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I want to say - Yes …. But !!

By Laura Montllor, AIA

A few years ago (when we were flush with work) I was asked to design an accessible bathroom for a young man that had mobility impairments as the result of a motorcycle accident. I knew this was a worthy case and very much wanted to say yes. But …. I knew my small staff was already overwhelmed and we were not able to handle another job. Taking on this project was just not a wise business decision. I turned them down, recommending another architect. And felt terrible about it!

Like most small practitioners, I have occasionally been approached to provide free services for good causes. In my 22 years of running an architectural practice on the North Shore of Long Island, people have asked me to design a non-profit day care center, church access ramps and accessible design for private residences. The rewards of accepting this work were many, including media exposure and new client leads. However, there are certainly many down sides to doing this type of project.

The PIT-FALLS in brief:

    • Lack of client selection—it is very difficult to assess the client’s true financial need

    • Lack of construction funding – the architect is often asked to locate contractors who will work for free

    • Time –Project tends to get “back-burnered ” and drag

    • Undefined project scope – work can expand to include non-urgent areas of house

    • Unclear contractual obligations – difficult to modify existing AIA contacts to cover this type of work

    • Lack of media exposure

The truth is that engaging in work for free can be a big trap for small firms. Unlike large firms, who have many interns and young staff who are happy to take the lead on a small project, the burden of work on a small office can be disproportional. This problem is in worsened because the average size an architectural firm in the US is 2.5 people. So that is the paradox, the architects who are most likely to be approached to do pro bono work, are at the same time the very ones who could least afford to take it on.

Frustrated by this situation, I began conversations with colleagues at my Long Island AIA chapter SPP Roundtable. We felt that a better system could be developed. As a result we formed a new organization, a non-profit group of volunteer architects called HomeFreeHome. We incorporated in 2006 and are an IRS 501(c)3 designated charity. Our mission is to provide free and affordable designs for home accessibility to people with disabilities. We create universal designs for small-scale projects – ramps, accessible bathrooms and kitchens.

As architects we know that good universal design and even minimal changes in the home environment can create dramatic benefits in the daily life of physically challenged people and their families. HomeFreeHome functions to encourage and amplify volunteer efforts to create accessible homes. It is the “not-so-extreme makeover - design that makes a big difference.” For more information see

Architects logically understand that there is a substantial gap between the need for and the supply of accessible housing and statistics back this up. Lack of accessible housing has serious consequences including a greater risk of injury and danger of falls. There is no question that this situation will be getting worse in the future as the American population ages.


11.5 million Americans have a “go – outside – the – home” disability. Source: US Census Bureau, 2005 American Community Survey

90 percent of the housing units in the United States are inaccessible to people with disabilities For full Journal of the American Planning Association Report see

Currently people have nowhere to turn for affordable professional help in redesigning their homes for accessibility. HomeFreeHome was created to fill this need. It unifies already existing scattered activities, often taken on pro bono by local architects, contractors, church or civic groups. HomeFreeHome matches up physically challenged clients with local volunteer teams of architects and university students.


An example of the work of HomeFreeHome is a ramp for the Jackson family. Jim and Lisa Jackson’s daughter Glorianna was born with spina bifida and has no feeling in her lower legs. She is an energetic, smart little girl who urgently needed a new accessible entry to get out and explore the world. HFH volunteer architects designed a ramp, helped apply for building permit and zoning variance. Labor was donated by local contractors, so that unskilled volunteers were directed by master carpenters. Home Depot offered a discount on materials and some construction materials were donated. The finished ramp looks great and adds value to their home. Glorianna is enjoying using it and has become an expert at racing her wheelchair up and down!

The BENEFITS and REWARDS of volunteering with HomeFreeHome:

    • add diversity to firm portfolio – expanding into the growing age-in-place market

    • raise a firm’s profile – web page, press releases, national and local media

    • clients are pre-screened

    • clients sign clear contract and know their responsibilities, less liability and risk

    • promote good universal design

    • limited project scope – project is small scale and feasible, done fast

    • No need to turn down worthy projects

To be honest, I feel that this is the best possible use of my god-given talents. At a deep level, I am truly more proud of these small ramps and bathrooms than of the many wonderful upscale projects in my portfolio. Priceless is the only word for the glee and joy on the faces of people that we help.

HomeFreeHome is expanding into other states, if you want to get involved please see

About the Author: Laura Montllor, AIA is principal of Montllor Box Architects in Port Washington, New York, a nationally publicized firm specializing in renovation of residences. Ms. Montllor is a founder and Executive Director of HomeFreeHome. An AIA member since 1981, she is currently a member of the Long Island chapter and serves as at the AIA national level as an Advisor for the Small Project Practitioners Knowledge Community.


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