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What Pro Bono Work Has Taught Us

What Pro Bono Work Has Taught Us

Audrey Alverson
January 27th, 2017

Pro bono architecture: Why do we do it?

Hacker has long been a signatory of the 1+ Program, which challenges designers to dedicate 1% or more of their time to pro bono service – but through trial and error over the years, we often found it challenging to bring this work to fruition. After a few fits and starts, and some mostly small-scale projects and studies, last year we decided to put some teeth to our commitment to pro bono service. Through this process, we’ve learned that the problem was never a lack of desire or good intentions, but more so a lack of planning.

Now we’ve come to realize that landing and executing pro bono projects takes (and deserves) the same level of planning and commitment we give to our paid projects. This means actively looking for project opportunities, making connections with potential non-profit clients, keeping potential pro bono projects in the consciousness of our staffing discussions… i.e. generally just making it a priority.

With this renewed determination to land a pro bono project, we were thrilled to connect with an amazing client in the Warm Springs Community Action Team (WSCAT). WSCAT is a non-profit community development organization based on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in central Oregon whose mission is to empower tribal members to become self-reliant; and to affect positive change for themselves, their families, and their community. WSCAT’s work within the community is influenced by its eight core values: empowerment, action, personal development, community building, respect, change, accountability, and innovation.

The Project

WSCAT came to us seeking design services for a “small business incubator” – envisioned to be a place for entrepreneurs to get their businesses off the ground and for artisans to make and sell their work. With much talent existing on the reservation, but no home base to operate from, filling this gap could have great impact. The hope and intent is that this project will be a catalyst for future improvements, helping to inspire investment and action toward creating a more resilient and self-reliant Warm Springs community.

The Warm Springs Reservation is home to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (CTWS), which is comprised of three tribes – the Wasco, Warm Springs, and Northern Paiute Tribes. Roughly 4,000 of the CTWS’ approximately 5,500 members live on the reservation – and their social and economic conditions, according to WSCAT, are bleak. With unemployment rates on the reservation more than double the state average and per capita income less than half the state average, generating and/or facilitating income opportunities for tribal members is a key component of creating community resiliency on the reservation. In addition to the issues of unemployment and low income, CTWS tribal members face a number of other challenges: their average lifespan is only 50 years; and many social and health maladies far exceed state norms. Access to basic necessities like fresh food is lacking – due at least in part to the reservation’s isolated location. Income generating ventures for the tribes and jobs for tribal members are few and far between on the reservation: there is one casino; and the mill, which had employed dozens of people, shut down last year. The list of challenges is unfortunately long.

As architects, we know we can’t address or help all of the issues this community faces; but the idea of being able to create a healthy, vibrant, and warm space to support their business activities – that we can do.

Fortunately, WSCAT had access to a great asset for this project: the reservation’s historic Commissary Building, built in the 1890s and the oldest building on the reservation. The building has “good bones” you could say, but its rough condition reflects its neglect during the decades it was owned and controlled by the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). WSCAT contacted us when the BIA was in the process of transferring ownership back to the tribes, and the message from the community was that this building was important to them – they wanted to keep and renovate it.


Together with partners Walker Macy and DCW Cost Management (also donating their time), our team created a few design options for the small business incubator, complete with cost estimates for construction as well as moving the building to alternate sites on the reservation.

After a community open house session where we gathered ideas directly from tribal members – about where they wanted the building sited, what they wanted in it, how they wanted it to feel – we created a conceptual design that, we hope, honors this community voice. Some key themes include: creating a communal gathering place; designing for both environmental and cultural sustainability; and honoring the historical value of the Commissary Building.

As far as programs within the building, the purpose of the “small business incubator” is to provide rent-free and staffed space for entrepreneurs to work on their business activities – to remove at least one of the barriers that often prevent the people of Warm Springs from starting or expanding a business. The building is designed essentially as a “co-working” space with shared open office space; a meeting room; a maker space for artisans; a vendor space for artisans to sell their goods; and private offices for a bookkeeper and program manager, whose services would be provided free of charge to those in the incubator program. The building is also designed to house community amenities including a café, food cart pod with outdoor seating/gathering space, a barber shop, and a cyber bar – all spaces that are currently lacking on the reservation, and for which tribal members expressed a strong desire.

The decision to move forward with one of the design options will require approval by the Tribal Council, and the project still needs funding to pay for its construction –  but the design documents, images, and cost information that WSCAT now has in hand will hopefully help them secure that approval and funding, potentially through grants and other donations.

The Intangible Benefits

In talking with the team who worked on this project, it’s clear that the benefit for their personal and professional development goes well beyond adding another project to their portfolios. They enjoyed the opportunity to dive head first into a project that has such potential benefit to a struggling community; to engage personally with that community; and to abandon their preconceptions about what this building should be. Also notable in this case is that the scale of this project allowed us to give more responsibility to junior staff – giving them valuable experience in project management, engaging directly with the client and the partner landscape architect, and also leading design. In that way, these smaller scale pro bono projects can really provide a way for younger staff to advance their skills while getting a more “whole project” experience.

All in all, we are grateful to have been able to work with this client, to meet and talk with the tribal members who are living on the reservation, and most of all to provide our expertise to those who wouldn’t typically have access to it. It might just be that the intangible benefits of doing pro bono work far exceed those we can name.

Project Team: Vijayeta Davda, Caitlin Ranson, Kristin Ericson, Charles Dorn, Walker Macy Landscape Architects, DCW Cost Management

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