A grand palace it isn’t, but for down-on-their-luck laborers who gather informally on street corners and in parking lots hoping that an employer will drive up and offer them a job for the day doing clean-up chores, construction or agricultural work, the self-contained Day Labor Station is a joy to behold. Basically a semi-permanent open box with a canopy, the compact shelter houses a restroom, bleacher seating, a kitchen cubicle to make food or sell it, an education/training space, and a meeting area where employers can interview candidates privately. The entire structure is built to be environmentally sustainable, using solar power, a fresh and greywater system, and green and recycled materials.
The Day Labor Station was created by Public Architecture, a nonprofit design firm started by architect John Peterson in 2002. Previously, Peterson ran a private architectural firm that engaged in designing multimillion-dollar homes in the San Francisco Bay Area. His office was located in San Francisco’s industrial warehouse district, near weedy abandoned lots and noisy freeway traffic. Peterson’s initiative to create a friendly sidewalk plaza on an open space made him realize that he could improve the lives of those who lived in the neighborhood.
But starting Public Architecture by seeking foundation and grant money in some ways caught Peterson by surprise. “I don’t come from a background of feeling responsibility to work for social causes,” Peterson admits. “I’m very much like the students and practitioners who came out of design-centered schools. There needed to be a purity about the design. I believed that if you muddied it with a social agenda, or even with financial issues, it would dilute the design quality.”
Still, Peterson couldn’t shake the idea that architecture could be used for social good. What if the 240,000 architects working in the U.S. donated 1% of their time to pro bono assignments? That would add up to nearly 5 million hours a year. In reality, architecture firms have been generous in donating their services, but have done so in a less systematic and effective way. Public Architecture conceived the One Percent program to connect nonprofit organizations in need of design assistance with architecture and design firms willing to donate their services, and took this concept nationwide. Today projects of “1% firms” range from a radical new design for a children’s hospital room to the design and construction of a “scraphouse” to demonstrate that a home could be built entirely of salvaged materials.
Recently, the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction in Switzerland gave Public Architecture its 2009 Innovation Award for its Day Labor Station concept. In choosing the Day Labor Station out of thousands of submissions worldwide, Holcim praised it for “creating a sensitive environment for people who find themselves on the edge of the community and at the same time addressing health and safety needs.”
Today Peterson is dedicating nearly all of his time to Public Architecture programs, but he professes, “I still deeply believe in the purity of design. I just think that the issues we should be tackling need to expand. It has to include social justice. I don’t think that mission needs to limit design opportunities in any way.”