Pro bono work brings rewards

By Rhonda Dredge

Pro bono work has its pleasures. One definite plus is that you can be free and easy about allocating work, inviting rather than directing who should get involved. 

When architect David Sutherland went in to brief his staff about the Melbourne City Mission (MCM) youth shelter job in King St, he asked for volunteers.

“I introduced it to the whole office,” Mr Sutherland said. “The project captured our imagination. People donated certain amounts of time because it was a good cause. That’s where the inspiration was.”

The two-year project is a now a model of how local companies can help quickly while waiting for political parties to develop policies for what may or may not ever eventuate.

“Individuals can be leaders, not just governments,” the outspoken director of Southbank architectural firm Fender Katsalidis said. A member of the MCM board suggested the company do the job pro bono and it agreed.

Fender Katsalidis has now been working for two years with MCM and builders, who worked at cost price, to overhaul its youth crisis service so that it provides temporary accommodation as well as counselling.

The new Frontyard shelter opened last month, and staff members were seated, ready by the automatic doors to deal with their first clients.

It takes an architect to explain how the angle of the stairs works to take the clients, who might be in crisis, straight towards a case worker. 

Mr Sutherland said that the new glass front meant that clients could see into the building and the doors opened automatically to let them in. Workers are protected by what he called “safe mode”. “There’s a panic button at the entry and every room has two entrances,” he said.

The four-story building was completely remodelled, reducing office space to two floors. 16 bedrooms now occupy the top two floors, each with its own bathroom so there is no connotation of a barracks. There are decks, shared kitchens and after-hours access. 

“Architecture is an incredibly complicated and rigorous profession,” Mr Sutherland said. “It’s a regulatory minefield. Pro bono work is the same. There are no short cuts.” 

“For us the liberation was doing it for such a good cause. What is our core value? The basis of the practice is people and the environment.” 

“In business the building is an economic vehicle. This project by comparison has a moral imperative. We just wanted to do it. It made us feel good. I think we’ll do it again.”

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