Public Architecture’s 1% Program Provides Projects for Habitat for Humanity

Habitat for Humanity; el dorado architects

Public Architecture is an organization with a simple goal: to address public interest through architecture and solve problems of human interaction within the built environment.  The San Francisco based non-profit was established in 2002 and in its past ten years it has served as a forum for public discourse, education and advocacy for the design of public spaces and amenities.  In 2005 it launched its 1% program, a now nationally recognized portfolio of pro-bono work by architects and firms ready to donate 1% of their year’s billable hours to provide work for nonprofit organizations requesting a variety of services that strengthen their architectural identity and community impact.  To date, there are 1100 firms registered with the 1% program.

Habitat for Humanity Mississippi Gulf Coast; MSME Architects

The goal of the 1% program  is to “strengthen nonprofits through design”.  The program matches nonprofits to designers and architects that have pledged their time to develop a design that is within their area of expertise and experience.  The different nonprofit organizations can request a number of different services that cover a variety of fields, so several firms may ultimately collaborate for a single nonprofit design project.  The projects are varied and engaging and provide designers with unique opportunities that impact the public realm of architecture.   Since 2005, has been conducting surveys to gauge the motivation behind the firms’ participation.  Amy Ress, the program manager, notes that the inspiration to join 1% has changed in recent years from being a purely altruistic gesture to an exercise in business development.

Survey Results; Courtesy of Public Architecture

Architects have begun to realize how participating in pro-bono grows community relations and increases the opportunity for experimenting with creative solutions to expand new markets.  The survey found that firms set higher expectation for pro-bono projects and more than a third devote 5% of their billable hours instead of the one 1% that the program suggests.  The projects offered by the program are more expansive and offer more opportunities for community impact.  Pro-bono work may come from existing clients or may create a future market for some firms.  While financial constraints continue to be a factor for less participation, the variety of projects continues to attract architects looking for ways to expand their opportunities while also contributing to communities.  Art and culture projects, civic and public space projects and sustainability projects are among the most desirable non-profit services.  See the full survey here .

Habitat for Humanity Mississippi Gulf Coast; MSME Architects

In 2009 Habitat for Humanity reached out to the 1% program to develop prototypes for different housing scenarios in an effort to better develop building strategies that were catered to specific housing concerns across the United States.  Five firms jumped at the opportunity to participate in a sustainable and public form of participation in a variety of communities that HFH helps.

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ), Wilkes-Barre, PA; el dorado inc, Kansas City, MO; Min | Day, Omaha, NE; Mack Scogin Merrill Elam (MSME) Architects, Atlanta, GA; and VJAA, Minneapolis, MN; were among the firms to develop designs for Habitat for Humanity’s service requests.  The locations of each of the projects determined the scope of work, materials, design challenges and skills required.  Each addressed a different concern that the design team focused on, given the site and relative community challenges.  

Architects BCJ volunteered two weeks and 20 international employees to design a Global Village with Habitat for Humanity in Malawi.  The project included the full built of two mud-brick houses from foundation to roof.  BCJ helped provide a portion of the growing village that is composed of houses built out of kiln-fired clay bricks, glass windows, air vents and iron sheet roofs.  The simple homes have provided generations of villagers housing that resolves the high risk conditions that in the past have exposed the people of Malawai to disease, illness and parasites.  BCJ’s contribution is part of growing effort to support health and education in Malawai as part of HFH’s global efforts.

Architecture firm el dorado was paired with Heartland Habitat for Humanity in Kansas City, Kansas to develop sustainable prototype housing for a large-scale revitalization of HFH construction.  The firm focused on creating a home that was responsive to the environment and outdoor oriented with minimal environmental impact.  That required solutions that involved passive heating and cooling methods, rain water collection, at home gardening areas, simple and sustainable solutions and simple construction.  The final prototype includes a 1300 SF interior with 1600 SF of outdoor space.  

Min | Day worked with Habitat for Humanity to develop a concept for a modern patio house with a private courtyard.  The focus, again, was to improve about building methods, simplicity and reduce environmental impact.  The result included a loft-like interior space, a south-facing courtyard and a roof overhang to improve solar performance in summer and winter.

Habitat for Humanity Detroit partnered with VJAA to develop homes that will attract families back to neighborhoods that have suffered from vacancies and blight.  The neighborhood that developed in the 20th century experienced a manufacturing boom that has since faded.  HFH Detroit’s mission is to revitalize these communities with higher standards of home and community development.

Habitat for Humanity of the Mississippi Gulf Coast partnered with architecture firm MSME to respond to the environmental issues faced by residents in the area.  MSME‘s design had to meet standards of building that withstood the types of conditions brought about by Hurricane Katrina.  The were designed to withstand winds of up to 150 mph abd flooding while still being accessible.  Construction on the homes began in early 2012.

Founder and President, John Peterson, reflects on the decade since the Public Architecture was started, considering the past and the future ahead. 

This year Public Architecture turned ten years old.  As we continue to quietly work through this milestone, I thought I would share with you why each day I am both gratified by what we have achieved and humbled by what remains to be done.

I founded Public Architecture in response to the desire of myself and others in my private practice to do, simply, meaningful work at work.  We had a vision: empowering designers to not only conceive of solutions on behalf of clients but to identify and address challenges on behalf of larger communities.  Yet we soon realized that, unlike the legal and medical professions, the design community then had yet to establish industry-wide practices like pro bono to serve and impact those most in need.  In what sometimes seems like a moment of naïve enthusiasm, we created Public Architecture and programs like The 1% in an attempt to address this unmet opportunity, and here we are today.

Of course, to summarize the previous decade in a few sentences would be to understate the efforts of the many staff, volunteers, and Board members whose talents and hard work have been critical to our success.  Through their efforts and the commitment of likeminded designers, it is difficult to deny that our original vision—a world where designers could serve the public good through sustainable, scalable practices—is well underway.

Today, The 1% includes more than 1100 firms who have committed at least 1% of their billable hours to pro bono design services; more than 15,000 designers now provide a combined $42 million dollars’ worth of design services each year.  Both the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) are partnering with The 1% to encourage their members to be a part of this transformation.

I sometimes describe Public Architecture as a hundred year organization; in reality, longevity only hints at the scope of what we seek to achieve.  We know that the questions we need to answer will change and evolve over time as this practice continues to take hold.  Already, we have begun to move from “How can we get firms and designers to make pro bono a part of their practice?” to “How can we help firms and designers be more effective change agents in underserved communities?”  Yet the basic principles of our work remain the same.  Quality, scale, accessibility, sustainability—these values are core to what we do and to our vision for all communities across the nation.

If you have helped Public Architecture to be a better organization in the past ten years, thank you. If you are helping us to be a better organization now or in the future, thank you.

To make a donation, become a sponsor or pledge your 1%, visit 

Cite: Vinnitskaya, Irina. "Public Architecture’s 1% Program Provides Projects for Habitat for Humanity" 22 Jan 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 May 2015. <>