The Case for Pro Bono Design
This first column in a new four-part series by Chris Sciarrone, an associate in the Atlanta office of Perkins+Will, is on pro bono work and social responsibility in the architecture industry.
A core belief shared among architects, urban designers, interior designers and related professionals is that good design can create positive transformation in the world. This is not the kind of belief that emerged from our profession, but truly is one that led us into it in the first place. And this transformation is of the kind that can benefit whole communities, not only our clients.
Recall that the Latin ‘pro-bono’ is a shortened form of ‘pro-bono publico’ meaning for the public good, not ‘for free.’ Endorsing pro bono design in practice suggests something significantly more than merely providing services free of charge.
The medical and legal professions have an established tradition of pro bono service; one presumably built on a premise that health care and legal representation are basic rights that should be available regardless of one’s ability to pay for them. Increasingly it seems that the design and construction industries are embracing a similar ethic. Is this an admission that some of what we do has value beyond what is recognized in the marketplace?
Well-known organizations such as Public Architecture and Architecture for Humanity have been doing excellent work for many years promoting community-based socially engaged architectural practice. Closer to home, many are familiar with Bryan Bell’s Design Corps in North Carolina and Sam Mockbee’s Rural Studio in Alabama; Architect magazine recently devoted its full August issue to coverage of Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good.
An interesting way to regard pro bono practice is to consider that the most basic responsibility of architects to the public is to ensure health, safety and welfare. This is our professional obligation and the basis of our licensure, but it sets a rather low standard for design.
If we start with those three criteria, we may tend to believe that design is all of the stuff above and beyond heath, safety and welfare requirements. Which brings to mind Le Corbusier’s quote: “You employ stone, wood, and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces. That is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say: `This is beautiful.’ That is architecture. Art enters in.”
Another way to consider it is that design can also operate from within a framework of health, safety and welfare. Architects and designers can apply our innovation and creativity and our unique skills and knowledge to issues regarding the health of building occupants, the safety of communities and the welfare of society. We can expand the understanding of these sometimes mundane issues to create holistic solutions that benefit broad segments of the public.
From this new perspective, we begin to understand a community instead of just a building. We see a wider range of needs, we ask more questions, we take more initiative, and we meet some really remarkable people who we might not traditionally call our clients.
— Chris Sciarrone, AIA, LEED AP, Perkins+Will