The Pro Bono Payoff
Illustration: Viktor Koen

When the Kids of Kathmandu set out to build 50 schools in an earthquake-ravaged area of Nepal last year, the nonprofit group knew it would need some help. So it reached out to SHoP Architects, asking if the firm would donate its services.

“I’m pretty shameless. I always start at the top,” says Andrew Raible, a co-founder of the U.S.-based charity. He admits that SHoP was a long shot—the burgeoning firm is awfully busy these days with high-profile projects, including two supertall skyscrapers in New York. But they said yes. “It was beyond my imagination,” Raible says.

SHoP sent one of its architects to Nepal last October to assess the conditions and has since conceived two prototypes that can be adapted to different sites. The first five schools will open this year.

“It’s a project we really believe in,” says firm partner Kimberly Holden, noting that SHoP designed pro bono a community center in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. “It made a huge impression on us. We’ve been seeking out situations and partnerships where we could do the same thing.”

SHoP’s efforts are part of a commitment among some architects to offer pro bono services. While architects have long been concerned with improving human welfare, the profession has been slow to institutionalize pro bono work. “It’s relatively new,” explains John Peterson, who founded the San Francisco–based nonprofit Public Architecture in 2002 and now heads the Loeb Fellowship program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “Firms are still finding their way and trying to figure out how to best incorporate it into practice.”

The pro bono movement got a boost in 2003 when Public Architecture started the 1% (recently renamed 1+), a program that encourages firms to donate at least 1 percent of their working hours to pro bono service. Acting as matchmaker, Public Architecture offers a website with a list of nonprofits that need architectural services, and another list of firms willing to donate their time. Since the program’s launch, nearly 1,500 firms have signed on, collectively pledging more than $55 million worth of services each year. Projects run the gamut, from retrofitting bathrooms to make them handicap accessible to producing entirely new buildings, from inception to completion.

“We do not police them, though we survey our participants pretty heavily,” says Peterson, currently a Public Architecture board member. The last survey, in 2013, revealed that approximately 20 percent of firms had not achieved the 1 percent goal, which Peterson describes as normal. “Firms get busy and don’t focus their energies on pro bono work,” he says. “They might not do much one year, and then do 6 percent the next.” Architects are notorious for operating on thin margins, and providing free labor might not always be feasible, even when the desire exists.

Firms that do provide pro bono services cite a range of benefits, including boosting staff morale, better-connecting architects to their communities, and paving the way to revenue-generating commissions. The AIA encourages pro bono work in its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, and offers related resources, including a contract document for pro bono work (B106–2010) and guidelines for managing such projects. Moreover, AIA members donate their services through initiatives such as the Regional/ Urban Design Assistance Team program and Disaster Assistance Program.

In recent years, Public Architecture has seen a few trends emerging among pro bono practitioners. For one, firms are offering more than traditional design services. They might help an organization analyze sites for relocation and even help negotiate a lease. “Architects are getting involved earlier and in a different capacity,” Peterson says.

A few years ago, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s (SOM’s) San Francisco office volunteered to help a local nonprofit group, the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), create a vision for a second venue for more-experimental performances (its main home is a grand historic theater). The firm tested various sites and provided design development services, and was later hired to execute the project. The Strand Theater opened last year to rave reviews and is now raking in awards for its design, engineering, and environmental graphics. “A.C.T. is a great organization and a vital part of the city,” says Michael Duncan, FAIA, a design director at SOM. “Being part of the conceptualization of a new venue for them was a great opportunity.”

Getting More Strategic

Firms are also becoming more strategic about pro bono work by performing services that deepen their expertise in a specific market. Take Gould Evans, whose portfolio includes a number of educational projects. Working in partnership with client Rockhurst University, in Kansas City, Mo., the firm launched a program for K–12 students called STEAM Studio, which offers hands-on learning experiences in science, technology, engineering, art, design, and math. Workshops are held at the firm’s Kansas City office, in a mezzanine space that was converted into an “anti-classroom,” as the firm calls it. Staff members and university educators lead workshops on varied topics, such as robotics, coding, and fashion design.

Gould Evans donated the space, and its employees contribute their time both on and off the clock. Devoting resources can be a challenge.

“It’s not easy, I won’t lie,” says David Reid, AIA, a firm principal who oversees the program. But the benefits make it worthwhile. Not only does the program generate goodwill within the community, but it also enables the firm to create better learning spaces. “It gives us a sense of a day in the life of a teacher,” says Reid, “as well as how the designed environment helps impact student engagement.”

Reinforcing a firm’s ethos and boosting employee morale are often cited as reasons for taking on pro bono work. NBBJ, founded in 1943, has long been devoted to philanthropy, with current efforts directed toward education, the arts, and environmental conservation. Each office finds and manages its own charitable projects. Recent efforts include two projects for the Nature Conservancy: a master plan for an eco-campus in Ohio and refurbishing a wetlands information center along the Yangtze River in China.

The firm handles its pro bono undertakings like any other project: It sets up a project number, assigns the right staff members and qualified volunteers, and generates full documentation. The work is both exciting and enriching for the staff, says firm partner Doug Parris, FAIA. “They gain a tremendous sense of investment in their community and the issues we, as a firm, believe in,” he says.

Not Just Big Firms

It’s not just large firms that are providing no-fee services. Mapos, a Brooklyn, N.Y.–based studio with 13 employees, has made charitable work integral to its practice. “Early on, my business partner and I decided to have at least one pro bono project going at any given time,” says Colin Brice, who co-founded the firm with Caleb Mulvena in 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession. With paying work hard to come by, the duo took on a pro bono project for the Third Wave Foundation, which supports youth-led activism. The group explained what it wanted (a new office), and said it could pay $5,000 at most. “We said, ‘That’s ridiculous. Let’s just do it for free,’ ” Brice recalls.

Mapos has no shortage of paying commissions these days, but it has continued to donate its services; most recently it designed an incubator space for entrepreneurs in a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn. Brice says he has never been a big believer in architectural competitions, often organized by developers who want free designs. If his firm is going to donate its expertise, it should be for a charitable cause, and for a project that will actually get built. “We can do something helpful; we can give something back,” he says.

A New Approach

Some firms are taking the do-good philosophy a step further. MASS Design Group, a Boston and Kigali, Rwanda, nonprofit architecture firm, got its start in 2008 when it volunteered to design a hospital in Butaro, Rwanda, for Partners In Health. MASS has since been paid by various agencies and organizations to design schools, medical clinics, and other humanitarian projects in sub-Saharan Africa, Haiti, and beyond. Moreover, the firm just opened a school in Kigali, called the African Design Centre, where it aims to train the continent’s next generation of creative leaders.

In addition to its architectural fees, MASS relies on donations both generous and modest to fund its operations. “I think that all architecture firms could be nonprofits—then we’d be driven by ethics, integrity, and the public good, and not margins,” says firm cofounder Michael Murphy.

The firm’s efforts have earned ample praise from John Cary, a prominent expert on social impact design and former executive director of Public Architecture. “MASS is achieving a level of innovation that goes beyond anything we could have imagined,” he says. In impoverished communities, the firm is building local capacity, which is something the architecture profession has strived for but rarely achieved. “This is next-level stuff,” Cary says. “The bar has been raised.”