Every year, architecture firms and practitioners receive requests for pro bono or reduced-fee work. Typically, these inquiries come from communities, churches, nonprofit organizations, and the like—sources who genuinely cannot afford to pay market rates. Unfortunately, very few firms have institutionalized ways to field and respond to these requests, much less execute the projects to the same level of quality as their regular work.
Within our own firm, Peterson Architects, we discovered—as most architects do—that our pro bono work was "catch-as-catch-can," slipped in between paying work. Also, our appetite for these types of jobs was simply greater than what our for-profit firm could carry. And we knew our situation was hardly unique.
As we thought about structuring our own pro bono practice and public-interest efforts, we explored the ways other architects do so and how the profession as a whole supports this kind of work. In our observation, commitment by architecture firms is erratic, there is little or no recognition of these efforts, and existing pro bono services often suffer in quality from lack of understanding and support. While many individual firms are quite generous, the profession as a whole has not recognized pro bono service as a fundamental obligation of professional standing--or as an integral component of a healthy business model.
Two years ago, our firm incorporated a dedicated nonprofit organization called Public Architecture, which puts the resources of architecture in the service of the public interest. We act as a catalyst for public discourse through education, advocacy, and the design of public spaces and amenities.
Rather than waiting for clients or funding, Public Architecture both identifies and solves practical problems of human interaction in the built environment. Our first three design projects, which were initiated under the auspices of Peterson Architects, include an open-space strategy for former light-industrial urban areas, a shelter for day laborers, and an accessory dwelling unit, the next step in the evolution of the suburban landscape. Each of these is being conceived as a prototype for adoption in other cities across the country, a criterion for every project that Public Architecture undertakes.
In an effort to engage our peers and develop a more pronounced culture of pro bono service within the profession, we recently launched a national campaign called the 1% Solution, which challenges architects to contribute a minimum of 1 percent of their working hours toward public-interest efforts. One percent of the standard 2,080-hour work year equals 20 hours annually, which represents a modest—but not trivial—contribution to the public good. If all members of the architecture profession were to contribute just 20 hours per year, the aggregate contribution would approach 5,000,000 hours—this is the equivalent of a 2,500-person firm working full time for the public good.
Some portion of this potential contribution is, of course, already being made. Our research suggests, however, that current contributions are most often made by smaller firms (fewer than 15 members), which limits not only the quantity of the profession's overall contribution but also—due to the concentration of specialized expertise in larger firms—its quality. And, for both legal and financial reasons, some architects make efforts to stay away from pro bono service altogether.
Historically, there are several explanations for architects' reluctance to assume what we believe to be a fundamental obligation of a licensed professional. Compared with the fields of medicine and law, architecture's principal professional organization, the AIA, has made only a vague commitment to public-interest service. While American Bar Association (ABA) guidelines specify 50 hours of carefully defined pro bono service per attorney per year (2.5 percent of the standard work year), the AIA "Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct" merely suggests, "Members should render public-interest professional services and encourage their employees to render such services." This standard has little practical effect on the commitment of AIA members and has no effect on nonmembers.
Liability concerns, in particular, make architects hesitant to donate their services. A licensed architect is both professionally and personally liable; his or her personal assets cannot be protected by incorporation. As we have discovered in our own for-profit practice, municipalities and other potential recipients of pro bono services are often loath to negotiate language that would establish a reasonable balance between reward and risk. Their suspicions come in part from finding themselves in an unfamiliar situation and with little outside support. Accordingly, with the assistance of Long & Levitt, LLP, who are providing pro bono legal services for Public Architecture, the 1% Solution will provide examples of user-friendly language that will help remedy this understandable impediment.
We believe firms have much to gain from carefully coordinated public-interest efforts and pro bono service. With respect to economic swings, for example, engaging in pro bono work can help dampen fluctuations in staffing. It enables firms to explore new project types and serves as a strong public relations and recruitment tool.
The 1% Solution addresses commitment, support, and recognition, and will significantly increase the quantity and quality of architectural service in the public interest. By making such work a regular part of architectural practice, the 1% Solution will enhance the profession's engagement with the community, correcting a widely perceived gap between the two. Documenting model efforts of public-interest practice will help increase the effectiveness of architects' contributions to society. And by demonstrating the value of architectural services, the 1% Solution will increase awareness of design in the built environment.
John Peterson, founder and chairman of Public Architecture, is principal of Peterson Architects in San Francisco.
Public Architecture's executive director, John Cary, Associate AIA, and senior advisor, Tim Culvahouse, AIA, contributed to the research and writing of this article.