Student veterans returning from the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq with emotional or physical disabilities now have a haven at the Chez Family Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides this specialized facility where veterans live and receive support services. These veterans are earning degrees that might have been out of reach without access to the center.


Commercial Electric Inc., Mattoon, Ill., built the electrical system at the center, which opened to students in fall 2015.


A helping hand


The University of Illinois has a long history of serving U.S. veterans. Following World War II, the university developed a program to aid returning disabled veterans at a specialized residential facility with support services in Beckwith Hall. That program still operates today.


Over the years, as the population evolved with fewer war veterans, it began serving civilian students who enter the university with a wide variety of physical disabilities that require support of a specialized staff. This program is now managed by the Division of Disability Resources and Education Services. The Beckwith program has helped thousands of students with disabilities earn degrees and find professional employment.


The college wanted to address the challenges faced by veterans who returned from Afghanistan and Iraq and may need special counseling services and accommodations to complete their education. Rather than incorporating them into Beckwith Hall, the College of Applied Health Sciences proposed building a new structure dedicated to the unique needs of current veterans.


“Nationally, we are seeing an increase in veterans returning to college,” said Bill Goodman, University of Illinois associate dean for administration at the College of Applied Health Sciences. “We believed a new approach was required to assist in their re-entry to their communities.”


Wounded veterans have different needs than those of other students, including addressing post-traumatic-stress issues and injury-related disabilities.


According to its website, the Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education “provides a range of support services aimed at empowering student vets with disabilities to realize their potential through educational experience and to prepare them to lead fulfilling, meaningful and independent lives. This is accomplished through a combination of educational innovations, research and a dedicated staff of counselors and specialists committed to the program. The center caters specifically to each wounded veteran’s physical, emotional and academic needs.”


The facility features academic tutoring, courses in the transition from military life to student life, counseling on how to use VA benefits and the GI Bill, and psychological therapy for dealing with trauma. The center also provides counseling for families of wounded veterans and specialized assistance with career counseling and searches.


“One of the design goals for the project was developing an accessible environment,” Goodman said.


Getting to work


Construction planning began in 2009. At that time, college representatives visited veteran services programs at other universities and inaugurated a fundraising campaign. They received a $4 million grant from the state and $10 million from private donors. The building is named for the lead donor, the Chez Family Foundation.


In addition to Commercial Electric, the university employed Chicago architectural firm LCM Architects to design the facility as well as Champaign, Ill.-based general contractor Broeren Russo Construction Inc.


Commercial Electric has provided electrical installations in Illinois since 1969. It offers new construction plus commercial and residential services, plumbing and drain cleaning. Its telecom division designs and installs low-voltage systems.


The center is located in a busy residential area on campus, so staging space was limited. Also, the deadline was relatively short, said Mark O’Dell, president, Commercial Electric.


Commercial Electric came on-site in March 2014 and worked until June 2015. At peak, 10 workers were on-site at once. The company ran a total of 300,000 feet of cable—including 15-kilovolt medium voltage, 600-volt, and low-voltage systems cabling—in conduit above accessible ceilings.


Commercial Electric also installed a 175-kilowatt exterior diesel generator with multiple automatic transfer switches. It provides redundancy in the case of a power outage. The company installed 500 lighting fixtures, and it built one main electrical unit substation room, an emergency power electrical room and three electrical closets—one on each floor.


Each of the building’s three floors has a specific function. The first floor hosts a lobby, offices and classrooms. The second is for counseling and career services support. The third is dedicated to specialized residential support.


The company modified its work to adapt to the building’s functions in a few ways. To accommodate residents in wheelchairs, electricians installed all switches, fire alarm pull stations and access control devices at 42 inches above the floor. The building’s elevators have accessible controls for users to easily select their floor and operate other buttons.


Commercial Electric also installed a complete access control system with rough-in for a camera system, which was installed by the University of Illinois. Commercial Electric ran cable for an instructional kitchen and dining area and for a student lounge on the first floor. The kitchen is customized to accommodate individuals with disabilities so that they can easily reach appliances. The kitchen now supports cooking and nutrition classes.


The power and lighting installed on the other half of the first floor serves a counseling wing with offices for a clinical psychologist and an area for family counseling. Lighting was also installed in a family waiting room and in playrooms for children of veteran families.


The first floor has a classroom that seats about 25 people. Commercial Electric installed lighting and low-voltage power for computers and audiovisual equipment. An adjacent computer lab where students learn general skills and specific software applications has similar low-voltage wiring.


On the second floor, the counseling and treatment offices feature standard lighting and low-voltage power for examining rooms, medical staff offices and a fitness area. The wellness area has strength conditioning equipment for disabled users. 


In the 14 residential rooms on the third floor, Commercial Electric installed accessible switches and outlets. The rooms have SureHands lift and care systems to help students get in and out of beds, showers and toilets.


The lighting comes with controls that allow them to be dimmed to accommodate people for whom traditional lighting is too harsh, Goodman said.


Automated door locks are designed so that the door doesn’t just unlock but actually unlatches, so students don’t need to turn handles to enter. They just hold an ID badge against the reader on the door, and, if they are authorized, the door swings open. Commercial Electric installed the card reader, electric door operators and electric door-strike systems.


No wiggle room


One of the key challenges for the project was meeting strict deadlines, Goodman said. The building needed to be open in fall 2015 to accommodate the first class of students, and there was no room for delays.


“I know with some projects, occupants can be moving in while the contractor is still moving out,” he said.


That was not something that could be done on this project. In fact, the keys were turned over on time, and three students moved into a fully completed facility that first year. From that time, it has been filled to capacity, Goodman said.


Since the center opened, registered students and faculty members are participating in research focused on veteran’s issues that is intended to enhance the quality of veterans’ lives and the lives of their families. As such, the center is becoming a place to explore innovative methods to aid veterans with disabilities as well as develop new assistive technologies.


Since the completion date could not be adjusted, teamwork was imperative.


“Our project management team of company vice president Dominic Ruholl, job site foreman Mark Creed and the electricians from IBEW 601 were able to work together with other trades to meet the schedule,” O’Dell said. “We’re proud of how our team performed under the daily stresses of a cramped site and tight schedule to complete this one-of-a-kind facility.”