Portrait image of Bryan Bell, AIA, founder and executive director of Raleigh, N.C.

Portrait image of Bryan Bell, AIA, founder and executive director of Raleigh, N.C.

Credit: Shawn G. Henry

For Bryan Bell, AIA, founder and executive director of Raleigh, N.C.–based Design Corps, the traditional walls between design and building limit how much good that design can accomplish. Bell, along with Roberta Feldman, Sergio Palleroni, and David Perkes, AIA, received the 2011 AIA Latrobe Prize for Public Interest Practice in Architecture. Currently a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and founder of the Public Interest Design Institute, Bell and his colleagues propose that a “needs-driven” practice, rather than a “client-driven” one, is fertile ground for the profession.

Public-interest design is a very new term. One definition is “putting creative abilities to practical use to improve communities.” It refers very specifically to professional practice, going beyond pro bono volunteerism and grassroots activism. Up to now, the network of practitioners in this field has been very informal. With the Latrobe Prize project, we wanted to expand this informal network and give it structure.

First, we’re doing a survey of the profession to find out four things: what the interest is in doing public-interest design, what experience people have with it, what the obstacles are, and what has supported this work. The AIA is going to send this survey to a sample of 5,000 members. Our effort will find ways collectively to support this work and move past the obstacles. We’ll be asking people to be very specific about how they have generated fees, for instance. As a personal point, I can’t afford to do pro bono work, but I have found that there are other models where you can add the value of design to communities but still make an income.

We will also be doing the same type of survey for the public—asking probing questions of public-serving organizations that have found value working with designers. The third piece will be to collect this information and combine it with recommendations in a guide.

Concurrently, the Public Interest Design Institute will provide in-depth training to architects and others interested in this practice in the form of three-day seminars. The first seminar will be held at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in July, and then we’ll travel to 10 other universities around the country.

The pedagogy for these trainings is the SEED [Social Economic Environmental Design] metric, a set of standards that goes beyond green design with a “triple bottom-line” approach. Yes, the environment is important, but it’s not the only issue. The SEED mission is that every person should be able to live in a socially, economically, and environmentally healthy community. Our challenge is to figure out how design can support that mission. I think the wisdom is out there. As told to Kim A. O’Connell

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