“I don’t get emotional,” retired US Marine Corps Sgt. Rob Jones says, standing next to his wife, Pam, as he admires the freshly painted walls of a new smart home customized for his needs as a double above-the-knee amputee.
This isn’t a warning preamble before a tearful outburst. Rob, a Purple Heart recipient, who was wounded in Afghanistan in 2010 by an improvised explosive device (IED) really doesn’t cry. Pam confirms it.
Rob alternates between walking with prosthetics and using a wheelchair. This house, located roughly 50 miles west of Washington, DC in Middleburg, Virginia, was custom-built for him by the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, a non-profit that, among other charitable work, builds homes full of smart home technology for military personnel and first responders critically injured in the line of duty.
3.6 million Americans and more than 250,000 veterans use wheelchairs, a 2018 study reports. More than one billion people in the world need assistive technology and only 10% of that population has access to it, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Assistive technology is designed to help people with disabilities live more independently, and the smart-home industry is a mainstream branch of assistive tech. Rob and Pam’s new home will feature a combination of custom assistive products and readily available smart devices, things they’ve never had in previous homes.
Rob and Pam picked out the paint colors, the furniture and countless other details for the house, but this is the first time either of them have been inside its walls.
The 2,800-square-foot ranch rests on 13 acres, which is no accident. The couple dreams of having a working farm here. Pam has already mapped it out. She plans to grow garlic, onions, tomatoes and a variety of other vegetables.
She and Rob have 44 chickens hanging out in a box at their current apartment — “it’s a big box; they’re very happy,” Pam adds.
They’re eager to move in — Rob, Pam and likely the chickens, too. It’s been three years since they first said yes to Tunnel to Towers’ offer and it all culminated with today’s unveiling, which happened just minutes ago.
“Every step along the way since my injury, there’s always been at least one or two things in any kind of domicile where it’s just not perfectly set up, or it’s uncomfortable, or I have to make concessions for things. And with this home, that’s not gonna be the case,” Rob explains.
Rob and Pam are both accomplished athletes. They met at the 2012 Paralympics in London. He won a bronze medal for rowing. Pam, who has psoriatic arthritis, won two gold medals at the games, also for rowing.
Rob has since combined his athletic pursuits with his advocacy work to raise money for veterans’ organizations — and to inspire others to do the “unthinkable.” In the winter of 2013 and 2014, Rob biked 5,180 miles across the United States, from Maine to California. In the fall of 2017, he ran 31 marathons in 31 days – that’s 26.2 miles every day for a month straight (and all in different cities in the US, Canada and the UK).
Their house and their future farm, which they’ve named Gathering Springs Farm, is just the beginning for this vibrant couple. I’m one of the lucky few getting a peek behind the scenes, specifically to see what tech is in their home and how it could free up their time to focus on those bigger goals.
Rob and Pam move from room to room, finally getting to see in person all of the things they’ve been imagining since 2016. Rob is characteristically cool headed. Pam covers her mouth in excitement.
, a subscription-based smart home system, is the main thing powering their home’s connected tech. It’s a smart home command center, a hub that connects , , audio zones and more, through touchscreen control panels and an app. It also works with but the voice control isn’t set up just yet.
“Due to the vast integration and customization possibilities of Control4, our systems have been installed for many veterans and those who use technology to improve their lives. We love seeing the ways that a Control4 smart home can help, even [in] just the smallest ways,” Brad Hintze, Control4 senior director of product marketing said over email.
Retired US Army Col.,, has Control4 in his home too, which was set up for him by the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center at the McGuire VA Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. Swinford is an incomplete quadriplegic, meaning he has some mobility, but relies on a wheelchair. McGuire has recommended Control4 to over two dozen veterans in the past five years, the hospital’s assistive technology program coordinator, Melissa Oliver, tells me.
The brains behind Rob and Pam’s Control4 system sits in a hallway closet. Everything else is out in the open, including the main Control4 touchscreen panel, which is mounted to the wall in the living room. That’s their main access point to all of the devices when they don’t want to use a phone or voice commands.
Both of the bathrooms in the house have smart toilets. “They deodorize, they clean, they sanitize, they flush [and] the seats warm up,” Trevor Tamsen, assistant manager of media relations at Tunnel to Towers, explains.
Most people say they don’t want the automatic toilets at first, John Ponte, director of smart home for Tunnel to Towers, adds. But then they end up loving them.
There’s a Honeywell security system, complete with cameras and sensors so they can monitor things whether they’re home, out running errands or away on vacation. A fire suppression system, complete with indoor sprinklers, is also inside, but you’d never know it. App-enabled Hunter Douglasand shades are all over the house, as well as Control4-compatible Zigbee light switches.
There are four designated audio zones, too, for listening to music throughout the home.
When Pam walks into the, she covers her mouth and Rob hugs her. It’s the room she’s most excited about, they place where they will prepare meals with food grown on their own farm. The kitchen is packed with a lot of useful tech. There’s a motion-activated sink faucet that turns on and off when you wave your hand next to it. A microwave mounted to the lower cabinet and upper cabinets that pull down are easier to reach.
The adjustable induction cooktop is the standout, though. It raises and lowers with the press of a button, so Rob can lower it to see what he’s doing when he’s using his wheelchair and raise it up when he’s standing.
“It’s the little touches. We have done 75 of these [homes] in some various form or another, over the years. We know in some ways what these guys need before they know what they need,” Trevor says.
Moving in and moving on
Rob and I sit down to talk about his new house and how he’s feeling now that he and Pam have finally seen it. He admits that they have driven by it since construction began in the fall of 2018 (the project began in 2016, but it took time to find just the right plot of land), but that this really is the first time they’ve been inside.
“I’ve always just lived in apartments that either had stairs or narrow doorways, or close quarters, or showers that are hard to get into and a lot of stuff that just isn’t set up for me very well. And now we’re here in this house and everywhere I look it’s made for me. I mean, [it’s] a million times better than anything I’ve ever lived in before,” Rob explains.
Veterans are sometimes resistant to the offer of a custom-built home, Trevor told me earlier. “In all honesty, none of these guys believe they deserve a home,” he added.
Rob was no different. He didn’t feel “sorry” for himself after his injury. In fact, he quickly moved on from what happened to working on his recovery and deciding what was next.
“I kind of accelerated through the normal grieving process, and skipped right to the acceptance stage of the process pretty quickly. I didn’t spend any kind of energy wishing what had happened hadn’t,” Rob says.
I ask him how he was able to move on so quickly and he jokes that he might have a “psychological disorder” that helped him out, but there’s much more to it than that.
He says that he never expected to die from his injuries, but instead immediately began to worry about how much help he might need from loved ones — and he didn’t want that for them.
He thought about the Marines still in Afghanistan, too. “Their mental states were gonna be directly related to how I handled myself, and so it just became a natural thing to just go ahead and move on, because I was trying to do what was best for them,” he explains.
Basically, Rob just keeps moving forward no matter what, including completing his fourth Tower Climb earlier this month, an annual 104-story stair climb of the One World Observatory in New York, hosted by Tunnel to Towers in honor of the people who lost their lives on 9/11.
Scott Nokes, a retired US Marine Corps Cpl. and rifleman who became ill from dysentery while in Afghanistan, ultimately resulting in double below-the-knee amputations and visual impairment, is inspired by Rob.
When I mention Rob, Scott jokes that he’s a “sore subject,” since Rob beats him at the Tower Climb every year. Scott, who lives in New Jersey, is getting a smart home of his own later this year, courtesy of Tunnel to Towers.
He says seeing guys like Rob and retired US Army Staff Sgt. and quadruple amputee, Travis Mills, he realized he’d be okay. “This is just what you do; you just keep going. That’s what they always did: Why would I do anything different?” Scott asks.
I speak briefly with Rob over the phone about a month after my visit to see how things are going. He’s making breakfast while we talk — soft boiled eggs and bacon, on the new cooktop. Last night for dinner he made lamb meatballs, salad and sweet potatoes, he tells me, as I quietly salivate on the other end of the line.
Pam is already selling produce at four different farmer’s markets and is making deals with area restaurants. “The chickens are thriving,” he says. He talks about how easy the shades are to control with his phone; they still haven’t set up the voice control.
I’m sure they’ll get to it, but for now, they’re just busy living their lives.
This is part of CNET’s “” series about the role technology plays in helping the disability community.