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Civil liberties

Jane Duncan

Architects have much to offer their communities. Should volunteering be part of the job description?

Volunteers played an important part in building The Remakery in Brixton, London.
Volunteers played an important part in building The Remakery in Brixton, London.

The business of business should not be about money. It should be about responsibility. It should be about public good, not private greed – Anita Roddick, founder, Body Shop

Everyone benefits when architects volunteer in their communities.

Richard Rogers has spoken of how architecture’s civic responsibility has been eroded in ‘an age of greed’, saying: ‘We have a responsibility to society. That gives us a role as architects not just to the client but also to the passerby and society as a whole.’ 

The truth is that wider public awareness of ‘what architects do’ will only happen if architects themselves show more awareness of public needs. 

As citizens we can influence social conditions; we can even be the cause of positive social change, and many of us want to make a contribution to our social fabric. 

As architects we understand and appreciate the social consequences of our work and have respect for the responsibility to a community that is part of any new project. But do we have a social responsibility that extends beyond design and delivery?

The principle of public interest design is embedded deeply in the history of architecture, indeed in the RIBA’s charter and charitable objectives. Since the market downturn, there has been a growing discussion of socially responsible design characterised by attitudes that value justice, equality, sustainability, inclusion, participation and collaboration within increasing numbers of practices that intentionally engage in social issues. Should we be giving a portion of our time or financial resources to bring a larger benefit to society?

People give their time because what we get back enhances a sense of purpose about ourselves, our communities, and our lives

Global businesses certainly understand the convergence of social and commercial interests, and now dedicate significant resources to social responsibility initiatives, as consumers gravitate towards brands that align with their personal values. Providing value to society is increasingly an integral component of successful business strategies.

Socially responsible design practices however often arise from small-scale individual or collective efforts to address local needs and concerns. This pragmatic approach recognises the constraints of time, money, evaluation, and engagement, but seeks to find ways to address specific needs and create better socio-spatial relationships. Architects have an enormous opportunity to use their expertise for community service other than by volunteering or donating money. Our critical thinking skills can also be valuable in designing an organisation or setting strategic goals and implementation plans.

We should surely all be prepared to take a role in influencing the built and social environment beyond our projects. I have worked pro bono for 15 years with my local community action group, leading teams to create a social, environmental, transport and economic vision, and helping to implement the proposals. I believe that the people involved give their time because what we get back enhances a sense of purpose about ourselves, our communities, and our lives. And I am now on first name terms with the leading officers of my local authority and local developers.

 Public interest design is breaking down barriers, embracing architects, planners, landscape architects, and other professionals and creating new models of design and practice. Creativity and social responsibility are parts of the same mission and the rewards for the communities in which we work and for ourselves are significant.

Your participation matters.

Just being an architect is an act of social responsibility. Even the strangest concoctions of our imaginations have to do with humanist values – with people, society and context. We’re all part of the human fabric – Frank Gehry 


Take your seat on the RIBA Council

Chartered, student and associate members are invited to apply to serve on the RIBA Council for the session beginning September 2017. Nominations open on Friday 7 April and can be accepted up to 5.00 pm on Friday, 19 May 2017. 

For more information and to apply visit