Public Architecture, a national nonprofit that encourages and facilitates architectural pro bono work, recently released a survey of 350 architecture firms about the pro bono work they have contributed in the past year. Each firm surveyed has committed a minimum of 1 percent of its billable hours to pro bono service in Public Architecture's flagship program, The 1%, which aims to institutionalize pro bono service in the profession.
"The majority of firms are easily exceeding their 1 percent pledge," says John Cary, Public Architecture's executive director. More than half of surveyed firms reported contributing 2 percent or more of their time (in relation to regular fee-based work) to pro bono projects, and 30 percent said they had met their pledge of 1 percent.
Better still, Cary adds, is the degree to which the profession has embraced the ideal. "I think there's growth within the profession, because we're recruiting more and more firms," he explains. "A year ago we had just 160 firms" pledged to The 1%; "now we have 403—some of them huge firms. We think this concept is definitely catching on."
About 85 percent of survey respondents indicated that giving back to the community was their prime inspiration for joining The 1%, while more than 60 percent said bringing architecture and design to underserved communities was their biggest motivation. Even amid the housing crisis and with record-low architecture billings, architecture firms participating in The 1% program are maintaining their commitment to pro bono service.
Although many firms turn to design competitions when paying projects are in short supply as a way to flex their creative muscle or win new projects through public recognition, pro bono work offers a better return on investment, Cary argues. "Imagine what a fraction of the time dedicated to a design competition could do if you put it into a real local community problem and organization," he says.
According to Cary, about half of firms committed to The 1% donate their services to projects that fall within their regular scope of work, while the other half tend to use pro bono service as a way to explore other types of projects. "The second framework is an opportunity for firms to move outside their specialization, which they may do for personal reasons, for a change of space or scale, or to get into markets they're not currently part of," he explains. "But we also think that if a firm has a lot of core competencies, those are great skills and resources to bring to a pro bono client that may have similar needs."
Available staff time and financial constraints place the greatest limitations on the quality or quantity of firms' pro bono work, according to the survey. Sixty-eight percent of firms say social relevance is the most important variable in their choice of pro bono projects. Seventy-three percent say that community benefit would have the greatest impact on increasing the quality or quantity of their firm's pro bono work, and 45 percent indicate that better project opportunities would have the greatest impact.
One of Public Architecture's goals is to link architects and nonprofit clients with projects that allow them to exercise their creative faculties. "Ultimately what architects are looking for and what we're trying to provide are well-informed, ambitious clients. You want them to allow you to do your best work," Cary says. "Part of that may have budget implications, but we haven't gotten too much pushback on the budgets nonprofits have, because it challenges architects to be innovative and creative with materials and design."
The organization has spent a significant portion of its time engaging with nonprofit organizations, awakening them to the idea that the power of design can improve lives. To date, about 174 nonprofits nationwide have registered their facility needs on Public Architecture's Web site, creating an interface for The 1% firms and the nonprofits.
Several firms reported collaborating with high-profile nonprofits, such as Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation working to rebuild neighborhoods in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, as well as long-established organizations, including Habitat for Humanity. "The more we can show that there are really interesting and compelling pro bono project opportunities out there, the more we can get people excited about this and the more we can legitimize pro bono service as a component of architectural practice," Cary says.