Claire Weisz
Sioux Nesi Claire Weisz

As founding partner of WXY Architecture + Urban Design, Claire Weisz, 50, AIA, has steered her small, 15-person firm toward a wide range of multidisciplinary assignments. With projects ranging from a charter school for the arts in the Bronx to police security booths in Brooklyn, as well as regional sustainability plans, New York City–based WXY has honed its skills working with community groups. “Our concentration is architecture in the public realm,” Weisz says. She notes that architects provide important services to this sector—which is why firms that do so require a special business sense. Weisz spoke with architect about the balance between a firm’s practice and a community’s priorities.

More than a niche.
Community groups play many different roles, from supporting education to sustaining the environment. “Their needs are huge,” Weisz says. These groups contribute as much to the economy as their for-profit counterparts, often forming partnerships with private developers to get things done. Community groups serve niche interests that add up to important market sectors. To approach them, it helps to know about finance, economics, and politics. “Think about it in a broad perspective,” she says.

Make it personal.
When choosing projects, content trumps clients. If you’re interested in, say, education, gravitate to that field and develop relationships. “We worked on an adaptive reuse of a remediated brownfield site for a community-development association in the Bronx, which had a broad mission, including arts and education. That led us to look at educational opportunities with them, and eventually we got the project to design a charter school for the arts,” Weisz says. “We knew about it because we saw what was happening in the neighborhood. We followed our interest in how communities impact schools and were already working there.”

Get your foot in the door.
Get involved with an organization at an early stage and offer your services before anything happens. Talk to them to find out what they’re working on. That puts you in a position to see if your skills match what they might need before you discuss working together. Community groups often need planning and design services, from vision statements to concept designs to feasibility studies. And they need consultants who understand how to plan for them. “It doesn’t always result in a building, but you can help them imagine where they can go,” Weisz says.

Walk in their shoes.
Serving on the board or doing volunteer work for a community organization will provide insights into how they work, how fees are structured, and how grants are secured. It’s like being on the client side, Weisz says, even if it’s working in a soup kitchen or organizing a park clean-up campaign. “You get to know them and see things from the perspective of their network.”

Vary your commitment.
Communities need architects for short- and long-term projects. “Even if it’s a quick project, though, we try to develop the relationship because that helps us better understand their mission,” Weisz says.

Adjust your fee.
By raising capital and paying fees, communities and the organizations that serve them function as a part of the economy the way that any company does. But unlike for-profit corporations, there are no shareholders taking the profits. That means that it’s important to set special rates for community groups. “We try to structure fees in a way that makes sense with their economic needs and what they are able to do,” Weisz says. “It also takes into account the fact that these organizations are dependent on grants and philanthropy, and we try to respond to that. Nonprofits have budgets and they want the most value for their budget, like everyone else.”

Go beyond pro bono.
“We do a lot of pro bono, as a firm and individually. We work with disadvantaged communities and organizations on tight budgets. That is the ecosystem we are in,” Weisz says. As architects and citizens, pro bono is one way to be involved directly, she says. But she recognizes that communities and community organizations hire architects in order accomplish concrete goals. Communities respond well to architects who understand them as target driven. “Our work goes beyond a day of volunteering,” Weisz says. “We see nonprofits as clients and partners.”