By Tracy Kalytiak
Neeser Construction Inc. built both of Alaska’s Fisher House facilities on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The second Fisher House is a 16-suite, accessible structure with communal kitchen,
dining room, living room, laundry facilities and elevator. It opened in September. Photo by KenGrahamPhotography.com
Helping a child, parent or spouse navigate through treatment of a serious illness or injury can be a costly and distressing ordeal, especially when the people involved are military or veteran families far from home who need a free, accessible place to stay hear a hospital for extended periods of time.
“There’s been a large need for that in Alaska because of the nature of the population Alaska serves, where people come in from out of state or from remote villages, traveling long distances by airplane, and the cost of living being higher here,” said Jim Stonebraker, senior project manager for Neeser Construction Inc.
Framing for the second Fisher House took place in mid-2017. Neeser Construction Inc. completed construction of the custom brick home the following spring,
and it opened in September after landscaping was finished. The home is the fifth Fisher House Neeser has built and the company’s second Fisher House project
in Alaska. Photo by David VanOrd, Neeser Construction Inc.
Meeting a pressing need
Nine years ago, Fisher House Foundation — a nonprofit that provides 5,000- to 16,800-square-foot “comfort homes” throughout the U.S., United Kingdom and Germany — reached out to Neeser Construction and asked the company to build Alaska’s first Fisher House on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, or JBER, in Anchorage.
The medical group at Elmendorf hospital had identified the need and applied to Fisher House Foundation, which has a program in the Secretary of the Air Force’s office. Fisher House Foundation reviewed the application and decided to move forward with an Alaska Fisher House project.
The Maryland-based foundation has built a network of 80 homes away from home on 25 military installations and 34 Veterans Affairs medical centers. It has given more than 368,000 military and veteran families approximately 8.7 million nights’ lodging and saved them more
than $450 million in lodging expenses since the organization launched in 1990.
While Fisher House Foundation underwrites lodging costs at the homes on military bases, the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs own the homes, which each can accommodate 16 to 42 family members in eight to 21 suites. In addition to suites with private bedrooms and bathrooms for families, the homes also feature a communal kitchen, dining room, living room with library, and toys. They are accessible to people with disabilities, and many feature an elevator.
Elmendorf officials initially requested a 20-bedroom Fisher House, but design complications involved in situating a 20-bedroom house near Elmendorf delayed the project for a year, Stonebraker said. A smaller version opened in December 2011.
“It actually got redone to a 12-bedroom house, which was the first (Alaska) Fisher House that was installed, single story,” he explained. “From the time they moved in on that first house, they ran consistently full, (with) unmet needs in the community. It really didn’t take them long.”
Shortly after the original house opened, the need for this type of facility became greater than anyone anticipated, said Jenny Hall, manager of Fisher Houses of Alaska.
“We had more than 2,500 additional nights of lodging needed,” she explained. “Even if the original plan of a 20-bedroom house had been built, it would not have met the need of our community.”
In the meantime, Fisher House and JBER leadership identified temporary quarters at another area of the base where up to 15 families could stay until Neeser could construct a second Fisher House — a two-story, 16-suite home — adjacent to the first. The second Fisher House opened in September 2018.
The foundation is building second and third houses at other installations, Stonebraker said, so construction of a second Fisher House at the Alaska location is not unusual.
Building refuges from Mississippi to Alaska
Not long after Neeser constructed the first Fisher House in Alaska, the foundation asked the company if it could build a 12-bed Fisher House on Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Washington, in 2012, and a two-story 16-bedroom Fisher House at the Vancouver, Washington, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center, in 2013.
Then Neeser built yet another Fisher House on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.
“That’s certainly outside of our normal work area,” Stonebraker said, laughing. “But I guess we’ve done projects in the tip of the Aleutian Chain and the north coast of Alaska that are every bit as hard to get to as Biloxi, Mississippi.”
Neeser completed that Fisher House in 2017 and began construction of Alaska’s second Fisher House midway through the Biloxi project.
“We like building the homes,” Stonebraker said. “They’re very well-designed, well-engineered, solidly built houses built with high-quality materials. Fisher House wants to build them as high-end custom homes, not as institutional hospital-type facilities and they work very hard to maintain that look and feel to them. They don’t skimp — ever — on strength and structural integrity and quality finish materials.”
“We’ve built 175,000-square-foot big-box retail stores in six or eight months in previous years,” Stonebraker said. “We spent a solid year on a 14,000-square-foot Fisher House; it’s because of the detail level and the quality of the finish work that they take longer.”
Both Alaska homes feature snowmelt sidewalk systems around their perimeters, heated with boilers separate from the homes. These systems keep the two homes’ sidewalks, porches and plazas free of ice. And, the houses are landscaped: “They’re like gardens,” Stonebraker said.
Stonebraker said that as they were installing all the structural seismic ties and earthquake strapping during the framing stage, “There was so much of that in there, we were laughingly telling people around the base that if there was ever an earthquake on base, they should run to the Fisher House for shelter.”
Not long after the second Fisher House opened in September, a 7.1 magnitude quake shook Southcentral Alaska on Nov. 30, 2018, ripping roads apart and inflicting hundreds of millions of dollars in damage on homes and businesses throughout the region.
“That house sustained absolutely zero damage of any sort, not even a drywall pop that we’ve been able to find,” Stonebraker said.
‘Designed to calm the soul’
Fisher House Foundation raises funds for ongoing needs for the network of homes, and local Friends of Fisher House nonprofits assist with meeting needs of the local homes.
“Everything about the house is designed to calm the soul during stressful periods of time like that,” said Stonebraker, who thinks so highly of Fisher House’s mission that he joined the local Friends of Fisher House board.
“It’s life-changing and heartwarming what a difference they can make in people’s lives,” he added. “Fisher House has won us over.”
A Coast Guard family living in Valdez found solace at Fisher House during a challenging time: “Fisher House became our home for the tense month leading up to the birth of our son,” the child’s mother wrote, on the organization’s Facebook page. “It continues to be our home away from home as we make the long trek to Anchorage for doctor’s appointments. … The house is enveloped in love, respect and support, and we are so incredibly blessed to now be a part of the Fisher House family.”
Alaska’s first Fisher House, left, completed in December 2011, and its second, finished in 2018, together at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
Photo by KenGrahamPhotography.com
Tracy Kalytiak is a freelance writer from Palmer.