Inventing the Wheel

With assistance from Norwich students and faculty, Wheel Pad promises to revolutionize the way wounded service-members come home.

By Jane Dunbar,
Photos by Carolyn Bates.

Professor Edwin “Ed” Schmeckpeper regarded the hulk of sheet metal thoughtfully.

The material had arrived on Disney Field late—very late—and his students were restless. For months, they had intellectually, creatively, and physically poured themselves into constructing a portable, eco-friendly, 200-square-foot accessible bedroom and bathroom that was imminently scheduled for public debut at Norwich. This unforeseen delay jeopardized the August 31 deadline they had been working so hard to meet.

And “it had to be ready for that debut,” Schmeckpeper says. “Period.”

So, the seasoned civil-engineering professor simply did what needed to be done: He measured, cut, and wrangled the metal into a serviceable shower stall during the span of a single afternoon.

“Ed’s talent goes beyond the classroom,” says Wheel Pad co-conceptualist Julie Lineberger. Together with her husband, Joseph Cincotta, she co-owns LineSync Architecture in Wilmington, Vermont. Cincotta is the principal architect, and Lineberger, the business manager.

“The act of creating something where there is nothing—it can test a builder’s resolve,” Cincotta says. “Ed has the uncanny ability to do this at a moment’s notice.”
“He’s smart as a whip,” Lineberger agrees, “and he gets things done.”

Schmeckpeper is no stranger to rolling up his sleeves: Prior to entering academia, he worked as a construction carpenter. Today, as chair of Civil Engineering and Construction Management at Norwich University, he strives to offer the same kinds of experiential learning opportunities to students that he has enjoyed in his profession.

As it turns out, this particular learning opportunity proved to be an unparalleled interdisciplinary experience—one whose result ultimately promises to transform lives.

A Serendipitous Meeting

It all started with a chance encounter.

Back in October 2015, Lineberger was pitching their bed-bath unit idea, called Wheel Pad, at the InnovateHER VT competition in Burlington, Vermont. “I was seeking funding to build the prototype,” Lineberger explains. The Wheel Pad concept was inspired by the experience of renowned videographer and family friend, Riley Poor, whose struggle to find accessible housing following a catastrophic injury left him increasingly frustrated and isolated. As the Harvard-educated duo envisioned it, Wheel Pad would easily attach to an existing home with just two extension cords and an insulated hose—offering supportive, temporary housing for individuals confined to a wheelchair.

Lineberger landed a $10,000 grant from the Vermont State Employees Credit Union that day. More importantly, her proposal caught the interest of Norwich electrical and computer engineering professor David Feinauer, seated in the audience. “He introduced himself and said, ‘I think Norwich students should build your prototype,’” Lineberger recalls.

Feinauer knew plenty of undergraduates would be keen for such a hands-on undertaking. He also identified a resonance that neither Lineberger nor Cincotta had considered: Norwich, as a military institution, likely had alumni who could benefit from a concept like Wheel Pad. “It was then that I understood Wheel Pad’s even greater potential,” Lineberger says. (A profile of Feinauer appears here.)

Changing the Way Our Wounded Come Home

The data support Julie Lineberger’s epiphany.

According to the Congressional Research Office, as of June 1, 2015, close to 1,650 military personnel required major limb amputations following overseas deployments. And, statistics previously released by the U.S. Army Surgeon General’s office estimate that 83 percent of those amputations comprise one or both legs. Today, close to 60,000 veterans (including those who served prior to 9/11) are living with spinal-cord injuries. Many are permanently dependent on a wheelchair for mobility. “We would hear stories from families about their sons and daughters languishing in rehabilitation facilities simply because they had no accessible place to go,” Lineberger says. “They couldn’t go home. They couldn’t return to a job. And there is no worse blow to a person’s self-esteem than ongoing isolation and the feeling that he or she can’t be a productive member of society.”

The Paralyzed Veterans of America advises that accessibility fosters independence and confidence, helping accelerate the healing process—both physically and emotionally. The ability to recuperate at home, Lineberger realized, and adjust to a “new normal” in an affordable, temporary space near family and friends, could “revolutionize the way our wounded soldiers come home.”

“This chance encounter with David [Feinauer], and the connections he made for us at Norwich—it was a game-changer,” she says.

The Norwich Model

Which brings us back to Schmeckpeper. Having learned of Wheel Pad from Feinauer, he was eager to introduce the project to his students.
Building the prototype began as a directed study for construction management major Crandall Miller ’16.

Charged with scheduling the job, estimating and procuring the materials, and initiating the fabrication, Miller served as the de facto general contractor and site supervisor throughout the spring 2016 semester. He also helped Schmeckpeper recruit the labor: other students who would work on site, not for pay or class credit, but for the applied skills they would gain, such as reading blueprints. “Let’s face it; in the classroom, we spend more time talking about and pointing at blueprints than anything else,” Schmeckpeper says. “As a student, wouldn’t you rather learn to interpret and implement one in the wild, than sit in a lecture hall?” Given the enthusiastic student response to the project, their unequivocal answer was “yes.” During the course of the eight-month endeavor, dozens of undergraduates majoring in architecture, engineering, and construction management collaborated to help complete the job.

As it turns out, the experience surpassed their expectations. In a move Schmeckpeper describes as rare for professional architecture firms, Lineberger and Cincotta proffered broad latitude on site—trusting students to manage the project budget, suggest process improvements, tweak some designs, and address unanticipated challenges. “They learned how to deal with irregularities—the time and budget constraints inherent in any construction job,” says Schmeckpeper, who maintained a strictly advisory role on the project until the final push for completion. In one instance described by architecture major Joseph Wood ’17, “We needed a custom board fabricated for the exterior, and the supplier kept shipping us the wrong thing, six or seven weeks in a row!” Forced to solve problems like these on their own, Schmeckpeper says, “truly developed the students’ confidence.”

Wood agrees.

After assuming responsibility for the Wheel Pad build and crew from Miller—who graduated in May—Wood “pretty much did a little of everything” on the project. As the only participant with previous experience building houses, he was also no stranger to a construction site. But this was different. “Joseph [Cincotta] is unlike other architects I’ve met,” Wood says. “He would take us to lunch and ask, ‘How’s it going?’ Because he was truly interested in the answer, I felt comfortable mentioning things that weren’t working well. He even implemented some changes I’d suggested to the design. I’m much more passionate about my chosen field as a result.”

With Professor Schmeckpeper’s 11th-hour assist, Wood’s confidence, competence, and determination helped successfully drive Wheel Pad across the finish line. On August 31, 2016, on time and on target, the team unveiled a fully functional prototype now known as the Norwich Model. “This wasn’t a term paper, or a foam-core model we assembled for a grade,” Wood says. “Someone is going to be living in what we built, and it’s going to make their life easier. There’s something very rewarding in that—and you don’t get that in the classroom.”

A Home in Search of a Home

The Wheel Pad made its journey from the Hill to Wilmington, Vermont, last fall, and is yet unoccupied.

Incorporated as a low-income, limited liability company currently seeking B-Corp certification, Wheel Pad L3C will—as Julie Lineberger envisions it—create permanent, livable-wage manufacturing jobs in economically depressed southern Vermont. Until then, she and Joseph Cincotta plan intensive research and development to help refine their prototype for production.

Toward that end, the Norwich Model is available, free of charge, to qualifying families who need short- to medium-term housing solutions for members facing new mobility challenges. In return, recipients agree to actively partner with Wheel Pad, advising Lineberger and Cincotta on improvements to the design. Can you, or someone you know, benefit from this free lease? Apply today on Wheel Pad’s website. Applicants within driving distance of Wilmington are preferred.


DEVELOPMENTS


Headline: Wheel Pad installs first module in Vermont.

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