Last year Elise Honeyman connected with Jiri Lev, founder of Architects Assist, to learn about the Australian Institute of Architects initiative, its implementation and lessons learned since its inception in January 2020. The conversation touches upon the catalyst for its creation and the various ways architects can make an impact by providing alternative pricing structures, including pro-bono, delayed or reduced-fee services.
Can you tell me a bit about Architects Assist and why you were inspired to create the initiative?
Architects Assist came about during the 2019/2020 bushfires. The awful stories of families losing their homes was reinforced by the inescapable smoky skies that affected Australia, keeping it in the forefront of our minds. As an architect with a background in web development, I created a simple website to connect architects with clients who suffered during the fires to form a partial or full pro-bono working relationship. There’s no shortage of official disaster recovery organisations with big names, funding and politics, however, I saw the need for something that struck a balance between a larger organisation and a coordinated grassroots solution. Architectural registration numbers are required for accountability yet ultimately it comes down to individuals just helping one another.
What type of building typologies have been built through the program?
The projects that can be built through Architects Assist is broad. Clients are often individuals, community groups and sometimes even councils. It can be anything from park shelters to a community hub workshop facility, to small cabins in the bush. There were a large proportion of regular homes that were rebuilt as modest sensibly designed BAL 40 and BAL FZ homes, appropriate to their context.
Something that can have a huge impact and is almost second nature to architects, is guidance for individuals on their next steps. Our knowledge of the industry, lingo and approvals bureaucracy is absolutely priceless. Sharing our professional expertise through an initial meeting or chat can provide a sense of direction and increase the client’s ability to make informed decisions, which means a lot to someone who has been through so much.
Why is pro-bono work so important and what do you think it is about architects that make them uniquely placed and enthusiastic to provide assistance?
Firstly, while we know the modern definition for pro-bono work, I’d like to emphasise the Latin meaning – for the public good. Our industry attracts a lot of individuals who have a sense of idealism and seek to do work that positively impacts the public. As Architects Assist demonstrated there is no shortage of willing architects and having an impact for good, during such a tumultuous time in people’s lives is payment enough. A large portion of the housing stock in Australia doesn’t last long or work very well, architects are uniquely placed to slowly but surely shift this. Not only can our services benefit individuals affected by natural disasters, but we can more broadly improve our housing stock, one project at a time. Our idealism and work in the pro-bono sector can make the world a better place.
What drives you to do pro-bono work?
Funding is always a problem, there’s never enough money for these projects, and often the plans and grant submissions are required before any money can be accessed. That is, however, an area where architects can help.
I also found the big challenge when travelling to these affected areas was dealing delicately with people who have been through an intense and emotional experience. Our day-to-day profession requires us to act as mediator in many ways, but this was amplified. It may be cliché but you must be a good listener and not overload the clients with multiple ideas and solutions. These clients have been through traumatic experiences and need a more measured empathetic approach – often a step-by-step road map to help navigate
their way through a problem they never expected to have. It is a privilege to be invited in to help people during their time in need. It still makes me emotional three years on.
Another barrier was occasionally a lack of engagement from local governments, media and individuals when it came to spreading the word about the availability of Architects to help through Architects Assist. My understanding was this came down to the perception of architects only building million-dollar homes and therefore not really being helpful in these situations.
How can we position ourselves to help more effectively in these instances?
I think the public can misunderstand what an architect does. This is worsened by a perception of professional pride and archi-talk being inaccessible. This adds to the problem of poor housing stock in suburbia, not only because clients can’t see how an architect could help them, but these simple projects may been seen as less desirable to an architect.
As a profession we have an obsession with the 2% of projects that are full of expensive materials and difficult detailing. Alongside big commercial projects, we present these projects as if they are what we solely do. Pro-bono work may be perceived as only working on projects on the other extreme of the social ladder – building facilities for those in extreme disadvantage.
One of the biggest opportunities to improve housing standards, including through the provision of pro-bono work lies within the huge middle ground – simple to construct, humble and affordable buildings, designed to be functional, durable, comfortable and beautiful. They may not be highly acclaimed award-winning designs, yet we can have a far more significant impact through well-designed common buildings on the lives of individuals and the general housing stock. This idea can be applied to how we practice in general.
In disaster recovery projects, we should not underestimate the ways our industry knowledge and expertise can have an impact. The work done through Architects Assist varies greatly from beautifully finished projects to guidance through a grant application, to an initial chat, which gets a family on the right path to rebuilding in a clear and confident way. Our advice can help find a good, efficient and effective solution rather than a quick-fix reaction that compromises quality and eventually ends up in landfill.