Public Interest Design in Washington, DC

image: Alexandra Hay
image: Alexandra Hay

Sustainability, as defined by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, entails “the simultaneous pursuit of economic prosperity, environmental quality, and social equity. Companies aiming for sustainability need to perform not against a single, financial bottom line, but against [this] triple bottom line.” The idea of the triple bottom line is a key tenet of public interest design and its many allied movements, such as human-centered design, public sector design, community-based design, socially-responsible design, design for the common good, etc.—the list goes on.

With a plethora of terms and keywords to choose from, making sense of all the diverse options available within public interest design may seem daunting at first. From university-based programs to community design centers across the United States—the Association for Community Design has a complete map—opportunities to take part in public interest design abound.

If every architecture professional in the U.S. committed 1% of their time to pro bono service, it would add up to 5,000,000 hours annually – the equivalent of a 2,500-person firm, working full-time for the public good.

One well-known example is Public Architecture’s 1% program, which encourages architecture and design firms to dedicate part of their time to pro bono work. There are currently over 1,000 firms participating in the program, including Ayers Saint Gross, Cannon Design, Gensler, HOK, MASS Design Group, and Perkins + Will.

The Public Interest Design Institute offers training programs and established the Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED)—there’s that triple bottom line again—standards and certification for design professionals: “The SEED process takes a holistic, creative approach to design driven by community needs. This process provides a step-by-step aid for those who want to undertake public interest design.”

In Washington, DC, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA|DC) hosts a monthly Mentoring Workshop organized by the AIA|DC Emerging Architects Committee. The most recent workshop featured the theme of non-profit architecture with a panel of speakers involved with Architecture for Humanity DC, including Matthew Johnston, a landscape architect and community design advocate, and Lindsay Brugger, founding director of Architecture for Humanity DC’s Resilience by Design program.

During the discussion, Johnston underlined that great design should be accessible, inclusive, and should strengthen local communities, but acknowledged the challenges and time constraints that often make it difficult for small firms to participate in public interest design. However, dedicating some time to pro bono work allows designers to connect with their local communities, take a break from the standard routine, and try out different ways of thinking to both identify and solve community-wide issues. Benefits include exposure to a wider range of experiences and the opportunity to explore different approaches, build new skill sets, and develop new areas of expertise. On top of that, it may even be good for business: a recent article from Forbes includes working with your local community through volunteer initiatives in a list of ways for small businesses to grow their visibility.

This October, DesignDC 2014 will include an education session entitled “It’s Monday, Now Get to Work: How to turn Pro-Bono Passion into Reality” that will outline the steps involved to complete a public interest design project successfully. The session’s speakers are from Inscape Publico, a non-profit architecture firm established by Inscape Studio to allow the firm to dedicate more time and resources to pro bono and reduced-fee projects.

If you are looking for a way to give back to your community and apply (and sharpen) your skills and knowledge as a designer at the same time, public interest design may be what you’re looking for.

For more information on social-impact design, see the recent LAM article “Design Unto Others,” by Ernest Beck (August 2014).

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