Making People Better

Being engaged as a creative person involves being willing to look outside of your own experience and give back in a way that utilizes your talents and passions.  On week three of the Change the World Novena, we look at making a difference in your community, as an individual and as a business.

Pro Bono work is not a new thing for many architecture firms.  However the desire to consistently give back to the community is something much more rare.  I recently attended a presentation called Teach a Man to Fish  at the Healthcare Facilities Symposium and Expo in Chicago because I thought it would be interesting to get the presenters’ take on how architecture could empower a community.  The session featured an intern architect named Elise Drakes, and I soon realized that she was an example of how an architect can empower people, not just through a single effort, but through the way community service is a part of the way she lives her life. 

Main Entry of the SOS Clinic
Elise, who lives in Orange County, CA, has consistently tried to find volunteering opportunities related to healthcare and architecture.  She has been a mentor for the past five years with Big Brothers Big Sisters as well as a volunteer at an art therapy program called Art and Creativity for Healing.  She realized that her efforts could have greater impact if she expanded outside of what just one person could do and so she took her interest to work.  TAYLOR, a California-based architecture firm, had done pro bono work in the past, but not to a significant extent.  Shortly after joining the firm in 2007, TAYLOR empowered Elise to take on “give back” initiatives.   At first she identified small projects, including the remodel of a child’s room for the Make a Wish Foundation.  Then came a defining moment.  Hoag Hospital, one of Taylor’s clients, contacted them and asked if they could help with a project for a non-profit organization called Share Ourselves (SOS).  Taylor agreed, and Elise coordinated the architecture effort.

Share Ourselves is a Costa Mesa based non-profit providing social safety net and healthcare services to low-income and homeless residents of Orange County.   TAYLOR joined three of the region’s construction companies and collaborated with Hoag’s Real Estate, Construction and Operations department to redesign and build a new facility for SOS.  Originally intended as a cosmetic improvement project, the team soon determined that what was needed for SOS to provide the best services to the community was a full scale renovation.  “It’s easy to drop the ball on a pro-bono project,” Elise notes.  “However, in this case it was less about what was donated than the commitment of individuals from each organization and the leadership they brought to the effort.”  Hoag provided coordination for the project as well as some of their business partner contacts so that the team could solicit donations.  They also have helped on the PR side helping to make sure that the community is aware of the resource and that they story of this effort is told. 

“This project was different from other pro bono work because it was a long term project and many of the donations were used to fund construction, not a particular item with naming rights,” says Elise.  “I was in awe of what people were willing to give both in their time and in in-kind donations.”  In addition to TAYLOR’s donation of architectural services, a local artist donated a week of his time to produce a community-based mural, and other artists loaned work to the project.  Questar stepped into the GC role while Suffolk Roel also provided contracting services and RTKL designed branding/graphics.  “I called up total strangers and asked for things the project needed and was amazed by the response,” says Elise. Their generosity was especially notable to her because, “These donations were not about recognition.  There is no donor wall.”

Elise was enthusiastic about  her efforts, but also stressed that this was something other firms can and should take on.  Her insights on how to build a successful pro bono process:

Respect the character of the organization The team looked comprehensively at SOS as an organization and provided a design response that reflects their culture and practices.  Some of the existing features that worked really well, such as the community planter garden where residents are educated in small scale gardening were prominently located at the front of the building.  It is also different in that the non-profit has collected data for exiting conditions and is using that as a benchmark for determining what design measures were successful in the new space. The team observed systems and processes in the existing facility and took steps to enhance them in the new design.  “We provided countertops in a cueing area to allow people to complete paperwork while they wait in line,” observed  Elise.

1+1 can equal 3 By looking beyond what just a bunch of architects could do in their spare time, Elise was able to successfully expand the project and involve the construction community as well as local businesses and artists.  A more comprehensive effort lent the project more credibility, which made it easier to continue to get donations. The team also told the story of the project to the construction workers to help them understand the value of their efforts.

The project doesn’t stop when construction does It’s great to help out, but to make meaningful change, you have to follow the metrics so you know what to apply to the next pro bono opportunity.  SOS tracks data on the people they serve and now can track improvements related to design elements in the new facility.  This data will continue to inform the project team on where their efforts were most successful.  Elise felt that the team was a powerful element in implementing the project and following up after construction.
Elise’s passion as an architect is operations impacts (she’s currently working on an MBA).  Forming a community partnership to benefit area hospitals was something that she was happy to take on, although she was surprised that more firms are not already doing this type of thing.  She hopes that by sharing the SOS story, more will.  “This can be done by everyone,’ she stressed “It’s all about the people and the passion they had,  That’s what let us keep going on this project.” 

Elise Drakes, Assoc. AIA is a project coordinator at TAYLOR and a passionate advocate of bridging the industries of architecture, healthcare and non-profit organizations. She is involved in all aspects of hospital projects at TAYLOR, from schematic design through construction administration. Additionally, Elise is extensively involved in the community. She has engaged with non-profit organizations such as Art and Creativity For Healing, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Project Tomorrow, Make-a-Wish Foundation, and ACE Mentoring. In 2011, she received the Tomorrow’s Leaders scholarship at Chapman University and is now pursuing her MBA with an emphasis in finance. She is a co-founder of The Benefactor Foundation, a non-profit corporation established to create college scholarships for deserving students. Elise’s role in The SOS Project as a designer and project manager was an opportunity to make a significant impact in her community. The positive life change that each team member experienced was an unforgettable gift.