In the Public Interest: Pro Bono Service in Architecture and the Law

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[Originally published 1st quarter 2005, in arcCA 05.1, “Good Counsel.”]

Author John Cary, Assoc. AIA, is executive director of Public Architecture, a nonprofit architecture group, founded and hosted by Peterson Architects in San Francisco. John is involved extensively with the AIA, currently serving on the AIACC Board of Directors as well as the national AIA Diversity Committee and Educator/Practitioner Network. He is also co-founder of ArchVoices, a nonprofit organization and think tank focused on emerging professionals and the future of the profession.


As a design professional, chances are good that you field requests to take on projects pro bono on a regular basis. Many of these inquiries come from churches, communities in need, and nonprofit organizations that genuinely cannot afford to pay market rates. Unfortunately, very few firms have institutionalized ways to respond to these requests, much less execute the projects at the same level of quality as their regular work.

Financial and liability concerns are but two of the most central issues that can make architects hesitant to take on pro bono work. Yet, for all its challenges, such work can be attractive and beneficial from a number of standpoints. In firm settings, it can be used as a tool in the recruitment and retention of staff members; a professional development and mentoring opportunity for junior and senior staff members alike; and a way to gain exposure to new project types and markets.

While many practitioners are generous with their time, the architecture profession as a whole has never encouraged pro bono service as a fundamental obligation of professional standing—or as an integral component of a healthy business model. Pro bono work is mostly “catch-as-catch-can,” slipped in-between paying projects. The primary reason for this laissez- faire position is that there are no formal mechanisms supporting or recognizing public interest work in architecture. Contrast all this with the approach of the legal profession.

The Legal Precedent

For decades, the legal profession has distinguished itself through a systematic approach to pro bono work. Lawyers, law firms, and the profession generally dedicate a significant portion of their practice to serving people in need and under-represented segments of society.

While American Bar Association (ABA) guidelines specify 50 hours of carefully defined pro bono service per attorney per year (2.5% of the standard 2,080-hour work year), architects have only the vague suggestion of the AIA Code of Ethics & Professional Conduct: “Members should render public interest professional services and encourage their employees to render such services.” This standard has had no measurable effect on the commitment of AIA members, and for non-members it has no effect at all. The same might be said about non-ABA members, were it not for state bars.

Led in large part by the ABA Center for Pro Bono, many state bars are actively exploring a requirement for attorneys to report on their pro bono service. This approach is distinct from mandating pro bono service. In fact, many of the legal profession’s most vocal advocates for pro bono service have spoken out against such a mandate. To date, three state bars have implemented pro bono reporting requirements: Florida, Maryland, and Nevada. The last is the most recent addition, now requiring all members of the bar to submit annual reports on their service.

The legal profession’s emphasis on pro bono service is supported by a cadre of public interest attorneys, as well as numerous groups that cater to all levels of the profession. The Pro Bono Institute, for example, supports the top 150 largest corporate law firms, providing management advice and strategy. It works closely with partners and dedicated pro bono managers; the majority of the latter are full-time, working exclusively on coordinating the firm’s pro bono activities. Other groups, such as Power of Attorney and Pro Bono Net, take a bottom-up approach by supporting the efforts of individual attorneys. One common trait is that all maintain a robust and interconnected web presence.

Our Firm’s Experience

Within our own firm, Peterson Architects, we discovered that our appetite for pro bono work was simply greater than what we could carry. As we thought about how to structure our own pro bono practice, we explored the various ways that other architects do so and how the profession as a whole supports this kind of work. That initially humble investigation inspired the establishment of Public Architecture, a nonprofit organization that puts the resources of architecture in the service of the public interest.

Now in its third year, Public Architecture acts as a catalyst for public discourse through education, advocacy, and the design of public spaces and amenities. Rather than waiting for clients or funding, Public Architecture both identifies and solves practical problems of human interaction in the built environment. Our first three pro bono design projects include an open space strategy for former light industrial urban areas, design interventions for day laborer gathering spots, and an initiative to transform single-family residence garages into accessory dwelling units. Each of these is being conceived as a prototype for adoption in other cities across the country, a criterion for every project that Public Architecture undertakes.

The 1% Solution

In an effort to engage other architecture professionals and develop a more pronounced culture of pro bono service within the profession, Public Architecture recently launched a national campaign called the “1% Solution,” challenging architecture professionals to contribute a minimum of one percent of their working hours to pro bono service.

One percent of the standard 2,080-hour work year equals twenty hours annually, which represents a modest, but not trivial, individual contribution to the public good. If all members of the architecture profession were to contribute twenty hours per year, the aggregate contribution would approach 5,000,000 hours—the equivalent of a 2,500-person firm working full-time for the public good.

Supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the 1% Solution program focuses on commitment, support, and recognition. The goal is to significantly increase both the quantity and quality of architectural services in the public interest. By making public interest work a regular part of architectural practice, the 1% Solution will enhance the profession’s engagement with the community, correcting a widely perceived gap between the two. By sharing guidelines and documenting model efforts of public interest practice, the program will increase the effectiveness of architects’ contributions to society. And by demonstrating the value of architectural services, the 1% Solution will increase popular awareness of design in the built environment.

Learning from the Law

The architecture profession has much to learn from the example and successes of the legal profession in pro bono service. Not all of those lessons will be immediately transferable, but many of the challenges the legal profession has tackled can provide insight into what it would take for architecture to truly engage a broader cross-section of society. Working together to mitigate the liability issues of design professions’ engagement in pro bono work, the architecture and legal professions can help ensure a much more equitable distribution of professional services in places that need them most.



ABA Center for Pro Bono ( provides technical assistance, planning advice, and resources to bar associations, pro bono programs, legal services offices, bar leaders, law schools, corporate counsel, judges and government attorneys.

Power of Attorney ( mobilizes mainstream attorneys to support the nonprofit sector by donating free legal services to worthwhile organizations that cannot afford such services.

Pro Bono Net ( uses the power of the Web to increase access to justice through innovative uses of technology and volunteer attorney participation.

The Pro Bono Institute ( provides support, guidance, training, resources, and inspiration to major law firms, in-house corporate legal departments, and public interest organizations seeking to expand and enhance access to justice for the poor and disadvantaged.




The AIACC represents the interests of more than 11,000 architects and allied professionals in California. Founded in 1944, The AIACC's mission supports architects in their endeavors to improve the quality of life for all Californians by creating more livable communities, sustainable designs and quality work environments. Today, The AIACC is the largest component of the National AIA organization.

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