For one disabled veteran, a home designed to heal
Imagine surviving two tours in Iraq, returning home with no visible wounds of war, only to find yourself shortly afterwards confined to a wheelchair, living in your parent’s dining room in a hospital bed and bathing in a temporary plywood shower in their garage. This has been the quality of life for 27-year-old Marine Sgt. Daniel Tsutsumi, an Iraq veteran living in Arlington Heights, Ill. Back at home, Tsutsumi awoke from an accident he does not remember to find he had sustained a cervical spine injury that left him in a quadriplegic state.
Enter Carol Way Cisco, Allied ASID, an experienced designer with more than 25 years’ professional experience and volunteer service, who decided to make it her mission to change Tsutsumi’s life for the better. Moved by the stories of troops returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Cisco in 2010 founded Designing for Veterans, along with two of her classmates at the Illinois Institute of Art – Chicago, who also were fellow officers in the school’s ASID student chapter. Their first project received numerous honors, including the 2012 ASID Student Chapter Community Service Award. Today the firm operates as a nonprofit organization providing pro bono interior design, architectural, engineering and landscape services to aid and assist wounded and disabled veterans.
“The entire premise of the work we do is to design an environment that will aid in the recovery of our veterans and not be a constant reminder of their disability. It is a therapeutic approach,” says Cisco. “Interior design can and does have an impact on that recovery. Every design choice — every color, texture, spatial arrangement, every detail employed whether for function, aesthetics or psychological benefit — has a therapeutic purpose and value. The environments we build are intended to assist in the healing process, whether the individual is dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or a physical disability. Even the process of construction itself instills hope for an independent future, and providing a quality environment recognizes their sacrifice and service.”
The early prognosis from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago was that Tsutsumi might have a 50/-50 chance of walking again, given that his spine was not severed. “I knew a proper environment would aid in his recovery,” says Cisco. “The key from a rehabilitation perspective was to get the body in motion, get the brain generating impulses to these paralyzed areas and unblock those communication lines.”
Cisco consulted with Tsutsumi’s occupational and physical therapists and other experts to determine the nature of his condition and the type of environment that would support him in the months ahead. Based on her research, and employing her knowledge of universal and sustainable design principles, she and her team, with the help and support of industry partners and trades, planned and constructed a 900-square-foot studio addition to the Tsutsumi home, along with a therapeutic garden connected via a wheelchair-accessible sidewalk/patio and ramp. Thanks to an outpouring of community and industry support, Tsutsumi moved into his new studio, appropriately, on Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, 2013.
Dubbed “Mission Recovery,” the finished space is designed to both support and challenge Tsutsumi during his rehabilitation process. It consists of a universally and green designed studio/bedroom and bathroom, with assistive devices and technologies, such as a Lutron Whole Home system that allows the young veteran to control the shades, lighting, TV and thermostat with his iPad. Originally, Cisco had planned to use a voice-activated system, but an expert who provides systems to many quadriplegic veterans noted that Tsutsumi had experienced a remarkable improvement in the use of his arms in the months since construction began. What Tsutsumi needed was a system that would challenge and develop those minor control skills, so the tablet-based system was adopted instead.
Cisco also incorporated sensory elements that help provide physical and mental stability. The barn wood, reclaimed from a barn in central Illinois, is aromatic cedar. The scent is faint but nonetheless creates a wood-cabin atmosphere whereTsutsumi f he can relax and feel safe.
“There is plenty of evidence about the psychological impact of color,” Cisco notes. “But mood is also affected by the quality of the environment and by mood lines (a technique typically used in the television and film industry).” For example, stability can be felt where lines go up and down, she explains. The square-edge paneling does this, as do the strong bold flat lines in the bathroom, where Tsutsumi would be most vulnerable to falling.
a home of his own
But the most stabilizing elements, Cisco discovered, turned out to be privacy and ownership. “This young man had spent the past year-and-a-half totally ‘bare’ to the world,” she says, “to medical personnel and his family, and he desperately needed the independence, privacy and ownership that this studio provided to aid in his recovery. Ownership made him less dependent on his parents; it gave him a place where he could entertain and find solitude away from others.”
In addition to providing Tsutsumi with a therapeutic sanctuary, Mission Recovery will serve as a case study that will inform future Designing for Veterans projects. “We are researching and establishing the impact of the design and whether certain choices do affect the veterans’ recovery,” explains Cisco. “We are monitoring this, and the family is on board to help us document this. A key component of the project is establishing that evidence.”
Cisco received the Irene Winifred Eno Grant from the ASID Foundation in support of Mission Recovery. The grant provides financial assistance to individuals or groups engaged in the creation of an educational program or an interior design research project dedicated to health, safety and welfare. For more information about Mission Recovery and Designing for Veterans, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.designingforveterans.org.