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Throwing Caution to Pro Bono

By Robert C. Vagnieres Jr. AIA, NCARB

I remember reading on the AIA National website that all firms should “give of their time, and give back to their community” through pro bono work. The AIA says that pro bono projects are one way to “engage with the community, raise a firm’s profile, and keep staff busy,” and it goes along with the new “Sustainable Architecture” and the “triple bottom line of a sustainable business.”

This is my story. The AIA Chicago’s Committee on the Environment (COTE) is one of the only committees we know of to have a Memorandum of Understanding with the City of Chicago Department of Environment (DOE) to work together on projects. During the time I was chair of the AIA Chicago COTE, I was approached by the Chicago DOE to participate on the Properties Committee for a well known, 100 year old not-for-profit on the West side of Chicago that provides over 20 programs for the local community yearly. The request from DOE was to help them save energy, and help them green their renovation. You see, they had moved from their original location, without any renovation, into a 6 story hospital, which is very inefficient for community programs both regarding space utilization and energy consumption.

For approximately two years, I worked pro bono with the Properties Committee, first on an Energy Conservation Study, and then numerous hours of my, and my firms’ time, to develop a Master Plan for a phased renovation that would reorganize and utilize the building substantially better for the operation of the community programs. In that time I also wrote an RFP for architects, to perform the phased renovation.

Having done other pro bono work, it was extremely satisfying to have this group of people seriously thankful for our help. They even had an appreciation night dinner each year for those who had contributed their time over the past year.

As there was no conflict of interest, my small architectural firm was allowed to bid on the RFP, and as the low bidder, we were awarded the two phase project. Phase 1 provided some small renovation on the vacant sixth floor, allowing first floor administration offices and accounting to move to the sixth floor. Phase 2 would be the renovation of the first floor, allowing children’s and teens programs to be on the first floor and minimize elevator usage for children.

Phase 1 and 2 were scheduled to be completed over the course of one year. However, there was a delay for refinancing for the not for profit, there was a re-zoning issue that needed to occur before any drawings could be submitted for permit, and there was client added work. Thus, Phase 1 was finally finishing up in March 2009, after 2 years.

As you can imagine, in this economy, I was very happy to have a contract for the larger phase 2, to keep my firm’s doors open, and keep food on the plates of my children.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, I received a call from the Director of Facilities of the not-for-profit. He wanted to cancel my contract because they had “an offer we can’t refuse.” What happened? He explained that a large architectural firm in downtown Chicago had offered to do Phase 2 of the project pro bono.

Can you imagine how I felt? How would you feel?

Now that my firm has been without work for the last nine months, many philosophical questions run through my mind to this day. Can I see the not-for-profit point of view? Of course, they are under tight budget constraints, and jumped at the chance to save on architectural fees. Should architectural firms do pro bono work to “raise the firm’s profile” and “keep staff busy” during a downturn, at the expense of another architect? In my opinion, there are appropriate times for pro bono, and times when it is not appropriate.

Perhaps my story will cause architects to stop, think and use caution, next time they entertain the idea of “pro bono.”

About the Author: Robert C. Vagnieres Jr. AIA, NCARB, has 33 years experience in architecture, the last 24 years as Principal of Robert C. Vagnieres Jr. & Associates. The firm specializes in environmentally conscious renovation within hospitality, commercial, retail and Institutional projects.


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