Callantha Brigham travelled to the US in 2009 for her Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship to investigate strategies available to US architects for pro bono and community service work. This article about her findings is reproduced with permission from Architecture Bulletin.
The United States was specifically targeted for this study due to the number and variety of architectural practice models addressing community service needs. Of particular interest was how these models compared with traditional architectural practices, the type of work undertaken, the design quality of the outcome, practice management and ethical issues, funding mechanisms and how economically sustainable the models had proved to be over time. All three practice types are currently active and supported by the American Institute of Architects. Of further significance to the study was a practice note on undertaking pro bono services that had recently been released by the American Institute of Architects1.
Not-for-profit community design centers (CDCs) emerged in the 1960s to provide planning, design and technical assistance to low- and moderate-income urban and rural communities, many of which would otherwise have no access to technical expertise. CDCs differ from traditional architectural practices in that they are registered not for profits, run by a board of directors. Typically multidisciplinary in character, they are guided by a strict code of ethics. Each centre has a local focus and, as a result, they often incorporate architects and a number of other professionals, evolving and changing in function and service over time. While their local specificity makes CDCs hard to broadly define, community design collectively focuses on providing services specific to their local communities that assist to resolve social, economic, political and physical problems of communities. Gulf Coast Community Design Studio is an example of one such centre, established in 2005 to provide assistance to communities affected by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. University-based community studios also emerged during the 1960s, as American universities began to question the value of the traditional studio-based model of teaching.
The community studio differs from a traditional studio in that students are involved in real projects, often with a design-build component lead by practicing architects. These studios suffered a wane in popularity in the late 1980s, until a 1996 report2 released at an American Institute of Architects conference declared that the profession had failed to respond to core concerns of the American public and that the education of architects did not adequately incorporate preparation for an architect’s larger publicservice role. The report’s encouragement of greater civic engagement revived the profession’s interest in community-based studios and by 2000 most architecture schools were offering an opportunity for community-based education.
The provision of pro bono services by traditional architectural practices and individual practitioners is likely as old as the profession itself. Derived from the latin pro bono publico the phrase ‘pro bono’ literally means ‘for the public good’. Unlike not-forprofit practice models, which may be paid through philanthropic gift, or government funding, or, may attract some level of subsidised fee, pro bono services are provided to clients without the provider receiving any financial compensation. While pro bono has been openly provided and supported by other professions—such as medicine and law—for many years, the extent to which pro bono has been provided by architects is undocumented and difficult to ascertain.
Within the US, wider professional uptake and acceptance of pro bono can be traced in part to the establishment of a program known as The 1%, by San Francisco-based not-forprofit Public Architecture3. The premise of the program is simple: if each architecture firm contributed 1 per cent of its time to pro bono activities, the quantitative contribution by the architectural profession to the public interest would be huge. Although the provision of pro bono is not new, what is innovative about The 1% program is its humble ask targeted at collegiate adoption by the mainstream profession. Though ambitious, the appeal has proved successful and to date 941 architecture and design firms have signed up, giving 293,580 hours of community service (at time of printing). The fact that The 1% program brought mainstream (as opposed to “socialist”) architects en masse into community service was significant as it prompted the American Institute of Architects, itself changing in culture and membership, to consider the subject more seriously. In 2007 the Institute celebrated 150 years with 150 projects gifted to the community4, and also amended their code of ethics to include a statement regarding the provision of Public Interest Services. In 2008-09 a practice note on undertaking pro bono services was released.
In reviewing the experiences of the US profession and comparing it to the Australian context, a number of considerations emerged. The most obvious finding cannot be understated: projects delivered by architects, either pro bono, or through not-for-profits, are the same as normal fee-paying projects in almost all respects. Project costs, programs and client expectations need to be actively managed, risks need to be identified, appropriately qualified personnel must be appointed (or adequately supervised), and professional indemnity must be covered.
The ways in which these projects can be different— typically unusual funding arrangements, stop-start programs, a tendency towards ‘inexperienced’ clients, and intensive community consultation requirements—all require greater professional diligence (not less). The ethical, commercial and personal challenges inherent in unpaid work are also significant. In interviewing practitioners a number of stories were relayed of architects who were young and inexperienced being taken advantage of or placed in inappropriate situations, and of diligent, more mature architects taking on too much and being placed under considerable financial strain.
An interesting point of comparison between US approaches and voluntary models in Australia is that most pro bono services in the US were provided as part of an architect’s normal salaried day job, considerably reducing personal financial and time pressures placed on individuals. Providing pro bono and other forms of community service are noble aspirations for individual architects and the profession as a whole, and architects who wish to incorporate these initiatives into their practice should be professionally supported in doing so. The United States experience suggests there are a number of existing strategies for engaging in this type of work, however, there are complex issues involved that require professional oversight and regulation.
Since this study was completed in 2009 the Australian Institute of Architects has released a number of practice advisory notes related to pro bono, in particular, Pro Bono Work and Pro Bono Risk Management Strategies5; likely in response to architect’s assistance during Victoria’s bushfires and Queensland’s flooding. While these notes go some way towards addressing regulatory issues associated with pro bono, broader discussion on some of the specific challenges and opportunities surrounding pro bono and not-for-profit work are important topics for the profession to openly debate. Given the current size of the sector within Australia, there is an opportunity for the Australian Institute of Architects to formulate a committee of relevant parties to take a professional lead in advising on related matters. This would greatly benefit those practitioners either currently engaged, or interested in engaging in this type of work.
Callantha Brigham works at the NSW Government Architect’s Office.
1. American Institute of Architects, Institute Guidelines to Assist AIA Members, Firms and Components in Undertaking Pro Bono Service Activities, American Institute of Architects website, published 17/02/09
2. Boyer, E and Mittgang, L, The Boyer Report: Building Community Through Education, Carnegie Foundation, 1996
5. Refer to Acumen (the online replacement for practice notes since 2009). Thanks to David Springett of the NSW Chapter Committee for undertaking the Acumen search.