Architecture for Recovery: IDEO and Michael Graves Design a Home for Disabled Military Veterans

IDEO_WW_Kitchen.pngFlexible kitchen design in the Wounded Warrior home. All images and video courtesy of IDEO

In less than a month, the last American troops stationed in Iraq are set to return home. As the United States prepares to celebrate the close of a painfully fraught era of politics and war, veterans and their families face the beginning of their next great challenge: returning home and acclimating to a peacetime “normalcy.” Oftentimes, United States’ military men and women carry the physical and emotional wounds of their service home with them, “find[ing] workarounds to cope with their surroundings based on individual capabilities and preferences.” Today, IDEO and Michael Graves Associates see their work come alive as the U.S. Army Fort Belvoir and Clark Realty Capital unveil a new model for building accessible homes on military installations: the Wounded Warrior home.

The Wounded Warrior project is a collaboration with the Virginia-based real estate firm Clark Realty Capital and supported by a Department of Defense initiative to develop privatized housing for service members. Using IDEO’s human-centered design process, the team interviewed and observed 10 civilians and 20 injured soldiers, “meeting with their loved ones, and getting feedback from nearly two dozen experts. [IDEO] 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.” IDEO also immersed itself in the recovery and therapy process for disabled veterans and consulted with dozens of medical experts and advocacy groups.


Through their process, the team quickly realized that there was no one Wounded Warrior, but instead, their work would need to accommodate a wide range of interactions and needs of disabled service men and women. IDEO identified seven dualities from their research:

    • Well-Defined, Undefined Spaces: A home is never set in stone. In a household, roles shift, preferences change and most important, physical and mental impairments dictate an evolving set of challenges. This demands a flexible design that allow for both defined and undefined space. People wish to be the architect of their own home. Open-ended space gives them square feet to imagine an optimism and future they shape themselves.


    • 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. The dynamic of mobility and deep roots often decides a big chunk of happiness.


    • 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 back patio is a deep-breath metaphor for freedom. Nature is 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 & 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 both 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: 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. But second, the obvious need for specific accommodations that dramatically improve quality of life. In the home, the goal is to strike that balance: a wheel chair-friendly dream home, but one that appears ordinary, nothing more than plain wonderful normal life.


    • Old Self, New Self: Healing is a long and winding road. The early stages are about repairing the damage, rebuilding what was lost. Over time, the unique determination of Wounded Warriors drive them toward self-improvement and transformation. The human beauty is that great loss also inspires tremendous new gain. This calls for an architecture that encourages that recovery, no matter where or how far that journey takes them



IDEO_WW_Living_Day.pngVisible and Invisible Security in private nooks in a Uniquely Normal Living Room.

Today’s unveiling of the Wounded Warrior model home represents an innovative and flexible approach to addressing the needs of not only disabled military veterans, but a wide-ranging group of people facing physical disabilities. Clark Realty partnered with architect Michael Graves to build the first homes—Graves brought his personal insights to the project. Graves has suffered from lower-body paralysis that has confined him to a wheelchair for nearly a decade, and through this experience, he has gained significant expertise into how people live and work, whether mobility challenged or not. We’re excited to see which concepts Graves took from IDEO’s work and how the build will be realized today in Fort Belvoir.

Core77 had the opportunity to sit down with Altay Sendil, IDEO designer and project lead for the Wounded Warrior house to learn more about the process and learnings from this unique project:

Core77: What is the Wounded Warrior Home Project and how did it come about?

Altay Sendil: The Wounded Warrior Home Project is a new model for accessible homes on military bases. Led by Clark Realty Capital, and together with Michael Graves of Michael Graves and Associates, we designed homes for service members returning to active duty after being injured. The first two, which will serve as models for future homes, will be unveiled [today], November 30th, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

The project is a result of a nationwide challenge: U.S. service members injured in the field must find workarounds and ways to adapt when they return home. These Wounded Warriors have varied physical and psychological needs that aren’t always addressed in their living environments, even if they comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines. Clark Realty Capital wanted to rethink accessible homes and design beyond these conventional accessibility codes to better support the evolving needs of Wounded Warrior families, and they asked IDEO to help them dig deep into who they were designing for, then help design universally inclusive spaces that anyone would want to live in, physically disabled or not. After our work was completed Graves was brought in to work with the development and construction teams finishing the design and building of the homes.

We were so impressed with Clark’s relentless pursuit to put the Wounded Warrior and their needs first in every step of this process. They were a great match for our human-centered design approach to the challenge of designing homes that are functional, accessible, and desirable for anyone.

What were some of the insights you discovered about the lives of disabled veterans and how did you design the homes to improve their lives?
We set out to truly understand the experiences of civilian families and service members that were living with a variety of injuries. These span physical, emotional and cognitive challenges that include burns, vision loss or impairment, single or multiple amputations, PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, and memory loss. We immersed ourselves in the recovery and therapy process and the unique implications of military family life to find design opportunities. We worked with dozens of industry experts, including researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and advocates from the Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2).

Because of the wide array of family dynamics, personalities and preferences amongst families that would be living in the homes, and the frequent turnover of military family life deployment, it became evident that what we designed would have to accommodate a wide range of interactions and needs. We discovered there is no one Wounded Warrior; no one collective or common experience. Instead, we found that there exists a series of dualities.

There is definitely a diverse range of disabilities—how do the homes allow for universal accessibility? Do the homes help with psychology recovery as well as physical?

We aimed to design homes that would be desirable for anyone, physically disabled or not. A great example of this is in one of the dualities we identified, “Inside Out, Outside In.” It describes the important roll of nature and the outdoors in the therapy process. This is reflected in the therapy gardens, the perimeter walkways, private terraces and prominent windows throughout. The natural outdoor elements that act as positive catalysts regardless of whether one is disabled or not, can be perceived from within the home, and easily accessed from within the home as well. Seeing the outdoors, experiencing the outdoors, and the powerful metaphorical significance of autonomously accessing the outdoors are all moments we wanted the space to enable for any of its potential residents.

Another duality, “Social Privacy” describes how people view their home as a sanctuary, but also want to see their space as a place that provides opportunities to interact with the outside world via media and face-to-face conversations. We expressed this through private therapy rooms with flat panel displays and hi-res digital cameras that allow people to toggle from social connections, remote therapy consultations, or sealed-off moments of privacy and reflection. On the other hand, large open indoor and outdoor spaces enable opportunities to entertain.

IDEO_WW_Adaptable_Office.png(above) Inside Out, Outside In duality as displayed in a patio mockup. (below) Social Privacy in an adaptable office suite.

How did the veterans’ personalities and their experiences at war influence the design process?

One of the interesting patterns we started to recognize across different Wounded Warriors was the positivity, drive and determination that each of them embodied. Healing is a long and challenging road, and the early stages are about repairing the damage, rebuilding what was lost and recalibrating their new normal. Wounded Warriors evolve beyond this space quickly toward self-improvement and transformation. They understand their new limitations in the larger context of the fast-paced world outside of their home, that doesn’t necessarily accommodate their unique needs.

The appropriate role of the home as a supportive environment should be subtle, and not overt. For example, for vision-impaired service members, the high-contrast designating different surfaces and spaces become an implicit way-finding reference. Though wounded warriors may appreciate the extra support, they are determined to live as normal a life as possible, so they quickly adapt from, “how do I survive,” to “how do I thrive?” Their desire for their home to aesthetically “fit” the rest of their community is intentional. A variety of adjustable height work surfaces, appliances and cabinetry allow them to personalize a space like a kitchen with as many of the “normal” conventions and challenges per their preference.

Many veterans are coming home to a nation they don’t recognize and one that doesn’t understand them. How can designers design products and services that have a positive impact on the lives of veterans?

An interesting thing about designing for the needs of veterans is that it’s not political—it’s not a red vs. blue judgment, it’s not about whether you’re for or against war. When service members share their stories, and we can acknowledge what they’ve given, we can better understand their needs as citizens, as families and as real people. We can more closely empathize with these shared dimensions to our lives. When we can connect over these similar goals and aspirations, and see them in the larger context of their specific duties (and often accompanying sacrifices), each of us should feel a larger drive to create a positive impact for them.

No one wants to be a burden or an afterthought, and these men and women deserve to be considered in the experiences we design. It’s not about sympathy and feeling sorry, it’s about empathy and wanting to enable a positive difference. If a designer can respect and appreciate whom they are designing for, there will be an intentional level of dignity and integrity that is delivered in a designed experience. This human-centered design that’s grounded in empathy inherently has the opportunity to benefit all of us.


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