Jun 11, 2013
THEME: Sustainability

Design’s Big New Trend: Making It Count

I can say with great confidence and delight that the design industry is moving toward a higher standard of holistic impact than I expected to see in my lifetime. In 2008, Metropolis announced that “a new breed of architect has emerged.” In 2011, MASS Design Group’s Michael Murphy asked “Why is the category of humanitarian architecture even necessary? The two terms should be synonymous. Because sound building practices can and should lead to social justice.” Our own CEO, Phil Harrison, recently shared his view that “people are much more socially motivated than they were before, and Millennials are looking to make a difference in the world.” But if you ask me, firms like Perkins+Will have been nurturing this approach to design long before my generation took a stand.

Since its founding in 1935, Perkins+Will has been dedicated to the philosophy that design has the power to improve society overall, but it was a 2007 leadership retreat to New Orleans that catalyzed the firm’s formal commitment to public interest design. Bearing witness to the local devastation still felt from Hurricane Katrina, the retreat participants contributed both sweat equity and professional services that provided small yet significant steps toward recovery. These efforts reaffirmed the firm’s commitment to socially responsible design and coincided with a formal pledge to join The  1%. Far from representing an extra affluent echelon of society, The 1% is a pioneering program launched by the nonprofit firm Public Architecture. Established in 2005, the program is based on the observation that if every architecture professional in the U.S. donated 1% of their time to pro bono service, it would add up to “the equivalent of a 2,500-person firm, working full-time for the public good.” It’s a simple but amazing concept.

Considering the roots of our formal commitment to pro bono work, it should be no surprise that Hurricane Sandy again propelled our firm into action. After a week of power outages and creative schemes for working remotely, Perkins+Will’s New York office kicked off a variety of relief efforts. One such project began when we were enlisted by Architecture for Humanity and the New York City Department of Education as their first architectural partner in the rebuilding of several school sports facilities. This morning, a rendering of the potential for restored football, basketball, and track and field facilities at Beach Channel High School in the Rockaways was released, setting the bar for the design efforts to come. Over the next several months, a variety of schools in the New York City region will benefit from this initiative, which places special emphasis on schools where the athletic facilities serve an extended local community.

Pro bono design, such as this current reconstruction project, offers palpable value for disenfranchised communities across the globe, but it’s worth noting the benefits for designers. Working for a reduced or entirely waived fee opens up opportunities to interact with groups that you might never engage with otherwise. And just like with any other network, being introduced to a new landscape of potential clients can lead to even richer opportunities for meaningful collaboration down the line. Many of these new partners also tend to be organizations that have an especially clear mission or cause to support, which can provide a distinctively solid project framework that inspires ever more innovative design solutions. Furthermore, taking money out of the equation with a client usually provides greater artistic freedom for the designer. As Pentagram’s Paula Scher has semi-joked, “90% of her work with paid clients is spent in meetings convincing them. When there’s no money involved, one can spend more time making things,” and “has more creative control.” When you also consider the opportunities for employees to learn new skills and for employers to provide hands-on leadership training, particularly through smaller and scrappier projects, pro bono design can provide a truly win-win-win deal.

While not all of today’s designers have embraced the triple bottom line in their work, whether pro bono or otherwise, taking a holistic approach to design is definitely becoming the new normal. I deeply believe that the future’s greatest design achievements will be those that simultaneously support environmental, economic, and societal sustainability, and that these projects will promote wellness throughout full ecosystems, including new groups that were never previously considered as project beneficiaries. Holistic design excellence can and should be a part of everyday life for all people. If we keep working together, it will be.

Rendering of Beach Channel High School by Scott Allen, project designer for Perkins+Will New York.

The post was written by Gisela Garrett.

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