cost more to renovate a building to include these changes than to develop a building from scratch?

Caputo:  It depends on the nature of what you’re doing. In our case, we’re redeveloping. Fort Belvoir consisted of 2,000 homes spread out over 500 acres, so it was a $760 million project. The work that we are doing is large-scale. That’s not to say the redevelopment ideas that we came up with can’t be implemented on a renovation. For example, one of the elements that a person with a disability is sensitive to is that he might need something, but doesn’t want it to look like it’s there. He wouldn’t want his bathroom to look like a hospital bathroom with all the poles and the brushed stainless steel—it just looks institutional. So one of the design challenges is, how do you do that? One example is a towel rack. If you put blocking from scrap wood behind a towel bar, that towel bar is now load bearing. And if you put those towel bars where it will help somebody get around, such as showers and bathtubs and toilets, it costs absolutely nothing to put blocking on these towel bars to make them load bearing, and yet has this huge functionality.

The two houses that we designed based on the research from IDEO and the ideas from Michael Graves were completed over a year ago, and we’ve had our first two families move in.

MHN: That was an interesting suggestion to install load-bearing towel racks in bathrooms. What other tips do you have for designing homes for people with disabilities?

Caputo: The first house we designed is designed in the shape of a capital H. The reason we did that is there are very few turns, which are difficult to make if you’re in a wheelchair. When you come in through the garage, it’s a straight shot to get to the kitchen and the family room. There’s one turn you have to make, and that will take you to the laundry room and living room. Then the other wing has the bedrooms. We’ve intentionally separated the bedrooms from the noisy areas such as the kitchen and the TV room. The reason for this is, if you’ve recently suffered a disability, because of all the medication, the pain and the challenges of getting around, you’re probably not going to sleep more than 45 minutes at a time. So if you need to take a nap, it’s critical that you get peace and quiet. If you have small children, trust me when I say that there is no peace and quiet. If we could put your master bedroom from the furthest point of the family room, you have a better chance of it. This is fundamental—very few turns, and the quiet areas away from the loud areas.

Another thing that we did was [design] doors. They take up a lot of space, and they are difficult to use, especially if you’re in a wheelchair. All the doors in the house are called barn doors, and slide left to right. We also made our hallways a little bit wider so they’re easier to access in a wheelchair.

Natural light is also important. A typical window in a typical house is about 4 feet off the floor. We dropped it down so it’s about 8 inches off the floor, which makes it easier to access the window, and they’re all windows with a crank. These let in a lot of natural light. If you’ve had a traumatic brain injury, there is a 73 percent chance that you’ve had some loss of vision, so it’s critically important that you have as much natural light as possible.

Another thing we did to help with poor vision is what we call contrasting flooring. Down hallways, we put a contrasting border around the outside of the hallways that helps you differentiate visually where you are. If the flooring and the walls are the same color and you’re visually impaired, it’s difficult to see where you’re headed. We also put contrasting flooring around counters for the same reason.

Other features include the height of the microwave or stove. If you’re in a wheelchair, you can’t access them—they’re too high. Many dishwashers are too low. So why don’t you put them at a level that’s reachable? Just because you’re in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you can’t make dinner, especially if you have a family. The spouse might not be home, but the kids need to be fed. So this enables you to prepare dinner.

What does it cost to do all this? Absolutely nothing.

MHN: Is there an application process for these homes? How do you qualify?

Caputo: It’s actually very simple. It’s no different from the application process to rent an apartment. We have a leasing office, and there’s a waiting list. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in the military with a disability, so there’s a lot of demand for them. It’s a first come, first serve thing.

MHN: What’s nice about all that is that to the untrained eye it probably just looks like a normal house.

Caputo: Absolutely. The questions we ask everybody are: Do you see the features we’re talking about? Does it look like you’re coming into a house that is designed like a hospital room? And the answer, unequivocally, is no, it certainly doesn’t. Yet, it has all these features in it that let you live your life a little better.