Chris Lake Photography

For several years now, John Syvertsen, FAIA, has been leading efforts within his Chicago firm to renovate and update what he calls “The Department of Good,” also known as his architecture firm’s public interest and pro bono efforts.

“We need to reposition this work,” says Syvertsen, a senior principal at Cannon Design (whose Chicago office was the separate firm OWP/P until 2009). “The cost becomes not so much a matter of how we pay for it, but how we maximize the ability to make an impact. The cost is effort and the pay is impact.”

Syvertsen believes that socially engaged design shouldn’t be treated as a feel-good between-assignments nicety, but should be thoroughly integrated into the practice of architecture. His attitude taps into the zeitgeist among architects and other designers who feel social impact is an essential part of the profession. As a board member at Archeworks, a 19-year-old multidisciplinary postgraduate education program in Chicago that emphasizes public-interest design, Syvertsen has spearheaded “New Practice and Civic Innovation,” a series of seminars on developing a higher-level model of pro bono work.

“There’s a feeling that you can’t relegate this kind of work to a one-off or [see it as] ancillary to the core business,” says Susanne Schnell, Archeworks’s executive director. “There is a great desire among younger designers to make it part of their core business, and we want to respond to that.”

Archeworks received a 2012 Graham Foundation grant that helps fund the discussions and will help it to develop its next step: a public forum about the concept. Schnell sees that as a crucial piece of the project, because exposing the concept of integrated, socially engaged design to the larger population—in particular, the sorts of community groups and institutions that could benefit from large-scale thinking about design interventions on their behalf—gets out the word that architecture firms and other design professionals can bring their expertise to tackle civic problems.

Let’s say a community group approaches an architecture firm about activating a vacant lot. As a one-off or short-term project, Schnell says, a practice might design an appealing solution for that lot. But when a firm takes on the challenge of looking at the bigger picture of urban landfill and soliciting the help of people in other disciplines, the result might be more like a neighborhood-wide approach to redeploying numerous vacant lots as a new social resource—such as a series of gardens or parks—over the course of several phases, Schnell says.

The integrated approach is also timely, both because younger architects and other designers want it, and because the current economic climate makes it compelling. “Junior staff really have a huge appetite for socially engaged design,” Schnell says. “They understand that they’re in a business, and they want to understand how to balance the pragmatic needs of running a practice with the desire to make a sustainable difference with their work.”

Syvertsen concurs, and furthermore says that firms can reap rewards from elevating pro bono work to a higher status within the firm’s framework. The young architects who work on these projects, he says, get hands-on training in developing, managing, and budgeting a project. In a sense, he says, it amounts to a kind of mentoring. “And that has implications for your recruitment and retention,” he says, “because there’s an increasingly large number of people coming out of school who have the expectation that the firm will support this type of work.”

That’s especially important during economic recoveries like the current one, he says. “The need is greater when bottom lines are pinched,” he says. “But from the firm’s standpoint, it keeps workers working and engaged.” —Dennis Rodkin