Toward a cooperative network of small architecture practices

Small but Mighty

Toward a cooperative network of small architecture practices

Small firms can punch above their weight by sharing expertise. (Nik MacMillan/Unsplash)

You might be small….

In the United States, architecture firms composed of fewer than twenty people make up 92 percent of all firms—a percentage virtually unchanged since the 1970s—though in total they represent only 44 percent of all architectural workers (Economic Census 2012, table 5). Firms of 1- to-9 people make up 76 percent of the total number of U.S. architecture firms while capturing a mere 14 percent of total billings. If you are one of these small firms, you probably bemoan those tasks that transcend your basic competence and your engaged sensibilities.

Unable to afford the specialized staff that tackles vital administrative, managerial, financial, legal, development, and marketing tasks commonplace to large firms, it is difficult to efficiently dispense with these realities to concentrate on the advantages of being small: programmatic experimentation, design detail, personal relationships with clients, work-life balance, and thwarting corporate divisions of labor. Flummoxed by the realization that an uncertain percent of your time is spent on the non-billable and uncreative aspect of running an architectural office, the possibility of sharing both relevant information about and expenses of administration might be attractive. More attractive still is a structure that makes the firm less vulnerable to the vagaries of the market and then next potential client call and taking more control of getting the projects that matter.

But you can operate big…

Rethinking the nature of practice in small firms is part of a broader need to reconsider the value of cooperation, cooperatives, and cooperativization in cities more broadly. The Architecture Lobby wants to facilitate this by viewing small firms in tandem with the social, economic, and political potentials offered by a cooperative network that leverages economies of scale, consolidates power, and expands collective professional and political capabilities. On the one hand, the cooperative network can leverage economies of scale by centralizing much of the business operations and in turn helping member firms reduce cost and risk. On the other hand, the cooperative network serves as a knowledge and trade network for small firms to help one another. By meaningfully sharing costs systems, labor, knowledge, benefits, and optimal surplus revenue, members build resilience that allows a firm to take large control of the direction of their firms and the projects it wants to pursue.

A cooperative, technically, is a worker-owned organization, and the network would help these cooperative firms work together in predetermined ways. The network is open to all firms that have the willingness to share necessary information, and they do not need to be worker-owned—although this would be a positive step toward a larger democratic shift. The network joining these firms will share resources at the level comfortable for its members: Use the economies of scale to jointly hire consultants, share knowledge, share software, share knowledge, share employees as projects recede or expand, share space. Clients get the benefit of a firm with specialties it desires with an assurance that there is access to more complete expertise. Firms get the benefit of specific identities with the stamp of expanded expertise and stability.

Coming Together…

There are institutional challenges to forming both a coop and a cooperative network in the US: capitalism is based on competition, something that is reinforced in everything from our education to institutional modes. Also, cooperation between firms can trigger fears of monopolization and antitrust legislation. But laws allowing cooperativization that were first enacted to support struggling small farmers in the US are increasingly being applied to other industries, although professions, where licensed and unlicensed workers mix in a typical firm organization, are prohibited from legally forming as a coop. But again, coops can function cooperatively despite these restrictions.

The Architecture Lobby has found several firms pushing the envelope in the U.S. Warrenstreet Architects of Concord, New Hampshire, for example, has adopted cooperative structures simply for better workplace culture and more responsible firm practices. CoEverything in Somerville, Massachusetts, offers a variety of cooperative-based architectural, education, and real estate services. South Mountain Company, based in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, operates a straightforward ecological design-build cooperative and has grown enough to self-initiate affordable housing developments. In search for the most equitable structure of practice, Lobby members at uxo architects in the Bay Area, California, have tapped into their local cooperative experts to help them navigate the opaque legal waters of incorporating as a legal cooperative and worked with coop law experts to remove barriers to the formation and operation of professional cooperatives in the U.S., as well as The Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives, a group that backs democratically controlled workplaces across sectors.

All it takes is a desire to move beyond the current system that doesn’t work for small firms, as forced competition guaranteed a race to the bottom. If you are interested in learning more and being a part of the alternative that we are building, please visit our website (architecture-lobby.org/coop) and become involved.

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