When Leroy Street Studio co-founders Marc Turkel, AIA, and Morgan Hare volunteered to perk up the public spaces of a tenement building in a rough Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood nine years ago, they couldn't have imagined it would eventually lead them to establish a parallel nonprofit called Hester Street Collaborative. The former Yale classmates worked with a group of artists, sculptors, and tile makers to transform a dilapidated lobby and courtyard into a place of inspiration. But the real revelation came six years later, when the architects revisited the Community Courtyard and found it perfectly preserved, though packs of dogs still roamed the streets. “The sense we had was that people really looked after their space,” Turkel remembers.

Several years later, their high-end residential firm outgrew its Leroy Street brownstone and moved to Hester Street in Chinatown, where the architects came face-to-face with their next pro bono opportunity. Directly across the street sat M.S. 131, a penitentiarylike middle school that inspired Turkel and Hare to develop an art and architecture curriculum for the students. The design/build classes culminated in a school-improvement project, and thus was born Leroy Street Studio's nonprofit arm. “We thought there was a niche for architects on projects with a limited budget, where it's hard to bring that extra layer of joy,” Turkel explains.

Doing good is nothing new in design circles. Many architecture firms regularly waive or reduce their fees for work with underserved clients. But in the quest to become more socially relevant, a handful of architects are working strategically outside the bounds of traditional practice. They're creating 501(c)(3) organizations as a formal means for initiating design discussions across disciplines, making sure the right questions get asked and, in some cases, forming the necessary political connections to change entrenched bylaws and practices. In short, architect-run nonprofits represent a shift to broader entrepreneurial thinking about how design can solve social, economic, and environmental problems.

As a result of Leroy Street Studio's dispersed creativity, the design/build curriculum has morphed into Ground Up, an educational design/build program slated for rollout in several New York City schools. In a separate community project, a stroll down the Lower East Side's Allen Street—recently co-named Avenue of the Immigrants—reveals the names of 35 people and places that are part of the neighborhood's cultural history. And money is being raised to design libraries for needy schools, among other ventures. Even Turkel and Hare hadn't foreseen the extent to which the melting-pot nonprofit would deepen their existing practice. Although Hester Street Collaborative consists of full-time executive director Anne Frederick and several paid interns, Leroy Street Studio's 20 staff members move fluidly between the two offices as time allows. (They occupy separate floors in the same building.) Some of the firm's for-profit clients have become Hester Street board members and beneficiaries, and the traditional practice attracts A-list employees because of its rainbow of work.

taking the initiative

“I think there's a new energy around the desire to affect more complex issues,” says John Peterson, AIA, principal, Peterson Architects, San Francisco. “The more inclusive view of architecture's role in the community—that feels quite new to me.” He is an example of this new breed of architects. Disenchanted with the lack of follow-through on city-sponsored design competitions, Peterson's office initiated a design solution in its own backyard, adding to the light-industrial South of Market district a series of outdoor public spaces that serve the emerging mixed-use neighborhoods. That project grew into Public Architecture, the nonprofit he founded in 2002.

“After we proposed this open-space strategy we thought, ‘Why aren't more people doing it?'” he recalls. “We realized there wasn't an organization that supported this type of thing—sending design professionals out into the world to identify projects. As designers we're sitting here waiting for the phone to ring. A lot of problems are not being addressed because agencies have no engagement with them.”

In this case, it was a matter of making small changes to local conditions, like widening the sidewalks in discrete locations to create landscaped nooks where people could sit outside and have a snack. The firm then looked for partners willing to be stewards of that space. The first build-out will be in front of a Laundromat and café. Because the Laundromat has late hours, its management will take in the tables and chairs at night. Peterson says Public Architecture's intent is to create prototypes other cities can use to solve similar problems. “We knew this was a problem in every major city,” he explains. “How could we solve it systemically and use it to start the conversation in other urban areas? Every project we take on needs to be a model for places other than the specific site.”

In all of these efforts, architects are using skills they've developed in their mainstream practice. In San Francisco, for example, every project that changes the streetscape is scrutinized by planning officials and neighbors, so Peterson's firm has refined its political savvy with each new job. “The city's been very supportive of much of what we've been interested in,” he says of the relationship. “It sounds motivational speakerish, but it takes a tremendous amount of patience and persistence” to effect change. It also requires an interest in all things nonprofit, he adds—from participating in popular culture to financing and fundraising. “We're coming up on four years,” he says, “and I would have guessed we'd be a lot further along.”

Indeed, architects starting this sort of revolution face a common conundrum: how to divide their time, and how to keep the 501(c)(3) from siphoning energy and profits from the existing firm. Peterson doesn't track his time on Public Architecture—he doesn't want to know—but he's guessing that some weeks it takes 75 percent of his time, some weeks, 25 percent. “It needs to be a more healthy accommodation,” he admits. “For someone who runs a practice, that's craziness.”

Gathering financial sustenance is a big part of any nonprofit effort. At Hester Street Collaborative, executive director Frederick oversees the grant process, but the learning curve is steep. Turkel says the work is “seriously subsidized” by Leroy Street Studio, which pays its rent and soft costs. It's a similar story at Public Architecture, which has with its for-profit sibling what Peterson calls a “parasitic relationship.” Despite a plethora of funding sources —foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, architecture firms, and a recent $50,000 grant from a paper company—with deeper pockets Public Architecture could easily triple in size.

Even when nonprofits are independent on paper from a founder's traditional practice, the business strategies may blur. Peterson unequivocally counsels design professionals to use pro bono work to promote their firms, and yet, he is skittish about the perception that his firm might use Public Architecture as a vehicle to make more money. “I've never been paid a cent for Public Architecture; I don't even get reimbursed for my travel expenses,” he says. “We're asking people to give us money, and if there were some suspicion that the money was making its way into my pocket, people would be less interested in supporting us.” Running the daily operations instead are two salaried staffers who are trained as architects—John Cary and Liz Ogbu—and an assortment of paid interns. But for now, Peterson's payoff is professional recognition and a growing expertise in larger-scale public work. Since founding Public Architecture, he's been asked to lecture at universities; he also was awarded a 2005–2006 Loeb Fellowship from Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. “They weren't interested in me because of my cute little firm,” he says of his selection, “but because of the nonprofit.”