Not long after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, David Perkes, AIA, established the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio at Mississippi State University to provide planning and architectural design support for a number of coastal communities in dire need of housing. When colleagues from the East Coast called to ask him for his thoughts on rebuilding in the more recent wake of Hurricane Sandy, his advice was succinct: “Architects can’t do this on their own. Find partners in the community.”

Perkes is among four recipients of AIA’s 2011 Latrobe Prize who will present their research findings in a session called “Public Interest Practices in Architecture” at the 2013 AIA National Convention. Fellow recipients are Roberta Feldman, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Sergio Palleroni, a senior fellow for the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University in Oregon; and Bryan Bell, AIA, executive director of Design Corps, a Raleigh, N.C.–based nonprofit devoted to helping communities through design services. Together, they examined how the architecture profession could grow to directly address societal needs by institutionalizing the nascent field of public interest design. Their research involved hundreds of surveys and interviews directed at architectural professionals to help assess current practices and determine a path forward.

“The last 10 years have been important in collecting evidence of this type of practice, and, certainly, individuals are doing some excellent work,” Bell says. “But now we need to go beyond disparate, individual projects and come up with a systemic solution to make this type of practice achieve greater scale.”

To that end, Bell co-founded the Social Economic Environmental Design Awards to publicize and showcase projects that exemplify “best practices” in public interest design. The 2013 SEED Awards for Excellence in Public Interest Design recognize a number of inspired efforts: a project that created affordable, green modular classrooms in Oregon; the design for what will become the first school—and important community gathering place—in a war-torn region of South Sudan; a community center and affordable housing project designed in the manner of a traditional longhouse on the Puyallup Tribal Reservation in Tacoma, Wash.; and a major waterfront reconfiguration project that will help a crowded and impoverished fishing community in Indonesia. Several other remarkable projects—all community-oriented undertakings—were also recognized.

Indeed, the field of public interest design is most concerned with improving lives through consensus-building and social sustainability. Perkes likens the field to public medicine. “The aim of public medicine is to provide services to a community, especially for those who can’t afford it, but it should also address the underlying causes of illness,” he says. “Likewise, public interest design’s two overlapping efforts are to bring design services to underserved communities and to become more attuned to communities so our professional skills can be applied in a broader sense.”

That’s why it is so important to “find partners in the community and learn how to work with them,” Perkes advised his East Coast colleagues in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. “Public interest design will typically involve securing funding through nontraditional means,” he says. One of the outcomes of the study was the identification of learning objectives that have shaped the recently established Public Interest Design Institute, which provides training in best practices from professionals around the globe. “It’s crucial that we are poised to apply ourselves in the field of public interest design, as it is likely to become increasingly important with the consequences of climate change, among other existing challenges,” Bell says. “And it will bestow on the profession an increasingly meaningful role in our communities.” —Ben Ikenson

Learn more at