Public Benefit Architecture

Posted by paul on Jun 21, 2011 under

The value of good architecture is not limited to energy savings; community and humanitarian concerns are also being addressed through creative architectural design.  Community Design Centers (CDCs) seek to involve community members and users in a “participatory design” process.  One example of a successful CDC is the Rural Studio, an Auburn University program that involves students in both the design and construction of private homes, businesses and public facilities in rural Hale County, Alabama.  Humanitarian interests are at the center of the work of organizations such as Architecture for Humanity which focuses on disaster relief and design work in developing countries.  Through an innovative “open-source” design process where designers donate their services, Architecture for Humanity has fostered the development of volunteer chapters around the world.  And this is just part of an emerging commitment to volunteer or pro bono work in the architectural field.

Pro Bono Architectural Services

Buildings often reflect the purpose they serve, and the success of an organization or business is intimately connected with properties of the space it occupies.  This is as true for not-for-profit organizations as it is for for-profit businesses.  Not-for-profit organizations often provide essential services in communities large and small, yet can struggle for funding.  Capital expansion – such as constructing or repurposing the space they work in – can be beyond their means.

The 1% Program

The importance of appropriate facilities to nonprofit organizations and the difficulty many organizations face in this regard has led to the development of the 1% Program which pairs public benefit nonprofits with leading architectural firms who contribute their services on a pro bono (literally, “for the public good”) basis.  Through this program context-appropriate design services are made available where they often wouldn’t be otherwise.

The 1%Program is a nationwide campaign launched by the national nonprofit design firm Public Architecture in 2005.  It encourages architectural firms to donate 1% or more of their time to public benefit pro bono projects.  Through a website, the 1% Program “connects nonprofits in need of design assistance with firms willing to give of their time.”  So far over 750 firms have pledged 1% or more of their time to doing pro bono work, a figure representing over 250,000 hours and an estimated $25 million in donated services annually.

Public benefit nonprofits in rural areas can participate in the 1% Program as easily as nonprofits located in more populous areas.  To begin the process all they need to do is visit the 1% Program website.  However, because this is a serious commitment of time, resources and expertise on the part of the participating design firms, it’s important for a nonprofit to have a good understanding of how the design partnerships facilitated by this program work.


In his book about this program, The Power of Pro Bono, John Cary (who served as Public Architecture’s executive director from 2003 to 2010) offers guidance to nonprofits considering participating in the 1% Program.  Below are some of the helpful guidelines his book offers:

“Nonprofits do not have to know everything that they want out of their facilities before they begin, but they do need to commit to asking and answering some fundamental questions:  Where are they going as an organization?  What are their immediate and future needs?  What are the obstacles, physical and otherwise, that will limit progress?  What are the steps necessary to overcome these limitations?  What is a realistic timeline?  Designers can interpret and help nonprofits… answer these questions.  Likewise, designers involved early in the process can help identify resources and suggest ways that design can be a powerful tool to achieve the client’s goals.

“It is important for the… users of the facility to articulate the trajectory and ambitions [for the new building].  Designs that anticipate this evolution will lead to a space solution that stands the test of time, particularly if it is adaptable.

Getting ready for a project means taking an honest look at an organization’s resources.  A pro bono client’s board and staff need to assess whether or not they have – or can secure – the financial and other resources required to build and maintain the project.  Pro bono clients can work with their architects to formulate schedules that will allow time to raise the funds. 

“New buildings… offer opportunities to energize current donors and engage prospective partners.  Project milestones can be used to develop corresponding fund-raising strategies that actively involve donors in each construction phase.  People naturally gravitate to dynamic organizations where positive change and growth are afoot.  Tangible, physical advances get donors invested in the development of [a project in ways other methods don’t]. 

“Before the project is under way, a pro bono client should work with its firm to determine the value of its donation.  The investment of time and the estimated valued of the donated services should be agreed upon by both parties and should reflect the scope of work and the goals of the project.  The single most important thing that nonprofits can do to help ensure a successful project is to develop a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities of each party.  It is strongly recommended that this agreement be in writing, and some states even require written agreements on pro bono projects.  It is also important to reach an understanding of who will cover what are traditionally reimbursable expenses for design firms (printing, models, travel, etc.), which involve out-of-pocket expenses.  Pro bono clients and firms should also develop contingency plans, outlining who will cover costs in the event work exceeds budget.

“Given that they are donating their time and professional services, in their contracts, firms may ask for reasonable conditions that can assist them in reducing their liability.  Basic issues such as scope of services, waiver of claims, indemnification, reimbursement, cost overruns, copyright, and terms of termination may be addressed in a contract proved by the firm offering its services.  All contracts should be reviewed with the client’s board and legal counsel, and many law firms can provide such services.

“Design firms are there to apply their knowledge to help nonprofits meet their goals.  At every stage of the project, the firm and the pro bono clients should understand that the potential pros and cons associated with their joint design choices.  The firm’s donation should not be considered limitless, however.  Even if the work is being done gratis, pro bono clients should expect to receive invoices on a regular basis noting time spent and the valued of the donation.  They can use the invoices to track where they are in the budget and the services that are being provided.

“In pro bono relationships, it is extremely important for all parties, but particularly the staff and members of the nonprofit, to offer thanks and recognition to those providing assistance.  The architects donating their time deserve to be treated like any donor at a comparable level.  Press and public acknowledgments, as well as invitations to programs and events, are but a few ways to highlight a firm’s contributions.  In many of the projects feature in this book the architects have gone on to act as board members for the organization they assisted.”

Working with Architects

Elsewhere in his book The Power of Pro Bono John Cary explains the architectural process, useful to nonprofits considering their first building or expansion project:

“Architecture and design professionals sometimes use specialized terms, foreign to those outside the design bubble, to describe the phases most architectural projects go through: pre-design, conceptual or schematic design, design development, construction documents, and construction administration.  In the simplest of terms, pre-design is the moment to assess the needs of a client, understand the group’s ability to raise money, and build the support it needs.  Conceptual or schematic design is where those needs start to take shape, often with sketches, diagrams, renderings, or even models, which can become useful tools in capital campaign, for example.  Design development is when issues like the size of rooms and types of materials are determined, while construction documents look at those decisions down to the smallest detail.  Construction administration is the role an architect assumes when a contractor brings the design to life.”