When Public Architecture launched The 1% Solution in 2005, it tapped into the architecture community’s altruism: The San Francisco–based practice and public-service advocacy has since signed up 157 firms to pledge 1 percent of their time to nonprofit organizations that could not otherwise afford design direction. And yet Public Architecture executive director John Cary admits that some of those promises have been “more symbolic than anything.” A three-pronged initiative, to be unveiled September 4 along with a name change to simply “The 1%,” will help architects realize their best intentions.

A mockup of The %’s new handbook

Image: ' MendeDesign
A mockup of The %’s new handbook intended both for architects interested in pro bono work and the nonprofit organizations they seek to assist.

While The 1% has galvanized several pro bono jobs—the San Francisco firm David Baker + Partners Architects, for example, undertook a feasibility study and conceptual design for a Habitat for Humanity development in Oakland, California, as a result of its pledge—Cary says that he’s fielded hundreds of queries from architects who don’t know how to make good on a promise. Though Public Architecture had channeled architects’ desire to help, there were still practicalities to overcome: How to find the right client? What about liability?

With financial support from seven architecture firms, the Web site theonepercent.org has been revamped to provide such assistance. A new matching service links architects with appropriate clients. It is “modeled most closely after a dating service,” Cary says. Nonprofits submit information about themselves and their needs, architects submit information about their capabilities, and the software generates the best potential matches.

“We are almost inundated with phone calls from nonprofit organizations, church groups, and other clients worthy of pro bono design assistance,” Cary says. “It’s not just our organization that receives those kinds of inquiries, but virtually any architecture firm, AIA chapter, and school. We’re not cataloging the needs out there; this Web site will provide for those functions.”

The Web site now offers model contract language and contractual addenda for review and use, drafted with the law firms Long & Levit and Reno & Cavanaugh. “We don’t want this legal dilemma to burden people to the point they can’t act,” Cary says, adding that official agreements bring dignity to the pro bono client. Both architects and clients can look to the third component of Public Architecture’s effort for further guidance. The 1% Users Manual offers how-to advice and case studies in collaboration.

Cary envisions that September’s introductions are just a start, and hopes that this initial phase should build the organization’s momentum. “I can imagine that, by finally addressing a lot of architecture firms’ questions and needs, we will attract another cohort to The 1%.”

Volunteers Doing Double Duty, Survey Says

Architects’ hearts are overflowing with kindness—and Public Architecture has the documentation to prove it. A recent survey of 150 architect members of The 1%, a pro bono assistance network launched by the San Francisco–based design firm, found that participants go above and beyond the call of volunteer’s duty.

By signing up for The 1%, an architecture firm pledges 1 percent of its billable hours to designing for nonprofit groups free of charge. But based on the survey’s 77 complete responses, more than two-thirds of participants actually devoted 2 percent or more toward that goal last year. Public Architecture executive director John Cary notes that “the [survey] sample is representative of just about every firm size, type, and geography.” Respondents’ projects were equally sweeping, ranging from rebuilding a library in New Orleans to contributing to tsunami relief efforts in Sri Lanka.

Architects may have provided even more help than 2 percent—had they the means to do it. Although “social relevance” was a key criterion for selecting an assignment, “financial constraints” and “available staff time” were most frequently cited as limitations to shouldering additional pro bono work. Aaron Hurst, the founder and president of the pro bono advocacy Taproot Foundation—and the person who encouraged Public Architecture to undertake the survey—noted in a statement that the effort “represents the first time, outside of the legal profession, that a quantifiable standard for pro bono has been put on the table for a specific industry and measured. Most significantly, the survey brings to light the barriers to further investment as well as demonstrated commitment to overcoming them.”

Asked whether or not a survey of participants in The 1% accurately reflects the architecture profession as a whole, Cary admits that these respondents comprise a “self-selecting group.” But, he adds, “Our sincere hope is to improve the reliability of the data through a number of standard means in the years ahead, including a non-1% sample. Doing this kind of survey ‘right’ could cost about as much as it costs us to run the entire program, so we’re taking it one step at a time. Also, I firmly believe that the vast majority of firms of all shapes and sizes do a significant amount of pro bono work, but don’t do so in an organized, strategic, or trackable manner. We’re trying to change that.”