The Secret Behind Military Family Housing Design

If you’ve ever lived overseas, either as a servicemember or a civilian working for the Department of Defense, the prospect of living in on-base housing, may seem less than desirable. On top of being in a new environment, the horror stories you may have heard regarding on base living might have given you pause regarding the experience. It’s understandable, we’ve heard those stories and see those pictures on social media, too.

As the premier military construction, design, and procurement agent in the Pacific, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Japan Engineer District (JED) is here to help illuminate the process of how military housing gets made here in Japan.

Stearley Heights, a military housing facility on Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, December 13, 2023. Currently undergoing renovation, the housing units will eventually be converted for use by senior enlisted, and field grade officers stationed at the 18th Wing. USACE PHOTO BY PATRICK CICCARONE

“JED considers everyone’s perspectives and available space to ensure a fully functional home and neighborhood for its military and family residents,” said Japan District Project Management Branch Chief, Dr. Rex Mols. “We are working toward building complete and comprehensive neighborhoods that go beyond just building a ‘regular’ facility.”

Even before JED’s experienced Engineers roll up their sleeves and break out their protractors, the journey to housing starts with surveys and analyses. Despite the appearance of an over-abundance of housing for servicemembers and families, allocation for space, location, and even style of home is calculated on an estimated family-by-family basis.

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“Typically, there [are] housing requirements and market analysis that determines the military housing requirement for personnel at each installation,” explains Andrew Wright, JED’s Air Force, Army, Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), and Installation Support Chief. “This is then followed by a housing community profile which defines the construction needs by developing a plan for planning, programming, design of improvement, replacement, and construction projects based on the data from the requirements and market analysis – These documents are updated every 3-5 years depending on the service component.”

Military installations and service components, i.e., the U.S. Air Force, Marines, Navy, etc., assess their housing requirements based on the number of personnel stationed at a particular location. This assessment includes considerations such as the size of the military population on the installation, servicemember deployment schedules, and the condition of existing housing facilities.

“These analyses will be conducted by the installations, but also take into consideration the off-base rental housing stock. This is where housing in the continental U.S. typically relies on off-base housing, and only utilizes on-base housing constructed with appropriated funds or using privatization authorities to meet housing demand not satisfied in the local community,” Wright continued. “Outside the continental U.S., in places like Japan, they will fulfill demand on-base first and then utilize off-base rental for housing for what can’t be met on-base.”

An interior look at Sebille Manor, after its renovation, on Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, December 13th, 2023. The military family housing facility, which features over 50 duplexes with a total of 100 housing units, is expected to be finished in Spring of 2024. Deciding on housing and what the interior ultimately looks like, involves collaboration between installations and their service components, architecture and engineering firms who provide a slew of designs, and the installation housing office, who takes collected feedback from servicemembers and their families. USACE PHOTO BY PATRICK CICCARONE

Once the need has been determined, and space has been found, it’s off to the races! JED, or sometimes another contracting entity, will begin a process called a ‘design-bid-build’ where an architect and engineer firm will draft up designs for on base housing based off a multitude of safety, building, and country codes, and what ultimately aligns with what is called the unified facilities criteria, or UFC.

“Some service components, and even some installations, establish their own housing guides, with their own unique standards for housing,” reveals Brian Vencalek, a JED Project Manager for housing renovations at Yokota Air Base. “While most locations share the same set of basic standards, practical considerations like cost and maintenance can often decide what MFH will become.”

Deciding on housing and what the interior ultimately looks like, involves collaboration between installations and their service components, architecture and engineering firms who provide a slew of designs, and the installation housing office, who takes collected feedback from servicemembers and their families. It is a cooperative affair between many cooks.

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Those cooks then pore over the designs provided and attempt to compromise – the goal is to create a housing plan that not only meets the current demand but also considers future growth and changes in military personnel numbers. Additional parameters include determining the size and layout of housing units, longevity of materials used, locally procured fixtures or items, and infrastructure requirements.

“For instance, interior design, materials, and finishes for a housing project will consider life, safety, quality of life, economies of scale, local labor expertise and acquisition,” explained Wright.

It’s after these considerations, to include customer feedback, that construction begins. Not sooner, not later.

USACE design teams work hard to accommodate customer requests that come from the installation housing office but are also limited by budget constraints and work with bases to find solutions to maximize their housing budgets. This can mean things such as refinishing and existing cabinets versus replacing with new.

It’s very similar to those home remodeling shows you see on TV. There’s a budget, and that budget is a hard line, so in the end you’ve got to find a compromise. But in this case, it’s a compromise that others must live with.

Bryan Ciccocioppo, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Japan Engineer District (JED) Okinawa Area Office Area Engineer, explains the renovation process timeline for Stearley Heights, on Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, December 13, 2023. Stearley Heights, a military family housing facility on the 18th Wing, when completed, will be home to senior enlisted, and field grade officers. USACE PHOTO BY PATRICK CICCARONE

For servicemembers and their families in Japan, the inside of family housing is topping the list of areas of consideration. Types of fixtures, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, proximity to schools and work centers, among others, follow as areas of concern.

“Similarly, a requirement demand and analysis will be accomplished for family and unaccompanied housing evaluating a unit grade mix,” Wright said. “The analysis will include [what the requirements are], what is the existing [number of available housing units], and then what is the surplus or deficit.”

Wright assures that among these considerations, the needs for enlisted and commissioned officer housing is just as calculated and non-biased as the rest of the planning process. This analysis ensures that the housing available for enlisted and commissioned officers, fixtures and niceties included, are delegated evenly between the two individual classes.

JED, especially their Okinawa offices, engages in sensing sessions and community town halls, together with servicemembers and their families, in order to better understand the concerns of an installation’s community and their desires of quality-of-life changes.

“Recently, the team participated in two town halls with residents to ensure their feedback was considered during the layout of the floor plans, bus stops, pavilions and playgrounds,” mentioned Mols. “Likewise, the team worked in partnership with the service components to ensure current residents were minimally impacted by the ongoing and future construction.”

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Military family housing is deliberately designed to foster a sense of community belonging and support among its residents. Neighborhood planning includes a mix of housing types, such as single-family homes, townhouses, and apartment buildings. Additionally, there are common areas like parks, playgrounds, and community centers to enhance the quality of life for military families. The goal is to create a home away from home.

It’s not only important to Japan District Engineers to make sure the needs of the community are being met for quality and work purposes, but it’s also personally important to them as well. After all, the same Engineers that are involved in the design process of these homes often end up living in what they’ve designed as well. What better way to understand if what you’d doing works? In a very real sense, for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Japan Engineer District team members, your houses are their houses, and their houses are yours.

“[The goal is that] these will be homes and neighborhoods for our military families,” said Mols. “Homes and neighborhoods that everyone will want and be proud to live in during their tour in Okinawa.”

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