The Social Responsibility of Architects

June 29, 2011 · by Helena L. Jubany

Everyone benefits when architects volunteer in community nonprofit organizations.
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Everyone benefits when architects volunteer in community nonprofit organizations.

Do architects and architectural firms have a social responsibility beyond our practice? We all have heard about the social consequences of architecture and about architects having a responsibility to the community when they create a piece of architecture. But do we have a social responsibility that extends beyond our practice?

What does social responsibility in architecture mean in our time? Certainly it means sustainable design, however you choose to define it. The definition of social responsibility and how sustainable design is implemented are hotly debated, but most of us would agree that two goals of sustainable design are to eliminate or minimize negative environmental impact of the built environment and to connect people with the natural environment.

Social Responsibility in Practice

The social responsibility of architects lies in part in believing that architecture can create better places, that architecture can affect society, and that it can even have a role in making a place civilized by making a community more livable. As a social catalyst, architecture is not as effective as, for example, stimulating a healthy economy by directly funding public construction, finding the cure for AIDS, ending homelessness, or improving education. It is definitely not as essential as farmers harvesting food or teachers educating students; a great school building does not itself teach even though it can provide a better environment for learning. All of these positions can be argued, but the reality is that it is difficult to substantiate the effects of architecture on our lives or the nature of a community.

As architects, we want to believe that architecture affects the quality of life. Whether you believe that or not, one thing is true: As members of society, we can affect the quality of life in our communities through involvement beyond our practice. As citizens of our society, we can influence social conditions; we can even be the cause of positive social change. Very few of us would choose to give up all our personal possessions to help the poor or dedicate our entire life to a cause, but many of us do want to make a contribution to our social fabric. Many of us would likely be willing to give some portion of our time or financial resources to help the disadvantaged or to be a benefit to society.

Beyond Practice

As architects, we can have a significant role in improving the well-being of communities by being involved with nonprofit organizations. We can raise public awareness of critical social and environmental issues. One may argue that we chose the field of architecture because we have a calling to take a role in influencing the built environment beyond our practice. An architectural education facilitates the development of critical thinking abilities, which can be applied to solving problems and addressing situations beyond design. Our social responsibility is not limited to needs related to the built environment or environmental issues. Our critical thinking abilities can also be valuable in designing an organization or setting strategic goals and implementation plans.

Architects or not, most individuals can have a role that has social impact. Whatever involvement you choose to have in an important cause will have an impact on other people’s lives. You may choose to contribute where you have a direct and emotional connection, such as grassroots work volunteering at a shelter to feed the homeless. Or you may choose to contribute indirectly by volunteering to serve on a committee to draft policies that help streamline the funding process for a homeless shelter. While these examples engender dissimilar feelings of self-satisfaction and different short- and long-term outcomes, both are important and valuable.

I grew up in Brazil at a time when volunteering one’s services was not as important culturally as it was in the United States. I was a member of a Chinese family that did not have a tradition of giving back outside of the church. So my first experience with volunteering was as an adult in the United States, serving Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless at the downtown Los Angeles Mission. It was intimidating to walk through skid row among the homeless and the drug addicts to check in as a volunteer at the Mission. Once I was inside, I felt safer and was directed to a room for an orientation on how to serve dinner. It was a sobering moment: I realized for the first time how much need there is in this world and how little I was doing.

Until that time, my involvement with nonprofits was with professional organizations, and it was more of a marketing strategy. After that experience, I started expanding my volunteering services with other nonprofit boards such as the Design Professional Coalition, a nonprofit organization that provided pro bono design services for nonprofits or for communities in need; Art Share, which provides art education for at-risk youth in the greater Los Angeles area; and most recently, A Community of Friends, a nonprofit developer providing affordable housing for homeless people with special needs. While serving with professional organizations, my roles have included chairing committees, serving on boards, and serving as president of the Asian American Architects/Engineers Association for two years. During my involvement, I grew in my knowledge of organizing programs, fundraising, public speaking, and collaborating with other nonprofit organizations. Each task helped me be more effective in working with nonprofits and in managing my own business.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, most people give because what we get back makes us feel a sense of purpose about ourselves, our society, and our lives. Architects and architectural firms have an enormous opportunity to use their expertise to help nonprofit organizations; in return, we can receive valuable insights about how to improve our management practice and even our design.

Giving Gives Back

Volunteering for nonprofit organizations, especially on the board of directors or in a committee, can give us insights into the challenges our clients face while managing and operating an organization. Architects tend to think of ourselves as being responsive to clients’ needs. There is no better way of learning to understand what those needs are than by being involved with a nonprofit organization. Nonprofits operate with the same challenges as regular businesses. In the current economic environment, nonprofits have become even more challenged financially as grants are more scarce, returns on investment of endowments are reduced, availability of tax credit financing are decreased, and monetary donations are diminished.

Throughout my years of serving on the boards of nonprofit organizations, I have been able to cross-pollinate business practices between the nonprofits and my own architectural practice. In managing nonprofits, we had to deal with fundraising and applying for grants or tax credits to sustain the organization. We also had to deal with strategies to reduce overhead and payroll costs, resolve conflicts related to human resources, collaborate with other organizations, and retool marketing and public relations campaigns … just like any other business. In some instances I was able to introduce business strategies I have used in my own practice that were helpful to the nonprofit. In other cases, I was able to learn strategies from the nonprofits that I found useful in my practice.

For the past seven years I have served as a board member for A Community of Friends, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing for homeless people with special needs. The mission of A Community of Friends is to end homelessness through the provision of quality permanent supportive housing for people with mental illness. Our values are dignity (all people, regardless of their circumstances, deserve to be treated with respect and to have a home); excellence (we provide quality housing and services as a reflection of our personal and organizational commitment); and community (our projects and services promote sustainability and serve as a foundation for stability, health, and well-being). To date, A Community of Friends has completed more than 1,300 units in 35 properties, primarily throughout Los Angeles County, and it has several properties in development.

As the architect on the board, I have encouraged our project development staff to produce projects with architectural sensitivity (which is not to say that the organization did not value good design prior to my involvement). A Community of Friends’ projects are a testament to the fact that good design can take place in the affordable housing realm. Several of our architects are from well-known firms, and several of our projects have received design awards. A Community of Friends is a client that sees the value of architecture and recognizes the important role of the architect. This organization also understands that good design is a valuable brand for our buildings, especially important because most communities where we develop our projects begin with a negative perception of the population we serve. Often during the entitlement process of our developments, we encounter NIMBYism — resistance to development from the local community. We have been able in most cases to shift the perception of the community by demonstrating that our projects are architecturally sensitive and pleasing, that our properties are well maintained once they are built, and that our existing properties have become positive assets to their surrounding neighborhoods.

In addition to the importance we place on good design, our project committee has charged staff to develop a comprehensive sustainability program for our projects in development as well as for existing properties. This year we completed our first renewable energy source project by installing solar panels in an existing property. Our long-term goal is to have a comprehensive sustainability program that not only includes best practices in building and maintenance but also enhances the participation of tenants so that they can be more environmentally conscious while living in our properties.

My involvement with A Community of Friends, an organization that is a developer, an operator, and a property manager, has provided me with a broader view on designing projects. As architects, once the project is complete we are hardly ever involved with the operation and management of the building. Seeing the results and the impact of decisions that were made during the design phase of the project on the profit and loss of each property has given me deeper insight into the importance of those design decisions. For instance, the way each residential unit is configured has an impact on the unit turnaround (how often the unit is vacant) and the vacancy rate (how long the unit is vacant). The unit turnaround and vacancy rate of a property have a direct impact on the profit and loss of the property. Even though there are not enough supportive housing inventories in our tenants’ market, the individuals we serve sometimes prefer to remain homeless and wait for an opening at a property with a more desirable configuration than to move in to the first available property. The main reason is that once they are placed in permanent supportive housing, they are no longer homeless, and then it is harder to qualify for a move. Some of the obvious design decisions that have direct impact on the profit and loss of the property are the implementation of systems that are not efficient and finishes or materials that are not easy to maintain. At A Community of Friends, the input that the asset management staff has on project development is critical for the continuing improvement of our projects so that the units consistently become easier to maintain, safer, more secure, and more energy efficient. This leads to better retention of tenants and a positive financial reserve to operate and maintain the property.

My Social Responsibility Experience

As chair of the board, I have challenged both the board and the staff to think about ways to elevate the organization to the next level. During our board’s strategic planning meeting, we discussed how the organization could elevate its services and buildings by considering Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This is another example of cross-pollination between business and the nonprofit organization; the idea was presented to me in a recent presentation at our principals’ leadership retreat for NAC Architecture.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow. It focuses on describing various states of human need and growth. The concept is often portrayed as a pyramid, with the largest and most fundamental levels of need at the bottom (physiological), followed by safety, love/belonging, and esteem. At the top of the pyramid is self-actualization. The four basic needs must be met before an individual will desire or be able to attain higher-level needs. The highest need — self-actualization — is attained when people realize their full potential. For example, one person may have the strong desire to become an ideal parent, another to be a great athlete. A Community of Friends has consistently done an excellent job fulfilling the four fundamental needs for tenants. The question I pose to our board is, “Can A Community of Friends help our tenants achieve the point of the pyramid — self-actualization?”

There are many paths to community service other than volunteering or donating money. My husband and I were recently looking for a business that had less volatility in relationship to the economy than architecture and construction. It occurred to us that perhaps we could do good and do well by developing a new community market prototype called Fresco Community Market with a nonprofit arm called Fresco Community Foundation. We will take a portion of the profits from the market and reinvest in the local community through the foundation. My involvement with A Community of Friends has inspired us to partner with the Los Angeles Mission’s back-to-work program. We have been able to employ 14 people from the Mission to work at our store. These workers have inspired us in so many ways: Working with them has made us realize how much courage is required to make the journey back to a normal life after losing all of the things that have served as a basis for existence.

In starting the business, we looked carefully at locations that would serve a broader need. Our first store is in the in the Hermon Community of Los Angeles, which has been under-served for years. Our goal is to open more community markets based on this prototype in other under-served communities, continue the partnership with organizations such as the Los Angeles Mission, and provide job opportunities to individuals with special needs.

Conclusion

Architectural firms have an opportunity to become conduits for volunteering services or donations for their staff. The firm’s role can be as elaborate as organizing on-the-clock staff volunteering or as simple as collecting donations through payroll deduction from the staff. Many large firms organize and coordinate volunteering days for which a nonprofit organization such as Habitat for Humanity is selected to receive volunteer services from the staff of the firm. Other firms collect donations on behalf of the staff through payroll deduction for a broad-based nonprofit organization such as the local United Way.

Architects and architectural firms have an enormous opportunity to make contributions to nonprofit organizations with the gift of their expertise while simultaneously reaping the benefits of a sense of purpose and fulfillment, a better understanding of client needs, enhanced management skills, positive social change, and raising public awareness of important issues. But I can promise you that the most important reward will be the difference you will see in the lives of the people being served. Whatever one’s call may be, I urge everyone to take an opportunity to get involved with nonprofits on any level. Every single person who has had the occasion to share their experience with me has confirmed that what they received has been tenfold larger than what they gave.

Your participation matters.


Helena Jubany is managing principal of the Los Angeles office of NAC Architecture. Her career has been dedicated to the design of public buildings with a focus on education. Jubany serves as a commissioner for the Los Angeles Department of Building & Safety, a member of the Marina del Rey Design Control Board, and board chair for the nonprofit A Community of Friends. An adjunct professor at Woodbury University teaching fifth year professional practice, Jubany is a member of the Woodbury University Consultancy Board and a LEED Accredited Professional.

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