U.S. Army infantryman Brendan Marrocco was 22 years old when a bomb exploded beneath his vehicle in Iraq on Easter Sunday 2009, causing him to lose all four limbs. Miraculously, he survived, and as the first-ever veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to do so, he’s become something of a national sensation in the years since, successfully undergoing 18 surgeries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he’s been living, and drawing the attention of the New York Times, which published a nearly 5,000-word profile of him last summer.
Today, Staten Island-born Marrocco will lay eyes on his future home: a custom, 3,600-square-foot house in the borough’s Prince’s Bay neighborhood that an army of volunteers has been building from the ground up over the past 11 months.
Building Homes for Heroes, a charity organization that constructs handicapped-accessible homes for some of Iraq and Afghanistan’s most severely wounded veterans, in partnership with the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, will be unveiling the just-completed 498 Holton Avenue property at a ceremony today. (Note: correction appended).
Marrocco’s story aside, the home itself promises to be an architectural and technological marvel. Among its many special features: an EZ-pass-like door entry system that allows access to Marrocco, who is learning to use prosthetics but is still wheelchair-bound, via a sensor; an iPad-controlled heating and air-conditioning system (the same iPad also controls the television and fireplace, and works off-site as well); wheelchair-height kitchen cabinetry and appliances, including a self-opening and closing microwave; automated sensor lighting, so that Marrocco won’t have to fumble with light switches; and an electric heat mat beneath the pavers in the front and back of the house, so that snow will melt automatically and Marocco never has to worry about shoveling.
Building Homes and the Stephen Siller foundation purchased the land for $400,000, mortgage-free, and have received some $400,000 in donated materials and labor to build the three-bedroom, three-bathroom home, which overlooks Raritan Bay. Including the estimated costs of donated labor, construction totals were close to $1 million.
“I’m gonna hear people say that’s crazy, and my argument is gonna be, well it’s crazy not to do everything we can,” said Andy Pujol, Building Homes’ founder.
Pujol said more than 2,000 people from all 50 states have been involved with the project in one way or another, including some bold-faced names, like actors John Voight and Gary Sinise, who played wounded veteran Lieutenant Dan in “Forrest Gump,” and Fox Business anchor Liz Claman, who has been among Building Homes’ most active and passionate volunteers, advocating for the charity to her many deep-pocketed Wall Street contacts. Claman plans to attend today’s unveiling, and is bringing her nine-year-old daughter.
Marrocco is still recovering and won’t be moving in immediately, but when he does, the organization has tried to give him the best chance “to live life the way we live it,” Pujol said.
A cancer survivor who came up with the idea for Building Homes after volunteering on the Ground Zero search and rescue team, Pujol is also a Long Island-based air freight transportation executive by day, though he said he spends around 30 hours per week running the charity.
Including the Marrocco house and three more that are currently under construction, the organization has built nine homes thus far, five of which were ground-up construction and four of which were retrofitted to meet the veterans’ needs. Homes typically cost between $300,000 and $350,000 to construct; the Prince’s Bay project was an exception because of Marrocco’s special needs and because of the price of New York City real estate.
Pujol, who has learned to run what he says is essentially a non-profit construction company along the way, hopes to reach out to the real estate industry for funding and donations in the coming years as the volume of projects increases. Next year, he said the organization plans to complete eight homes for an estimated total of between $3 million and $4 million, and hopes to do 10 per year in the years thereafter.