New Haven Habitat houses

Why Architects Don’t Do More Pro Bono Work

Public Architecture is a great organization: for 14 years this San Francisco-based organization has been a catalyst for architects who wanted to do pro bono work, using the organization’s “1%” program (now renamed “1+”). The recession was not kind to Public Architecture—the group last had an executive director in 2010—but it was harder on Architecture for Humanity, another San Francisco based architecture-focused pro bono organization founded in 1999, which failed a year ago, morphing into the Open Architecture Collaborative.

The net-net of the “1+” effort of Public Architecture sadly reflects the lack of a professional focus on a sustained pro bono ethic. There are over 20,000 architecture firms in America; 1,500 are members of the “1+” program, including my office. Even in this post recession economy architectural billings are over $30 billion, and the self-reported value of “1+” annual donated fees is $56 million, meaning the “1+” share of donated services was not quite .02%. A fraction of the fractional goal.

The AIA published “Guidelines” for pro bono work in 2010, a dedicated contract for pro bono services, and partnered with Public Architecture a year later to encourage more of it. But for an organization spending enormous effort in the causes of branding, sustainability, diversity and the jealous guardianship of the rights and privileges of licensure, it’s telling that advocating for the right of anyone to have access to design services is not higher on the AIA’s radar. Why?

Architecture is one of the four nationally defined and state licensed professions that have legal liability for incompetence, and a corollary ethical responsibility for social welfare and safety. Doctors and engineers can kill you when they err (lawyers can too, but only in extreme circumstances). The consequences of the lack of design services for those who cannot afford them is trending solely to built-world ugliness in a profession that tends to judge its excellence in purely aesthetic terms.

Money typically follows values. The French-founded Doctors Without Borders has a $750 million dollar annual budget. Legal Aid in the U.S. has over $400 million in federal funding, even after a decade of cuts. The budgets of Public Architecture and the AIA’s “Knowledge Resources” dedicated to pro bono work, are minuscule fractions of these large-scale commitments.

Architecture’s pro bono gap is one example of our profession’s inherent schizophrenia and problematic cultural value.


I’d argue that architecture’s pro bono gap is one example of our profession’s inherent schizophrenia and problematic cultural value. “The mother of the arts” creates buildings—that involves nerdy, gritty things like gravity, weather, budgets and codes, but also human things like neighborhoods, communities, and the values of its users. But the art of architecture should reflect the potential for inspiration, innovation and joy of aesthetic expression.

The problem is that precious little of our collective product lives up to the potential of all of these design criteria. When projects have budgets so small they cannot afford to pay a designer, it’s even harder to make a creative difference and ethically serve the needs of the users and the culture of their community.

Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that architecture schools have led the way with any number of feel-good signature devotions: as free student labor affords buildability to pro bono design. The late Sam Mockbee founded the Rural Studio at Auburn and it has has responded to extreme local needs with incredibly creative designs. The Yale Vlock Building Program has served local housing needs for 30 years. Studio 804 at the University of Kansas has created any number of good works. But these hot-house tomatoes in the academic terrarium are not scalable to the harsher world.

Architect Magazine noted  in 2013 that 90% of the “Top 50 Firms” donate over 2.1% of their billable work product in pro bono work. But even if a “large” firm has but 20 or more on staff, they represent less than 10% of architecture practices, and are, by necessity, in major urban centers. The wherewithal of the large firm to provide largesse is an obvious facilitation for pro bono work. Where does that leave the small firms?

During recessions small firm architects troll for work, free or paid. Frank Lloyd Wright created Usonian Houses during the Depression. Both Public Architecture and Architecture for Humanity were formed in the recession before this recession. But sooner or later doing work for free when you have little or no paying work is unsustainable for any profession.

As noted, doctors and lawyers offer required services, often life-saving. While fulfilling desire is the mother of joy, necessity is the mother of cash-flow. Recent technological explosions allow architects to experience the aesthetic joy of fine arts expression without having to deal with the boring ability to know how to build it. In the cause of pro bono work, inspiration is not a bad thing; but building what you design is not desirable, it is absolutely necessary. Doing work for free when the vast majority of work is underpaid, and there are fewer jobs and more job seekers, is also a tough reality for firms struggling to find paying work.

Habitat for Humanity routinely uses architects for pro bono services  But again, free labor melds with free design to do good in a special case, a non-replicable model for the rest of the world. However, in this case there are lessons to be learned. In the early 1990’s Yale’s Vlock Building Program partnered with Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven to have the students design and build one home a year. As you might expect, the designs were often edgy and interesting. The completed houses were happily accepted by Habitat’s clients: a new home at an affordable price can easily overcome any aesthetic qualms an owner might have.

After a few years of student designed houses in New Haven, Habitat’s  board realized that the edgy, interesting homes had maintainence and, in some cases, security issues. Over the years the houses required serious revision to mitigate the unintended consequences of their initial “creativity.” Eventually the groups parted ways. The Yale Vlock Building Project found another housing provider to build for, and Habitat kept funding the rest of its work using a more conventional approach.

What replaced the student-designed buildings was a simple echo of the 19th century Winchester Arms workers’ housing.  It is the most generic house imaginable (pictured above): designed by a committee to fit onto almost every site, and fit in with almost every neighborhood. This design wins no awards, but it can be easily built by no- or low-skill volunteers quickly. Eighty have been built in 20 years, using my office to adapt each generic design to specific sites. As Yale discovered, building a pro bono design means architects have to give up some control, and that’s not easy for this profession.

For the past 28 years my practice has produced about 600 built things, of which about 150 either started on a pro bono basis or were completely done without pay. Some are pure joy, and win awards, others crash and burn without seeing the light of day, but the ones that are built are a deep draw on my firm’s bottom line. And I am OK with that.

We execute 50 projects in the office at any given time, 20 or 30 a year with about 8 full time people, and a couple of part timers. About 10 to 15 of these projects are intentionally pro bono, about 5 or 10 of those get built. All start pro bono, and if there is a fee leveraged by our work, we will accept it, otherwise it’s on us. Perhaps 2/3 of the built projects that start out as pro bono exercises ultimately garner fees that are perhaps 50% of what our retail fees would be. If I did no pro bono work I would lay off perhaps 2 positions and, in theory, net about $80,000 more a year. As you might guess the building budgets for pro bono projects are impossibly tiny and rely on many donations, including mine.But it’s worth it.

It’s not a game, a calling card, a gesture: it’s my practice. If I cannot do what I do for anyone, if I exclude the tiny retail fee project or the large pro bono project because of cost, I would sleep even less well than I do now.

The cyber-beauty of our increasingly unbuilding profession pushes the next generation of architects further and further way from those who need our services the most:  those who cannot pay for them.


The truth of why pro bono work is worth it lies not in organizations served, but within each of us. Sadly, as architecture slips into a fashion reality, where our designs are for our own consumption, we lose touch with those who benefit the most from what we have to offer. Haute Couture does not clothe the naked, and the cyber-beauty of our increasingly unbuilding profession pushes the next generation of architects further and further away from those who need our services the most: those who cannot pay for them.

And yet the nitty gritty realities of pro bono design are the antithesis of what is increasingly valued in the teaching and lauding machines of architecture. When money is simply unavailable for any extraneous expressions, creativity can only happen with an extreme understanding of generic techniques and materials applied. To understand those basics your devotion as an architect has to be centered on actually building what you create and its mother’s milk: money.

If client values are secondary to aesthetic expression in pro bono design, and the extreme needs of the homeless, indigent sick or frail elderly are wished away, the architectural value of “innovation” becomes silent, because that pro bono design almost never gets built.

Giving what is essential and impossible without your gift is the reason to do pro bono work. Giving away what is not desired is not a gift, it’s just a personal expression. It is the central question of our time in architecture: do we work for the approval of other architects or to serve our culture, our society and a reality greater than our little playpen?


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