Giving Back: Why and How

Michael Malone —  April 7, 2010 — 11 Comments

I have asked long-time friend, and fellow architect, Michael Malone to write an article for my website. I told him it could be on a topic of his choice – and he chose volunteering. Michael is a great guy and an engaging conversationalist, and while he is an accomplished author, he is new to this format so please leave him your thoughts on his post in the comment section below.

sketch by Michael Malone, AIA

As a profession we architects are lousy at giving back: giving back to our communities, giving back to our profession, giving back to things that would better our own lives and the lives of our families.  I’m a keen observer of this condition, in part because I have found that by taking on tasks and responsibilities outside my work (and family) I have been enriched and actually expanded the professional opportunities available to me.  Architecture, a profession whose stated purpose is to improve the built environment and through it, the quality of life for the people we design for, have a natural predilection to see such goals achieved only through the actual building of our work.  This suggests we can only do “good” or make an “impact” when we get paid for it, but are there other barriers that keep us from serving?

My own thoughts on this follow two distinct tracks.  One is the old 80/20 rule, the one that says in any organization twenty percent of the people do eighty percent of the work.  This adage suggests this is true in PTA’s, social clubs, churches and professional associations.  My intrinsic optimism is against this cynical view though; I’d like to think more people would and can actually do more, they just don’t know how to engage in the process and so they hang back.  Architects, whatever our unique skills and abilities are no different from anyone else, some of us are socially awkward and shy, reluctant to join or participate in something we don’t know or fully understand.

The second track is more ominous, tragic actually, and it gets to the root of why many of us feel unappreciated and alienated from society.  A great deal of architectural education is about seeing the world through a lens of aesthetic sensibility and how to take what we see and insert strategies that bring balance and harmony.  The awareness of the environment, both natural and built, is hyper sensitively present in most architect’s day to day perception of the world.  This is the same world that is often messy, un-ordered, visually ugly and disregarding of the aesthetic values our profession holds dear.  By extension, it leads we architects to feel we have a better path, a path that we know and you should all be following; taken to an extreme it can make us elitist and at its worst cynical.  Architectural schools are often staffed with educators who are ill at ease actually practicing in the “real world”.  They find refuge in academia with its impressionable young students eager to learn what they have to say (since their prospective clients were not interested).  Being taught a profession at the hands of those who have never been active in it themselves is a hallmark of our educations.

When we get out of school and begin to work, we have to live and practice by the norms and standards of society and to do that I’ve found the best thing is to be a part of it.  Be active in your kid’s schools and sports and PTA.  Join boards and groups at your church, teach Sunday school, sing in the choir.  Be active in your local or state AIA chapter, sit on committees, and assume positions of leadership.  Take a risk, meet your friends and peers, give more than you think you have time to, and then give more.  You will find yourself and your place in the world around you, and surprisingly, you will find clients and opportunities that may lead to opportunities.  You are your own best marketing tool and there is no way to show how hard you can work, how well you are organized and the enthusiasm you bring to tasks than through volunteer work.  When someone needs an architect you will be the one they think of and the one they know, personally.  What a thought!

Michael Malone, AIA is the author of The Architects Guide to Residential Design and a practicing architect in Dallas, Texas.  His work centers on the design of single family homes, retail stores and commercial interiors.  He is active in his children’s schools, a past president of the Dad’s Club, Auction and Carnival Co-Chairs, Room Mom (yes Mom), cafeteria volunteer, and a member of the choir and basketball booster clubs.  He is an Elder in the Presbyterian church, teaches Sunday School, and serves on the church’s building and grounds committee.  Professionally, he is the Chair of the Design Committee and a member of the Publications Committee for the Texas Society of Architects.  He is a frequent contributor for Texas Architect Magazine and Metal Architecture.

even better

  • Huy

    Hi thanks for sharing your thoughts. I would recommend you all read an article about MassStudio featured in Contract Magazine Feb

  • Paul Scharnett

    As a soon-to-be-graduate of the M.Arch program at UIUC, I am trying to head out into the architecture field and really focus on working for the community. I think that what you’re saying here has a huge impact on any community and society as a whole and I think that architecture is one of the most important ways to do so. So I am I trying to figure out how to link helping people with architecture and go way beyond just pro-bono design services. I mean, I need to pay off my massive student debt, but is there a way that architecture can give back to the community without just being based on “free” work? Can you define “volunteering” or “involvement” further? Does what you are saying mean that just because I am involved on a committee for my church, for instance, I am doing something to really benefit those who need my help most? And how can one use the profession of architecture or expertise in the building industry to improve someone else’s life while still paying the bills?

    -Paul Scharnett

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Paul,

      You are asking some questions that I can not answer. The point of this post wasn’t that – as an architect – you should give back to your community. The point was that as a human being you should give back. Sometimes there is fruit that comes as a result of being involved simply as a matter of meeting people who have similar interests (i.e.helping or donating their time) and as a result, relationships are forged which could lead to work opportunities. Then again, the point of donating your time is not to get business from the process but rather to enrich your life in a more meaningful way.

      While I can’t speak for the author, I don’t think the point was how you improve someone else’s life while paying the bills – that your approach needs to happen as if the two were mutually exclusive (but nothing in life really is).

  • http://bondchristian.com/ bondChristian

    Fantastic.

    I like to think I’m highly involved, but like you said, give until you can’t… then give some more.

    Thank you for sharing.

    -Marshall Jones Jr.

  • http://bondchristian.com/ bondChristian

    Fantastic.

    I like to think I’m highly involved, but like you said, give until you can’t… then give some more.

    Thank you for sharing.

    -Marshall Jones Jr.

  • Jennifer

    I really enjoyed your post; especially as a student, I learn a lot more from those professors who have worked in the profession, and I admire those who make it a point to give back to the community. All of the major scholarship programs at University of Cincinnati have a minimum service requirement, which I think is a great start for getting a new generation of students involved.

  • Jennifer

    I really enjoyed your post; especially as a student, I learn a lot more from those professors who have worked in the profession, and I admire those who make it a point to give back to the community. All of the major scholarship programs at University of Cincinnati have a minimum service requirement, which I think is a great start for getting a new generation of students involved.

  • http://www.lancotf.com Amy Good

    Great post, Michael and a great reminder to all of us to step outside our comfort zone every know and then and not be “okay” with just the norm. My life has been changed in countless ways when I’ve stepped out to serve others with no regard/thought of what I’ll get in return.

    • Michael Malone

      Greetings; Glad you found it worthwhile Amy. Thanks for taking time to comment. It’s a big deal to me; also one that I feel is fundamental to making us a better engaged part of the world. It’s also fun, but you don’t know that until you’ve done it.

      Best wishes for a lovely spring. Warmest regards,
      Michael

  • http://www.lancotf.com/ Amy Good

    Great post, Michael and a great reminder to all of us to step outside our comfort zone every know and then and not be “okay” with just the norm. My life has been changed in countless ways when I’ve stepped out to serve others with no regard/thought of what I’ll get in return.

    • Michael Malone

      Greetings; Glad you found it worthwhile Amy. Thanks for taking time to comment. It’s a big deal to me; also one that I feel is fundamental to making us a better engaged part of the world. It’s also fun, but you don’t know that until you’ve done it.

      Best wishes for a lovely spring. Warmest regards,
      Michael