Construction underway on Spokane’s first zero-carbon ‘smart home’ for ALS patients

It often costs thousands of dollars for people diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and their families to pay for medical care and retrofit their homes for accessibility.

Nonprofit Matt’s Place Foundation and a group of area businesses are looking to ease that financial burden by building an eco-friendly, state-of-the-art, interactive “smart home” designed specifically for ALS patients and their families to live in while coping with the disease.

“We’re really pushing the envelope on carbon neutral design,” said Andy Barrett, board member of Matt’s Place Foundation. “For Matt’s Place, their audacious goal is to make the smartest home in the world for ALS patients. It’s unique in that standpoint, and then, of course, it’s unique that we’re building these for at-risk ALS patients and families to keep them together.”

Matt’s Place Foundation built its first smart home for ALS patients in 2017 in Coeur d’Alene with assistance from several contractors, builders and subcontractors that donated labor and materials.

The Spokane project, however, is the first ALS smart home to be built with cross-laminated timber.

Cross-laminated timber, made by compressing and gluing lumber boards together to form structural panels and beams, is gaining national attention as an alternative to traditional concrete and steel building materials because of its low environmental impact and design flexibility. It can be made from small diameter trees to create a strong but lightweight building material.

The 2,000-square-foot ALS smart home consists of 13 smaller modules each with a floor, walls and a roof that will be prebuilt and later assembled on site at 1116 E. Francis Ave. to create the two-story property. Construction of the modules is underway at The Toolbox, an innovation center for startups co-founded by Barrett.

The project is estimated to cost about $200,000 after in-kind donations, Barrett said.

Colville-based Vaagen Timbers designed a 3-D model for the home and created cross-laminated timber panels sourced from Vaagen Brothers Lumber, said Russ Vaagen, CEO of Vaagen Timbers.

“The product comes from the Colville National Forest,” Vaagen said. “Not only is this great for an ALS space, it’s also local. It came from logs that were thinned and at a great risk for wildfire.”

Vaagen then sent the cross-laminated timber panels to Vestis Systems at the Toolbox, where insulation and siding will be added to the modules.

“We are trying to do as much in the factory as possible, so when it lands on the job site, they can simply assemble it, tie the whole thing together, and it can become a livable space very quickly,” Vaagen said.

The net-zero energy home will feature natural light, solar panels, an open floorplan on the main level to increase accessibility and family space on the upper floor. It will also include sensors, security features and smart-home controls, some of which can be accessed via smartphone, tablet or with eye-gaze technology.

Because the ALS smart home is designed to be built in modules, it can easily be scalable to meet residents’ needs for more space, said Matt Wild, co-founder of Matt’s Place Foundation.

“If you want to just add on to your house, you can just build a master suite,” he said. “Or you can build the first floor for a couple, and if you have kids, you can add an upstairs like we did on the Spokane house. So, there’s many options of how the package of parts can be sent out.”

Wild, a Marine Corps. veteran, was diagnosed with ALS in 2015.

Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, the progressive, neurodegenerative disease affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control needed to move, speak, eat and breathe. There is no cure for ALS and the average life expectancy after diagnosis is two to five years, according to the ALS Association.

Wild is one of 20% of patients nationwide who have exceeded that expectancy, and he’s dedicated to making a difference.

Shortly after his diagnosis, Wild and his wife, Theresa Whitlock-Wild, founded Matt’s Place Foundation, a nonprofit that supports those with ALS and their families. The organization aims to provide ALS patients and their families with rent-free, ADA accessible homes.

“Matthew and I, we were just dating for a few months when he was diagnosed with ALS,” Whitlock-Wild said. “It really turned our life upside down, and the more people I met, the more I saw and wanted to create places where they could ask questions in a warm environment and get answers.

“I just wanted to create a place where families can get the support they need, because it’s more than just medical,” she said.

Whitlock-Wild said the Spokane area has great medical care with Providence St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Medical Center and Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center.

“But what they don’t help with and what insurance kind of doesn’t help with is remodeling homes, and those are really expensive with ramps and remodels for bathroom accessibility,” she said.

“As (ALS patients and their families) are learning to navigate the disease, they are also trying to find contractors. Right now in Spokane, the building market is booming,” she said. “In 2017, when we built the home in Coeur d’ Alene, it was kind of the same thing. It was just this huge boom that nobody had ever seen. And that’s what we are finding is as these families are diagnosed, they don’t know where to look or how to navigate that on top of all the challenges of this disease.”

Barrett, an entrepreneur and a founding member of Blockhouse|Life – the first residential housing project in Spokane built with cross-laminated timber – joined the Matt’s Place Foundation board in 2017.

“He said, ‘You know, I’m really excited about this new building technique called cross-laminated timber, and let’s see what we can do,’ ” Whitlock-Wild said. “Andy really brought a lot of his network and relationships.”

More than 40 local companies have provided services, materials, time or in-kind donations to the Spokane ALS smart-home project. Some of the contributing companies are Baker Construction and Development, the general contractor for the home; Seattle-based architectural firm Miller Hull; Washington Trust Bank; St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute; and DCI Engineers.

“Baker Construction, Matt’s Place and everyone involved are learning about working with cross-laminated timber panels,” Barrett said.

Because cross-laminated timber is a pre-fabricated material, openings for doors and windows can be precut and added at the manufacturing plant. Insulation and finishes also can be added prior to installation, resulting in quicker construction at the job site.

“Because it’s a kit of parts (construction) goes by fast,” said Vaagen, adding Vaagen Timbers completed a home made of cross-laminated timber near Lake Pend Oreille in about 10 months. “That’s the kind of thing mass timber will allow.”

Barrett estimates the smart home could be complete by February.

The Matt’s Place Foundation goal is to build a smart home model that can be replicated and shipped in modules to help families in need nationwide, Whitlock-Wild said.

“As we move forward, if somebody gets a hold of us and says, ‘We have a backyard, but it’s going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to (build a home),’ the idea is that we could potentially ship this to them ready to go, and so the build process is much faster and streamlined,” Whitlock-Wild said.