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The Importance of Volunteerism and Pro-Bono Work in Architecture

November 2nd, 2017 by

Over the course of my career, I have found great satisfaction in the profession of architecture. As Bob Borson notes in his blog ‘Life of an Architect‘, “the practice of architecture is a lifestyle, not a job, and the results of our work can positively impact people’s lives”. I have found the intersection of volunteering and practice particularly satisfying. My passion is the design of affordable housing and the community based work I have done over the years has helped me to understand and treasure the results of my work.Magda giving an AIA tour of Baltimore City, circa 1990.

As an architecture student in the 70’s, I spent a lot of time at bus stops on the way to work. When I told the people waiting for the bus I was studying architecture, many of them had strong opinions about the profession. They said architects only worked for the rich, that it was a profession that didn’t care about the people using the buildings. If you think about architecture of the 70’s, they had a point – it was the era of schools without windows, for example. That early experience informed the type of work I wanted to do and my desire to spread the word about the importance of the built environment and the positive impact communities can have.

I moved to Baltimore in 1981 and found it a great place to volunteer. I led tours of downtown Baltimore for AIA Baltimore, volunteered with Kids In Design and got involved with the Neighborhood Design Center. These opportunities allowed me to talk about the importance of architecture to a diverse group.  While talking to the school groups, I emphasized that as an active member of your community you can influence policy and design choices. While leading tours, I spoke with adults about the incredible historic fabric of Baltimore. As a volunteer with the Neighborhood Design Center, I had the opportunity as a young architect to run my own design by providing pro bono services to non-profits that were investing in the community. All of these experiences allowed me to talk about architecture to non-architects in a community based forum. I learned a lot and built relationships that continue today. One of my co-volunteers in Kids In Design was Marshall Snively. He is now President of the Lancaster City Alliance and Executive Director of the Lancaster Downtown Investment District, and has been a friend and colleague for 35 years. He worked for the Downtown Partnership and helped me get involved with the organization in its early years. One of the Neighborhood Design projects led to a commission with Bon Secours, with whom we still work.

Over the years, I have had the honor to be involved with numerous volunteer activities. I continued my work with AIA Baltimore, and have found that volunteering and mentoring is one of the best ways to communicate my passion about architecture. If we engage as citizens, and as architects, we have a greater impact on the community we live in. It also benefits us as individuals. According to Forbes in an article published on March 2015, volunteering has unexpected benefits. They include career advancement, better health, and greater personal happiness. The London School of Economics found the more people volunteered, the happier they were.

I served on the boards of community organizations such as C.O.I.L. (Communities Organized to Improve Life) in southwest Baltimore and CDC in east Baltimore. I continued to volunteer in the schools and as my children grew up became an active member of the PTSA at Baltimore City College.

Today in our office, we have several team members who have started and continue to be involved in exciting projects which take the message even further. Chelsea Thomas founded the Baltimore chapter within the organization, Doors Open, which is a citywide celebration of architecture that invites the public to explore Baltimore’s diverse buildings and neighborhoods and meet the people who design, build, preserve and carry out remarkable work within the city. This event, now in its fourth year, generated over 2500 visits to Baltimore sites. Martina D. Reilly founded the AIA Disaster Assistance Committee which became the Committee on Environment and Resiliency. She sits on the AIA National Resilient Education working group. Through her work she assists architects and communities to evaluate and prepare for disaster relief.  

Magda and Martina, one of Marks Thomas’ associates heavily involved with architecture-related volunteerism.