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Experiences: An AIA Housing Award Recipient Discusses How Pro Bono Work Contributes
to his Firm’s Strategic Goals.

About Brian Phillips, AIA: Mr. Phillips is founding Principal of Interface Studio Architects LLC
(ISA) and directs the design trajectory of the office. He holds a degree from the University of
Oklahoma and received his MArch from the University of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Phillips is a lecturer in the Architecture Department at the University of Pennsylvania School
of Design where he teaches design studios and seminars. Mr. Phillips became the third
Architect since 1992 to receive a Pew Fellowship in the Arts.

When you created your firm, Interface Studio Architects LLC, in 2005, what was the goal of your firm, and how did you see pro bono work as a means to achieve that goal?

Our practice is very much about being impactful. We use pro bono work as an instrument to have impact. Sometimes that means we have to donate our time, but in the broader sphere we are bringing design to underserved communities.

How do you integrate pro bono work into your practice?

When we accept pro bono work, we see it as something we do to amplify or expand our ability to do work. We use our extra time when we think we can accelerate a project to be impactful or take it up a notch, or explore an idea that we don’t get paid for that may result in something that we could get paid for later.

What is the value of pro bono work within the creative process?

You can be more experimental when the client is not paying you. You can take some risks that you may not be able to do if you are working in a more traditional way, but I think that’s a critique of the state of the profession and the architect/client relationship.

You have to pick the things you want to do carefully and feel comfortable with your role as a designer who could be adding a lot of value to a client who is not paying for it.

What is the value of pro bono work in relation to the nuts and bolts of architecture practice?

It is a great way to create paying work. We do a fair number of affordable housing and community-based projects, which may qualify as pro bono types of projects. By contributing to a project at the start of the process, we may end up with a paying job by the end—it is a careful balance, and it is a very powerful tool.

It is part of a methodical approach to practice. In a lot of ways we feel the least successful when we accept a pro bono project without looking at how it can connect with other kinds of projects, or other kinds of clients, or other kinds of concerns.

I’m going to stray from “big picture” to “little picture” with a discussion of the Sheridan Street Housing Project, undertaken as part of the Affordable Infill Housing Design Challenge. Could you speak about that project?

The Community Design Collaborative in Philadelphia sponsored the infill challenge. The Collaborative created the platform for pro bono work to be an instrument for innovation, and it invited teams of architects and nonprofit developers to the challenge.

Three projects came out of it. Ours was the only one that was purely construction, and it got built. It became a paying job after a substantial amount of pro bono work.

We designed the 100k Houses, which received a 2011 AIA Housing Award and was inspired by the Sheridan Street Housing Project. That’s another example of doing a lot for a little.

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Sheridan Street Housing Project

ISA came up with design for a
series of simple, airy
sustainable homes in L-
shaped pairs. Even though the
footprint of each unit matched
the footprint of the average
Philadelphia row home, they
offered a degree of day
lighting and flexibility not found
in traditional row homes.

100K Houses
Recipient of AIA’s 2011
Housing Award.

The AIA Housing Awards were
established to recognize the
best in housing design and
most importantly, the
importance of good housing as
a necessity of life, a sanctuary
for the human spirit, and a
valuable national resource.

Member Spotlight

Brian D. Phillips, AIA
Interface Studio Architects
1400 N. American Street
Suite 301
Philadelphia, PA 19122

Phone: 215-232-1500

The ISA office is a cross-
platform environment for
architectural design,
experiments, special
initiatives, and teaching. These
disciplines inform one another
to produce innovative solutions
for clients, as well as create
possibilities for design impacts


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