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Local architecture firm partners with nonprofit for pro bono project
by Ariel Parrella-Aureli

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Local architect firm JGMA does not let money restrict its clients. Not unlike other architects working on the South and West sides, JGMA's philosophy that design can influence better education, social programs and more public space to those who cannot afford it is why the firm enjoys working with nonprofits who also have a strong social justice mission—often at no cost to the client.

JGMA completed pro bono consulting services and design to Cabrini Green Legal Aid's ( CGLA's ) new building at 6 S. Clark St. after the nonprofit was forced to leave its old building. CGLA aims to provide free legal help to those incarcerated to change Chicago's criminal justice system and client environments to better their situations.

Juan Gabriel Moreno, co-founder and president of JGMA, said the nonprofit stirs up emotions for the firm because of the neighborhood's history with public housing and the way people there were treated.

"We have strong feelings for anything Cabrini Green," Moreno said. "The plight of individualism in that neighborhood and the reality of what happened [is] something that has marked us."

This passion for the community from the firm's beginning in 2010 and a strong connection to CGLA Executive Director Esther Franco-Payne through a past program was also a driving force to help out the nonprofit, he said.

Six architects worked on the project, completed at the end of June with a grand opening Aug. 20. Not only did JGMA design the new space, but the team acted as Franco-Payne's free consultant, helping her navigate the tricky world of lease negotiations, finding the right space, building requirements and contract details. With this being a pro bono operation, the firm took special steps to make sure GCLA did not get the short end of the stick from contractors and builders.

It was equally important to give CGLA the space it deserved to best serve its clients, address staff needs and keep growing, said John Rausch, design principal and co-founder of the firm. Because of the nature of client conversations, Rausch said having special acoustics to speak freely while maintaining security was taken into consideration through design, as well as having each department share what they needed to do their best work. Flexible, opens spaces that could be used by clients or staff are new additions that have helped productivity. Project Designer Kai Liu was instrumental in designing these spaces and creating comfort, privacy yet openness simultaneously.

The nonprofit is three floors: one for client meetings that acts as the welcome space, one for staff and a third for community events. The welcome space has a children's play area, a waiting area and four small interview rooms that have acoustic privacy.

"[The first floor] is acoustically treated so privacy is maintained but there is still a visual connection to that central waiting area so people can maybe see their children playing while they are inside talking with their attorneys," Liu said.

The top floor's multipurpose functionality helps CGLA host fundraisers, community events, staff gatherings and meetings, Liu said, which supports the nonprofit's mission and gives them an activated, open area.

This intentional and careful design process is what Franco-Payne of CGLA appreciated from the architects. She said JGMA took the time to understand what the staff and clients needed from the space and were very supportive and understanding of important details like the intake rooms. Franco-Payne said the old building only had one interview room, so having four gives the company more time with clients and helps them fit growing needs. The new location downtown gives clients easy access to the building and transportation, also an important factor in the upgrade.

"We were able to create space design that is reflective of the people who use the space," Franco-Payne said. "Our clients are able to get their needs met and get taken care of."

While projects like these are often time-consuming and not profitable for architects, the benefits to working for nonprofits and doing pro bono work are many. Giving underserved communities a space to call home can inspire ideas, investment, financial capital and even grant submissions—altruistic and strategic from a longterm perspective, Moreno said.

"Besides the altruistic part, there are relationships that can be built," Rausch said, giving an example of how Franco-Payne connected them to another upcoming project. Liu added that design can change the mindset and elevate aspects of people's lives, which is enriching for both sides and a design challenge that keeps the creativity muscles flexed.

"When you open yourself up to help people, you encounter some of the most amazing human beings—people that will mark your life in a positive way," Moreno said about the connections made through this project. "Nonprofit work will continue to be part of what we do."

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