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Pro Bono and Architecture

November 8, 2015

img_3765Architects do a LOT of free work: everyone asks you to respond to the too-small kitchen, the front door that is rotting, the posible space for a business: but this is either friendship or marketing, just like any lawyer or doctor encounters.

But pro bono work in any profession is not based on friendship or marketing. Pro Bono Architecture is when an architect assumes responsibility for a Good Work where there is no money for its design fees. Unlike doctors or lawyers many architects are virtually addicted to what they do – they often design without asking, projecting both ego and facility into benign conditions.

When economic conditions make building less common, architects search for things to do: free services are a target of opportunity, and its better than being bored. Frank Lloyd Wright kept his volunteer staff busy and got some air time when he invented a Home for the Any Man – the architectural Model T: the Usonian Home.

In the last recession before this one a very nice group, Architecture For Humanity, was formed in the vague model of Habitat for Humanity. Local groups would respond to needs in any number of almost always foreign countries, work for free to get better buildings built. Noble. And funded by donations.


In other words the individual give of time by architects was often sponsored, just like Habitat for Humanity, with donations for staff and the tools to connect need to resources.

30 years ago I independently decided to completely weave pro bono work into my practice. I would do preliminary design for any not-for-profit asking for anything. If money became available via grants or donations I would take whatever was offered, no negotiation, but if there was no money for me, I soldiered on.

This approach was cast in concrete by a private meeting I had with the great architect E. Fay Jones in 1988: I asked about the miraculous Thorncrown Chapel. He said “I lost $17,000 doing that. Best thing I every did”.


The ethic, for me, like Jones, was broad-based. I became the local Habitat architect, tweaking a standard design we had defined in a committee for about 80 sites, plus perhaps a dozen renovations. There was even a grant for my services for an historic preservation project I freely donated back as it was already figured into our budget.

In Westchester County, New York, about 20 not-for-profits have used what I do for housing, and for the 50% of those that get built (after I design the buildings to leverage grant monies for free) there is the allotted fee: usually 50% of what I need to turn a profit. That’s resulted in over 60 built things, one actually received some laud: Here are some of many unbuilt donations:

I have done religious work on this basis, for Unitarians, Quakers, Catholics, every mainline Protestant sect, Jews and all the related efforts – including this church where the design and approvals work was pro bono and the when funds were generated to cover the cost of permit drawings, I took whatever the budget allowed, and did the construction observation work pro bono in order to meet the budget.


The photo at the top of this piece shows the Open Arms Shelter in downtown White Plains, New York. It is a good example of how free services leverage results. A pro bono preliminary design got approvals and a budget and then a grant. We received payment that would have covered my costs, but hard bidding saw us and the State of New York were off in our cost projections by about 30%.

I then opted to redesign the entire project back on the pro bono horse, including vetting the State’s “suggestions” (a huge dead-end time dump). A realler budget was created from downsized design drawings, and when bidding confirmed it, we received some more money, but as the project concludes (seen in the picture above) I do the math and I realize that a 6 year effort has taken about $100,000 out of my personal net worth, not lost profit but actual debiting of money. But 40 men will have a safe place to get off the street. Another unbuilt project combined extreme investment with heartbreaking failure over an 11 year effort:

Despite all the money lost and pain experienced, its worth it, because I built my practice to accept both.


We execute 50 projects in the office at any given time, 20 or 30 a year with about 6 full time people, and a couple of part timers. About 10 to 15 of these projects are pro bono, about 5 or 10 of those get built.

I would lay off perhaps 2 positions if I shut the door to pro bono work. I would, in theory net about $80,000 more a year.

But its worth it.

Its not a game, a calling card, a gesture: its 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.

Architecture for Humanity went bankrupt this year: the recession that opened up free time for volunteers ended a lot of donations: and there are stories of excessive overhead and limited value: I called and emailed several times in its launch and never got a call back…

The truth of why pro bono work is worth it lies not in organizations served, but within each of us.

The “Why?” Question for architects is all too often answered by “making beauty” and the quest for Client ATM’s to pay for design and foot the bill for building it becomes as bad a rat race as there is in Western Civilization. The backbiting, anger-filled, ego-infused mud-wrestling match over who designs what at the World Trade Center after our worst national tragedy since the Civil War screams how extreme need for transformative design often crashes into shallow megalomania.

I prefer the deeper megalomania of working for all comers, walking away from other megalomaniacs who want to steal my time for folly (the call for free design for millionaires gets a “no”), but I run to those who have no clue and no money how to get where they have to be to survive.

In the end, all we have is time. A precise amount of heartbeats, here. I am clueless whether any cosmic, karmic or moral transaction occurs when I do pro bono work. But I am compelled to use what I have been given to those who need it most.

Working hard at school, putting in the extra effort and risk to build a business, to reject what would be the easy way for the better way, all these sacrifices are gifts simply because we have the skills and energy to engage in a calling beyond surfing the net.

The sacrifices we make to follow whatever mission has been given to us are not debts to be repaid: pro bono is not a make-up call for being a drunken jackass in college (or now), nor does it get me anywhere as an architect. Working for free for those that need it and cannot pay simply is part of the necessary food chain of human survival.

We all only have so many minutes left: use them to give what you have been given. Regret costs far more than money.


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