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Nonprofit work experience: beneficial for all, but far too rare

August, 2007

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By Casius Pealer

Public and nonprofit practices are playing an increasing role in the professional development of young architects and yield great benefits for all concerned. The entrepreneurialism, close client contact, and quality design work achieved by those fortunate enough to obtain these positions make them desirable for traditional firms who want experienced interns. Yet, the architecture profession does not support these unique training settings as thoroughly as professions such as law and medicine do, so the interns who wish to gain this kind of experience, and those who are in need of services, both go wanting.

Photo: © Jamie Blosser
Rose Fellow Jamie Blosser, AIA, was the owner’s project manager on Tsigo Bugeh Village, a 40-unit affordable housing project in Ohkay Owingeh, NM. She says it, “gave me valuable experience looking at projects from the perspective of the client. ” She wrote grants, worked with investors, dealt with approvals and oversaw design and construction.
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Success stories
The Frederick P. Rose Architectural Fellowship is a national program that places architecture graduates in design positions with local nonprofit organizations for three years. “The common thread of the fellows’ work is that they often make a project where there might not be a project otherwise” said Katie Swenson, FAIA, director of the Rose Architectural Fellowship and a former fellow herself. “In many ways, a nonprofit design experience is more entrepreneurial than working in a private firm would be.”

The experience of Jamie Blosser, AIA, confirms this. Blosser spent three years as a Rose Fellow with the Ohkay Owingeh Housing Authority, a tribal housing authority located 25 miles north of Santa Fe. Her experience managing the development and construction of an affordable housing project, designed by Van Amburgh + Parés Architects, led to her current work as an associate and director of a Santa Fe firm, Atkin Olshin Lawson-Bell Architects.

“My role as the owner’s project manager was to write the grants, market and work with the equity investor, manage the budget, deal with the politics of getting approval, and oversee design and construction. This experience has given me a much bigger idea of our role as architects,” she says. Now, when hiring people she looks for evidence of community-based or public work, or some greater sense of personal responsibility. “I want to see if they only look at conventional models in their life or if they have a broader perspective. That reflects on their design ability and work ethic.”

Shaun Patchell, a 2005 architecture graduate, worked for one year at Florida Legal Services in Tallahassee, Fla., through a fellowship with Design Corps, a Raleigh, N.C.-based nonprofit. His assignment was to implement a design for high-quality modular farmworker housing, even though the client who commissioned the design backed out before he arrived. ““I had to find a new client to demonstrate this could work, so I started attending farm worker meetings, and making connections with farmers themselves. I was selling an existing design to a nonexistent client.” Eventually, Patchell convinced a willing farmer to build 10 units, and more may be built in the future.

Patchell now works at KieranTimberlake Associates, a firm noted for its use of modular and prefabricated construction. His early experience rebidding the original farm worker housing, and convincing potential clients to take on a new idea, will benefit him throughout his career.

Client Contact
Young architects in nonprofit settings often receive a significant amount of direct client contact, which is often hard to get in early years with a large traditional firm. Louis B.Smith, AIA, is a senior architect at Commercial Builders & Architects in Charlotte, and chair of the AIA's Small Practitioners Forum. Early in his career, he learned to manage complex group dynamics while working on community development projects for a citizen’s district council in Detroit. This was good experience for his current practice, doing design-build work for churches. “There is no substitute for learning how to educate a client without making them feel inferior,” said Smith. “And this education process often happens in a community setting, where individual clients may be developing a project together for the first and last time.”

Michael Pyatok, FAIA, of Pyatok Architects in Oakland, Calif., agrees with Smith, but for a different reason. He says, “Today, architectural practice requires healthy, able-bodied young people to plug in and become extensions of computers. That affects their willingness to stay in the field and to be energetic about design. Any opportunity for interns to be physically and emotionally involved with the consequences of their own actions is invaluable.” Pyatok, whose practice includes significant affordable housing work, hires interns who can demonstrate engagement in something larger than themselves. He believes they improve his firm's work environment and productivity.

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