Doing Good and Doing Well
"Pro bono" means getting more than you give
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 10/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
A computer rendering of a kitchen in a two-family duplex that William McDonough + Partners has designed for the Make It Right Foundation New Orleans; courtesy of William McDonough + Partners.
Brad Pitt would seem to be a patron with money to burn. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Pitt phoned a number of architects he admired and asked for help with prototype houses for displaced Ninth Ward residents. There was a catch, though—no one would earn a cent. Cradle to Cradle eco evangelist William McDonough, who advised Pitt on ground rules for his Make It Right Foundation New Orleans, cited the often-overlooked component of the profession's mandate for sustainability: the "social sustainability" of giving back.
William McDonough + Partners is now completing plans for a Make It Right duplex. Being "associated with doing good things" is important to the firm, communications director Kira Gould says. She adds that McDonough viewed the duplex as a chance to explore modularity and to work on a residential scale in a long-ignored community. "Does it hurt," she jokes, "when Brad Pitt is on Larry King Live, talking about Make It Right?"
A computer rendering of a kitchen in a two-family duplex that William McDonough + Partners has designed for the Make It Right Foundation New Orleans. Heat-treated lumber pilings that supply flood protection; courtesy of William McDonough + Partners.
The opportunity to give back obviously has extra appeal in a difficult economy, with many projects indefinitely on hold. "Designers are looking to put their passion into something worthwhile," HLW managing principal Chari Jalali says. It was Jalali who ultimately authorized a $15,000 donation of architectural services to turn a Los Angeles warehouse into a depot for Trash for Teaching, which brings recycled materials into children's art classes.
Some of those items, such as paper rolls and ballpoint-pen caps, actually became creative construction materials for the project, which represents both the paid and the unpaid efforts of HLW. Consultants and contractors that the firm patronizes also chipped in for a total of $150,000 in donated construction costs, Jalali estimates. "We caught everybody at an opportune time, because they were slow," she notes.
SPG Architects's health clinic for the Kageno foundation in the Rwandan village of Banda; courtesy of SRG Architects.
The economy was no better in New York when the AIA chapter invited such nonprofits as the U.S. Green Building Council and Architecture for Tibet to solicit volunteers at a free lunch. An unprecedented 250 hungry design professionals showed up for the sandwiches and camaraderie. A job-seeking graduate, Sophia Vincent, credits the event with introducing her to Engineers Without Borders, which asked her to volunteer on a library for a Kenyan village. The project cost just $7,400. To save money, lava-stone blocks were quarried nearby, and locals baked the bricks.
SPG Architects is doing pro bono work in Rwanda. A veteran of 30 shop interiors for Polo Ralph Lauren, partner Eric Gartner encountered a little resistance to the Ralph-esque earth tones he'd planned to paint a health clinic for Kageno, a foundation supported by Donna Karan and Meryl Streep. "When the images came back showing a kind of canary yellow, we were moderately shocked," he admits.
Gluckman Mayner Architects's New York public-school library, funded by the Robin Hood Foundation and featured in a book to be published in 2010 to benefit the San Francisco nonprofit Public Architecture; photo by Peter Mauss/Esto.
The clinic is part of an SPG master plan for a small village of buildings, from classrooms to ecotourism bungalows with composting toilets. As the job ballooned to 36,000 square feet, Gartner found it hard to say no. "How could we really tell them that enough was enough?" he asks. Fortunately, the effort remained recession-friendly for SPG, as four staffers committed to working late, unpaid.
Because Fougeron Architecture is a small firm, Anne Fougeron sometimes gives a quarter of the hours on a project as a gift in lieu of pure pro bono. She sees her work on Planned Parenthood clinics in California as a political statement as well as a good deed. In the spirit of openness, the renovations incorporate panels that are, where possible, transparent. She often finds herself advocating for materials that may be more costly to buy but will look fresh longer, since funds for maintenance can be scarce, especially now.
The MacArthur Health Center in Oakland, California, one of more than a dozen Planned Parenthood clinics that Fougeron Architecture has redesigned; courtesy of Grey Crawford. A Branchelier, which Michelle Workman Design adapted for the Los Angeles bedroom of a lupus patient; courtesy of Denice Duff.
Her friend John Cary, executive director of the San Francisco nonprofit Public Architecture, asks firms to donate a minimum of 20 hours per year to deserving clients, and the organization's 600 affiliates are likely to give $25 million in services in 2009, up from $20 million last year. But that's not the end of the story. "We have no qualms about presenting this as a business opportunity, because it can certainly lead to paying work," Cary says. He adds that Public Architecture projects are typically a manageable 3,000 to 5,000 square feet.
Pro bono projects can of course be even smaller. Michelle Workman Design decorated a Los Angeles bedroom for a young woman with lupus. Michelle Workman clearly relishes her role in the healing process, but she also made sure to have fun within the $5,000 budget. That translated into white silk taffeta curtains with black banding and a bed with a tall headboard upholstered in white linen with black welting. For chandeliers, she came up with a less expensive version of her own Branchelier, which she sells in her store, Red House Interiors.
Passive cooling diagrammed for an Engineers Without Borders library in Usalama, a Kenyan village between Nairobi and the Indian Ocean. The exterior's lava-stone blocks, quarried nearby, and bricks, baked by the locals; courtesy of Engineers Without Borders, New York chapter.
Elaine Griffin Interior Design's namesake principal, whose Design Rules: The Insider's Guide to Becoming Your Own Decorator is coming out in November, has spearheaded 11 glammed-up pro bono renovations in partnership with Oprah Winfrey. "Oprah always says that beautiful things lift you up and nurture you," Elaine Griffin notes. Fortunately, she found her own generosity mirrored by large donations of labor, materials, and furnishings, albeit not her usual custom upholstery, Pratesi sheets, and French antiques.
Tears came to her eyes when female ex-cons at a halfway house in Bridgeport, Connecticut, or cancer patients at the Gilda's Club New York City support facility marveled at faux flokatis or sank into squishy sofas. Paying clients don't always express that kind of gratitude.