David Baker Architects


Why We're "Pro" Pro Bono

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By Chelsea Johnson and Brad Leibin

8 Reasons Why


1 | Give the firm more faces
Often pro bono work allows junior staff to demonstrate leadership.

2 | Reach new audiences
Small civic projects can garner wide-ranging positive interest.

3 | Build community relationships
Pro bono work allows us to get to know our fellow local citizens and to cultivate trust.

After we received our architecture degrees—Brad from Penn and Chelsea from UC Berkeley—both of us initially went to work for landscape architecture, rather than architecture, firms. We were both interested in design that looked beyond the property line, that related to its context and could have a positive effect on the larger community, not just on the immediate occupants.

We both eventually found our ways to David Baker Architects because of the firm’s focus on affordable housing, which is part of a broader commitment to looking beyond the day-to-day tasks to how architects can have a larger influence through our work.

One of the primary reflections of this intention is DBA's pro bono design work and related engagements. Each year DBA pledges one percent or more of our billable hours to pro bono service, inspired by Public Architecture’s 1+ program. These are typically reduced-fee or zero-fee projects for non-profit clients who may not otherwise have access to design services.

We have found that pro bono projects come into our office in a range of different ways.

4 | Shake up the energy
Projects with a smaller scale and shorter timeline provide a refreshing change of pace.

5 | Enact our personal values
We can advocate for projects and offer a voice in equitably shaping our communities. 
6 | Diversify our experience
Pro bono projects broaden our skill set and add variety to our portfolio.
7 | Advance design objectives
Community-oriented projects imbue housing with a unique identity and sense of place.
8 | It feels good! 
Sharing our skills gives our work even more meaning.

Part of a Whole

Sometimes a pro bono project emerges naturally from one of our larger projects. For example, in 2010, as part of DBA’s work designing Tassafaronga Village, an affordable neighborhood developed by the Oakland Housing Authority, we were able to offer design services to Habitat for Humanity. Their project, Kinsell Commons, included 22 family townhouses integrated into the larger village. A DBA team provided pro bono design services for the townhouses, which were then built by Habitat for Humanity homeowners and volunteers.

Habitat for Humanity's Kinsell Commons townhouses at Tassafaronga Village, 2010. Image: Brian Rose


Identifying an Opportunity

Sometimes we propose a pro bono project to a client. This was the case with La Cocina at 855 Brannan, a new mixed-use development we are designing in the Showplace Square neighborhood of San Francisco. DBA recognized an opportunity for a creative, locally beneficial use of some of the retail space allocated to the project and advocated with owner Equity Residential for the integration of three La Cocina food businesses into the ground-floor commercial spaces. These businesses will be run by graduates of the La Cocina non-profit kitchen incubator program, based in the Mission District. DBA will also undertake the tenant improvements for these spaces, offering a reduced fee to La Cocina.

Image: La Cocina


Client Collaboration

Our work on the CHP Training Center came out of informal conversations with one of our repeat clients. Community Housing Partnership is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing supportive housing to formerly homeless individuals and families. Our most recent housing project for them was the Drs. Julian & Raye Richardson Apartments, which provides 120 studio homes for chronically homeless individuals.

CHP was holding employment-skills classes in various community rooms that lacked the capacity and technology necessary to teach computer skills. When they secured a 2,800-sf dedicated space near our office in SOMA, the DBA Interiors team offered to transform the property into classroom and consultation spaces that would support the instruction, mentoring, and training needed to help CHP's clients become self-sufficient and hold stable jobs.

The CHP Training Center is a project that DBA undertook within Public Architecture's 1+ Program. Image: David Baker Architects


Design Exercises

We also have had the opportunity to do some public-interest design work, which diverges slightly from the classic pro bono model, but still allows us to make contributions and connections.

In response to an invitation from Public Architecture, three firms—DBA, CMG Landscape Architecture, and Perkins+Will—developed proposals for small, low-cost interventions in the urban fabric that could help the city bounce back after an earthquake. We led a team at DBA that devised Local Cache, a cistern-inspired branding strategy. The project created opportunities for dialogue with various stakeholders, including the San Francisco Director of Neighborhood Resilience and the Department of Emergency Management. This work informed a panel discussion at the 2013 Architecture in the City Festival about how to enhance San Francisco's earthquake resilience.

Local Cache was a proposal to foster greater disaster resiliency within SF neighborhoods through small-scale, low-cost interventions. Image: David Baker Architects



“One advantage to this kind of work is that it broadens your horizons. You tend to get very specialized in architecture; not that it is boring, but it can get a little static.

The 1+ program at Public Architecture and pro bono design work generally are good ways of working around that.” 

—David Baker


Urban Interventions

More recently, the firm donated time and energy to the 2015 Market Street Prototyping Festival (MSPF), a three-day event that explored playful interactive improvements to one of San Francisco's main corridors.

Our DBA MSPF team devised and built a temporary urban viewing station called peepSHOW. Throughout the Festival, peepSHOW functioned as a large-scale, occupiable sidewalk kaleidoscope. By reflecting and reframing its surroundings, peepSHOW offered a moment of pause, wonder, and contemplation of the surrounding urban environment and inspired conversations about a "better Market Street."

For this year's Festival, DBA was invited to be a 2016 Design Captain, guiding new projects through the development process. In addition, the peepSHOW project was one of 10 selected to enter the MSPF prototype incubation process, which includes funding, training, and fabrication mentorship to develop the concept for a semi-permanent installation on Market Street. 

peepSHOW installation on Market Street. Image: Michael Alan Ross


Exploration and Iteration

In response to the staff's interest in public-interest design and research projects, the firm has recently launched DBA Lab, an in-house research and experimentation studio that looks to create opportunities for creative, community-oriented works.

Continuing in the vein of Local Cache and peepSHOW, we hope to develop and apply our design work in ways that stimulate our interest, expand our skills, strengthen our engagement, and create local benefit.

Chelsea Johnson and Brad Leibin are architects at David Baker Architects. You can contact them at chelseajohnson@dbarchitect.com and bradleibin@dbarchitect.com.