Pro Bono Work Gains Traction Among Architects

Survey by Public Architecture, new AIA guidelines point to increased efforts to help local communities, nonprofits, and others.

October 2008
By John Gendall (with permission)

In 2005, The San Francisco nonprofit Public Architecture created The 1%, a program that recruits architecture firms to pledge 1 percent of their billable hours to pro bono work. To date, more than 400 firms have signed up. “When we formed Public Architecture [in 2002] and started looking into ways of doing pro bono work, we found little help within the community, including the AIA”, says executive director John Cary. “That’s one reason we launched The 1%”. However, he adds, “the AIA represents its individual members. We approach pro bono as something that involves the entire firm.”

The 1% released the results of its second annual survey of participating firms in August, revealing the time spent on pro bono, as well as the types of projects and the motivations for, and limitations of, doing such work. More than two-thirds of responding firms reported committing 2 percent or more of their time to pro bono work – the best news from the survey, says Cary. “It really shows the generosity of firms.”

Reflecting this growing engagement with pro bono work, the American Institute of Architects released a draft of pro bono guidelines this summer, inviting members to comment before the AIA board of directors votes on them at year’s end. Whereas groups like the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association have long maintained such guidelines, the AIA did not address the subject until it amended its code of ethics in 2007.

“The institute’s commitment to these guidelines owes a great deal to the success of the AIA 150 Blueprint for America initiative,” says Anthony Costello, Irving Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Architecture at Ball State University and the guidelines’ primary author. For the initiative, part of the AIA’s sesquicentennial celebration in 2007, “hundreds of architects engaged in providing thousands of hours of pro bono planning and design services,” notes Costello.

Cary points out that design is only one aspect of pro bono work: “The list of project firms are involved in really speaks to the ways an architect’s skills can be used, whether it’s sitting on community boards, providing education, or providing architectural services.” And firms of every size are joining in, “from sole practitioners to large, global companies,” says Cary.

HOK is one such global firm. Kenneth Drucker, senior principal and the director of design for the New York office, says, “Our offices typically have at least one pro bono project per year. We work in communities where we have offices, and we like to work with institutions where we have a commitment from one of our employees.”

The next step for the program, says Cary, is “to align our firm recruitments with places that have requested assistance.” To that end, The 1% solicits nonprofits to register when they encounter challenges that could be solved through professional architectural services.

“The growing commitment to pro bono is evident in the phenomenal growth of [The 1%],” says Costello. “We are seeing architects emerging as civic leaders in their communities and changing the commonly held image of the architect as an elitist servant of the corporate or wealthy client.”

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