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Housing America's Heroes 7 Trends in the Design of Homes for the Military

Housing America's Heroes 7 Trends in the Design of Homes for the Military

Forget the Spartan barracks and rows of bunk beds that you see in World War II movies. Today's U.S. armed forces and their families are being housed in finer accommodations than ever before.

By Peter Fabris, Contributing Editor | August 11, 2010
This article first appeared in the 201001 issue of BD+C.

Take a stroll through a new residential housing development at many U.S. military posts, and you'd be hard-pressed to tell it apart from a newer middle-class neighborhood in Anywhere, USA. And that's just the way the service branches want it.

Army Hawaii Family Housing, U.S. Army Pacific, Hawaii

The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines have all embarked on major housing upgrade programs in the past decade, creating a military housing construction boom. The goal is to offer service personnel and their families comfortable, aesthetically pleasing residences that measure up to quality middle-class American housing, no matter what rank they hold. This upgrade is aimed at boosting recruiting and retaining personnel in the all-volunteer armed forces. Even more to the point, military leaders say, it's the right thing to do for those who put their lives on the line for their country.

Also fueling the military housing boom: the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program, which has closed a number of military bases and led to the redeployment of service personnel to other facilities that may already be stretched for housing.

On top of that, there's the 2007 directive from President George W. Bush for an Army active-duty troop increase of 74,000 (along with another 27,000 Marines). The Grow the Force initiative alone called for the construction of 69,000 barracks spaces, 4,100 family housing units, and 66 child care centers at a cost of $2.63 billion. The total scope of military housing and related construction projects launched since mid-decade is even more massive. For example, the Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for $6 billion worth of projects from 2006 to 2015 at just one base, Fort Bliss, Texas.

Though many projects have been completed or are under way, the military construction boom still has several more years of life. These projects can be attractive lines of business for real estate development firms, design firms, home builders, contractors, and subcontractors. While the armed forces are guiding most of the projects, they have plenty of private-sector help in achieving their ambitious goals. Landing the contracts and getting the work done according to military specifications, however, can present some unique challenges.

Use a public-private development model.

Several private developers are in the owner's seat on housing construction projects aimed at military families. A public-private strategy drives the Residential Communities Initiative (RCI), the Army's housing privatization program and the chief component of a plan to eliminate inadequate military family housing. (The other military branches have similar initiatives.) RCI features partnerships with developers to obtain private capital and expertise to build, renovate, operate, and maintain family housing for the long term.

Atlantic Marine Corps Communities, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Developers acquire 50-year leases for government property—on or adjoining the base itself—to build new homes or renovate existing ones. The developers provide maintenance and grounds services and are responsible for collecting the rent directly from each military family. The RCI program currently encompasses 45 locations and a projected 88,000 homes—or 97% of on-post family housing in the U.S.

Developers such as Actus Lend Lease and Balfour Beatty build the homes with design input from the military. Each military branch monitors its projects for performance, compliance with development plans and schedules, and the development's financial health over the full lease term. The branches also look to implement program enhancements and best practices.

These arrangements are tailored to quickly produce high-quality homes and amenities such as community centers, playgrounds, and jogging trails. At Camp Lejeune, N.C., for example, Atlantic Marine Corps Communities LLC (AMCC), a public-private venture of the Navy and Actus Lend Lease, has completed 1,200 new homes and 1,250 renovated homes through October 2009. When the project is completed in 2013, a total of 2,766 new and 3,488 renovated homes will be available for rent by Marines with families.

Watkins Village Community Center, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Complementing the homes are new community centers ranging from 4,000 sf to 7,500 sf that include media and computer rooms and an exercise room with treadmills and Stairmasters. Some residential areas also have pools and playgrounds.

Collaborate closely with service branch partners to achieve quality.

In military housing projects, home and neighborhood design must be a collaborative effort between the Building Team and the respective service branch. At Camp Lejeune, the Navy set basic requirements for square footage per residence, number of bedrooms, and amenities per rank designation. “The design is completely influenced by Actus, but reviewed by the Navy,” says Jeff Williams, development manager for AMCC. “We offered architectural concepts in our proposals.” After landing the contract, Actus hired designers to flesh out the final home designs.

“As owner and landlord, Actus/AMCC needs to create housing with excellent curb appeal that is extremely competitive with nearby off-base housing in order to ensure high occupancy and the long-term financial strength of the project,” Williams says. “We want to design homes that are visually appealing, but not so complicated to build that they escalate costs,” adds Matt Lynn, deputy project director with Actus Lend Lease.

The homes have different square footages and finishes at six distinct levels, according to rank. “As you go up in rank, you may have wood grain fixtures instead of plain white and more decorative linoleum, for example,” Williams says. Most homes for the rank of sergeant-major and above are single-family homes; those homes for personnel below that rank are duplex townhomes. “The Navy and Actus had a vision of no higher density than duplexes to create high-quality neighborhoods,” Lynn says. “No quads or multi-families were desired.”

Create a greater sense of neighborhood and community.

Many amenities and development layout and designs at most new military housing projects were created to foster a neighborly spirit. Take Fort Drum, home of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, in upstate New York. There, 30 miles from the Canadian border, Looney Ricks Kiss, Architects, have created discrete neighborhoods of 200 to 300 homes separated geographically by ravines or other natural features.

Mountain Community Homes, Fort Drum, N.Y.

Many of the homes standing before were “horrible 1950s to 1970s-era housing,” says Carson Looney, founding principal, Looney Ricks Kiss. Many of those older homes have since been demolished to make way for 21st-century models. The unattractive architecture of the existing structures notwithstanding, there was a strong sense of community among residents, he notes.

The 10th Mountain Division has been a mainstay in Iraq and Afghanistan, with its members undertaking multiple deployments (and, it should be noted, sustaining heavy casualties: 128 in Iraq, 84 in Afghanistan, as of this writing). Families at Fort Drum have “a bond like no other,” Looney says. In order to facilitate informal meetings between residents, side courtyards and small backyards give homes proximity to each other, with many areas for barbecues and impromptu gatherings.

Prototype of an Air Force enlisted personnel dormitory

Fort Drum has also broken down the hierarchy of military housing, at least to some extent. “In the Sixties, every rank was isolated,” says Looney, an Air Force “brat” who lived in many military homes as a youngster. Noncommissioned officers lived on one side of the post, officers on the other.

At Fort Drum today, families of the highest-ranking NCOs, sergeants major, live in the same neighborhood with the families of majors and colonels. (Generals live in separate areas, largely for security reasons.) This new housing structure creates a strong sense among service personnel that loyalty and length of service will be rewarded, says Looney.

Get design input from service personnel and families.

As part of the design process, developers and designers also conducted surveys of service personnel—even those deployed overseas—and their spouses. “In the private sector, 30-40% is considered a high response rate,” Looney says “We had over a 90% response rate.” High on the list from the troops: plenty of storage space and home offices in residences. Both amenities made their way into the final design.

Air Force bachelor's quarters

Jacobs Engineering, which has provided program management, construction management, and design services for numerous military housing projects, uses charrettes to get input from stakeholders. “We meet over several days and work with different constituencies at the facility to deliver a design,” says H. Thomas McDuffie, group vice president at Jacobs. “It's an excellent way to make the design process quicker and test design decisions against the project scope, schedule, and budget.”

Military housing specs are somewhat detailed, typically including square footage per unit and basic architectural vernacular. RFPs often contain prototype designs that include interior layouts. Design and construction firms' proposals are evaluated on how many units of housing they can provide given the budget, specs, and quality standards.

“Standardization has been a big part of overall operating and construction cost savings strategies,” explains Steve Wright, Fort Worth District account manager for the Army Corps of Engineers. That doesn't mean that military housing projects are built cookie-cutter style. At Camp Lejeune, for example, different color schemes, orientations, and elevations provide variety.

By all accounts, soldiers are pleased with the designs and finished products. Even outsiders find the results impressive. “I visited Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico and saw the existing housing that was set to be demolished alongside the new construction,” says Peggy Moore, senior government manager with Cort Furniture, a supplier of furnishings to the project. “The difference was astonishing.” To round out the accommodations, some military homes can be rented fully furnished with furniture and appliances—even with luxuries such as flat screen TVs.

Green design is not a choice.

In recent years, the military, like the federal government as a whole, has promoted environmental sustainability requirements on just about all construction projects. Housing is no exception.

All Army projects must be built to achieve at least a LEED Silver status. New housing includes multiple green features, with climatic variations. At Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas, the effects of the blazing sun are offset with white roofs and sun shading on south- and west-facing windows. At Snowbelt installations, such as Fort Drum, frigid winters are mitigated with heavy-duty insulation and well-insulated windows.

Other green features include waterless urinals at Fort Bliss and a recently launched project at Camp Lejeune to install solar thermal water heating systems on 900 homes. “Tax incentives are now very good for solar thermal,” Lynn says. “It is becoming very affordable.”

Firms interested in getting in on the military housing boom need to push the green envelope in their proposals. “Sustainability is important,” McDuffie says. “That's an area where you have an opportunity to innovate.”

Designs should also take into account the ability of a structure to undergo regular commissioning to maintain optimal performance, which helps to keep utility and maintenance costs low, McDuffie says. Systems need to be easily accessible for this purpose.

Build for the long haul.

Sustainability impacts another key area—total cost of ownership (TCO). With both the military and private developers involved in housing projects for 50 years, TCO is critical to cost savings and profitability. “Traditional developers buy the land and flip the houses as fast as they can,” Williams says. “But we have a long-term view. We try to make things like utilities last over the long term.”

A family checks into a hotel at one of 10 Army posts throughout the U.S.

As a consequence, life cycle costing is part of the process. Many cost factors are included in a matrix to assess the best value of a proposal, Looney says. Due to quality, sustainability, and operating-cost goals, the cost per sf is “kind of startling,” he says. “But you get quantity discounts on materials that are substantially lower than what you could get in the private sector because of economies of scale.”

Delivery methods for most military buildings, including housing, are design/build, while many infrastructure contracts to support these facilities are design-bid-build, says Wright. “We have found that design/build is a better way to get good value and current industry methods and materials on buildings,” Wright says. “For instance, we don't know if wood beams are going to be cheaper than steel on any given project.”

Shoot for best value, not necessarily low bid.

Military contracts are not necessarily awarded to the lowest bidder. “All awards are based on 'best value,'” says Ken Duty, project executive, Clark Construction. “That does not necessarily mean dollars, time, or quality alone; it's a combination of all three. It's who provides the most bang for the buck.”

“You want to add value and enhance the schedule for delivery,” McDuffie adds. Unlike in the past when RFPs were specific in the extreme, today the military encourages innovation to obtain best value. Design and contracting firms must adhere to building prototypes and square footage requirements, but beyond those parameters, proposals that can save money or time while addressing the need for improved quality are likely to be winners.

A downside to military housing projects is the potential for a long wait—up to several years—from contract award to project launch. “The budgets could be allocated many years before Congress releases funding,” McDuffie says.

There are other daunting challenges. “As in private-sector projects, there are many approvals needed to reach final design,” including environmental impact studies in some cases, McDuffie says.

Despite the many hurdles, some firms have found military housing to be a profitable, steady source of work. Major projects are typically performed in multiple phases, so getting your foot in the door can pay off for years. “Once you've landed a project, unless you really mess up, you have good potential to get additional phases,” Looney says.

With the current round of BRAC scheduled to run until September 2011 and the drive to upgrade quality ongoing for several years thereafter, the next decade in military housing construction promises continued robust activity. Firms willing to commit to the armed forces' ambitious agenda could find the military housing category to be a mainstay until other sectors of the economy recover.

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