After nearly a decade of booming economy, in 2020 architects (and so many others) are reminded that their well-being is tied to the stock market. Whether in peak production or in swing time research projects, labor abuses persist in the practice of architecture, and are more widespread and subtle in a culture fixated on gigs and start-ups. Faced with this in small architecture practices, we quietly work at small scales while participating indirectly with a system based on extraction and speculation, and without taking responsibility for the broader effects. The other choices are limited, speak up, drop out, etc. There must be an alternative that offers small firms an organized system for more powerful professional, political, and urban engagement. We, The Architecture Lobby, are organizing to construct a clear-eyed alternative mode of practice, one built on a foundation of trust and collective agency, and built to challenge the status quo of the profession’s relationship with the rest of the world. We are proposing a cooperative network for small architecture firms.
We arrived at the model for a cooperative architect’s network through the dedicated research of Lobby members. To discover a model of practice that could provide us with a viable blueprint and limited legal barriers, we surveyed historical and contemporary organizational models from inside and outside our industry: the network cooperative had the most revolutionary potential and will adapt to the particularities of architectural practice. Having evaluated a range of case studies as well as the varied regulatory landscape of the US, we set out to imagine in detail how a network cooperative of small architecture firms would look, feel, and function.
In this article we share a taste of those possibilities, but more importantly we invite you to join us in this process so we can empower each other to reach higher levels of personal, familial, and communal fulfillment and flourishing while also doing the right thing socially and ethically. Severe income inequality and growing authoritarianism may be outside the immediate purview of architects, but other threats like climate change and the housing crisis rest squarely within our disciplinary expertise and ethical duty. Disciplinary responses to these challenges within the dominant mode of practice may try to address the symptoms but will likely fail to acknowledge many of the root causes. We must reach outside the bounds of the status-quo to develop a calculated and strategic approach—enabling small firms to empower each other through a cooperative network structure.
The Untapped Power of Small Firms1
We concluded that we could revolutionize our profession by leveraging and expanding the nascent power of small firms (one to nine people) through recasting those firms in a cooperative organizational structure and then supporting those firms via an umbrella cooperative network.
In the US, small firms represent 76% of the total number of firms yet they capture a mere 14% of total billings—that is fighting for scraps.2 While established corporate firms rely heavily on dedicated, specialized staff to tackle vital administrative, managerial/staffing, financial, legal, and marketing tasks, small firms may only have one or two individuals to complete these tasks on top of project work. Small firms rarely have the financial or staffing capacity to dedicate the necessary resources to tackle such critical tasks and, as a result, too often expose the firm to a myriad of risks. A cooperative would allow firms to safely open up to one another and share resources of expertise, labor, software, operational efforts, and many other utilities.
Corporate firms often have multiple offices in a range of markets that allow personnel to be shared as project loads inevitably ebb and flow; small firms, too, could coordinate to take on bigger and more complex projects and negotiate higher fees. Over time, firms and groups within the cooperative network will recoup market share and, at the same time, innovate into new, social value-driven markets less suited for the corporate firm structure.
What is a cooperative network?
The cooperative network is a network of cooperative firms whose foundation is worker-ownership, a worker-centered balance of stability and flexibility, and democratic control. Worker-owners differ from typical employees in a profit-maximizing corporation because cooperative worker-owners share both typical labor duties (billable hours) as well as leadership and management roles and responsibilities. More importantly, members each have one vote, so power is distributed equally among members, not, as is the corporate norm, according to various shares/stakes of various owners. The risks and rewards of the firm are shared, mutually agreed upon, transparent, democratic, and written into the firm’s by-laws. The cooperative network concept takes this structure and extrapolates it to the scale of the conjoined firms; member firms, organized as cooperatives, elect to join the cooperative network with its own set of cooperative by-laws. In other words, the cooperative network is a “cooperative of cooperatives.” This scaling up of the cooperative structure presents many strategic benefits while maintaining the primacy and agency of worker-owners in the overall system.
On the one hand, the cooperative network structure 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 consolidate power, expanding their collective professional and political capacities. By meaningfully sharing costs, business systems, labor, knowledge, benefits, and optimally surplus revenue, member firms build resilience and strength that serve the diverse values and interests of their employee owners, not merely profit maximization for shareholders. Employee owners also own cooperative functions, development practices, public engagement, and ultimately the politics of their shared social concerns.
Legal Challenges in the US
The benefits of the network of cooperatives may be conceptually evident, but the practical and legal implementation faces significant challenges. The contemporary capitalist regulatory system reveres and protects profit-maximizing, rent-seeking, and labor-exploiting corporate models and hence treats aspects of the cooperative business model as antithetical to that ideal. Therefore cooperatives receive little support or attention by legislators leading to a limited and inconsistent regulatory landscape that varies significantly from state to state. Specifically, the US lacks any federal designation for a cooperative business entity and only six states (California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas) have statutes regulating cooperative business entities.
The complexity of existing or absent cooperative regulations compounds when addressing professions, like architecture, which are regulated as sanctioned monopolies. The Lobby proposes an organizational structure that sidesteps these potential regulatory barriers by relying on by-laws (whether applied necessarily to a corporation or a cooperative) based on a cooperative ethos and example we outline below. This hybrid model will allow a larger number of firms across a broader range of jurisdictions to immediately adopt and benefit from membership while moving toward a more unified and defined legal structure through policy advocacy over time.
A hybrid cooperative network, for now:
While the specific values of the cooperative network will eventually be up to the member firms, we propose a hybrid model based on the Rochdale principles to initially guide the design of the cooperative network. Among established cooperative communities in other industries, the Rochdale principles act as a standard litmus test for evaluating an organization’s adherence to culturally established values within the cooperative community. The principles include voluntary and open membership, democratic member control and autonomy, economic participation by members, member education/training, cooperation among cooperatives, and concern for community. These principles guide the bylaws of the cooperative network and the member firms’ internal organizations regardless of whether the local regulations disallow the firm to register formally as a cooperative.
Some aspects of a more systematic form of cooperation—sharing profits and surplus between cooperatives, standardizing fees, hiring from a common pool of employees, and setting enforceable standards between member firms—do not rest on sure legal footing and may be outlawed outright in certain jurisdictions. The Lobby’s initiative aims to support the movement toward full legal recognition for professional cooperatives in the long run. We see this formal recognition as necessary to fully realize our goal of creating a profession that can maximize its societal impact.
Worker-Owned Cooperatives Taking a Hold in the US
Worker-owned cooperatives are increasingly taking hold in the U.S in response to extreme pressures on American workers in the current economy. A leading organization in this movement is the Democracy Collaborative, that has created a series of worker-owned coops in Cleveland, OH, called the Evergreen Cooperatives. Their model uses an anchor institution, in this case the Cleveland Clinic, as a center of economic activity whose many needs—laundry, vegetables, energy, database technologies, etc—can be fulfilled by a series of cooperatives.
After forming these and other cooperatives across the US, the Democracy Collaborative and other similar groups are focused on helping employees buy out owners that are reaching retirement age. Their work has demonstrated that many owners lack a succession plan, and without such planning their businesses will either be sold to much larger corporations or dissolve. The cooperative network’s systems also provide a model of firm structure that could work for architecture firms as their older owners look to retire and transfer leadership to a cooperative model.
Domestic and International Examples in Architecture
Despite challenges within domestic regulations, the Lobby found several architecture firms pushing the envelope in the US. Warrenstreet Architects of Concord, New Hampshire, 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, uxo architects in the Bay Area, California, have tapped into their local cooperative experts to help navigate business formation. They have worked with coop law experts like Tuttle Law Group and Sustainable Economies Law Center who advocate for policies that remove barriers to the formation and operation of professional cooperatives in the US. They are also members of the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperative (NoBAWC) which is a robust example of a large regional cooperative network, outside of the sector of architecture. Not surprisingly, given the challenges outlined above, we did not discover any robust cooperative network of architecture firms in the US, so we looked outside our political borders for inspirational examples.
There are more successful examples of cooperative practices abroad, especially in countries with stronger cultural histories of cooperativism. However, in vastly different historical, cultural, economic, and political contexts in Spain, France, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada, a diverse set of architecture cooperatives and cooperative networks have flourished. These firms—LaCol Coop, Labaula, Voltes Cooperativa, Assemble, Pool Architekten, ArchiTeam—range from purely administrative to more activist in nature. We are studying and interviewing these examples as we work to design a cooperative network for American practitioners.
La Borda cooperative housing in Barcelona represents one particularly successful example of a multisectoral cooperative network. A number of cooperatives across various sectors envisioned the project as an alternative to typical speculative formulas of housing development. LaCol (an architecture cooperative) and other local cooperative and social enterprises including La Ciutat Invisible (a labor cooperative) and Sostre Civic (a cooperative association for tactical urban planning and housing access) initiated, led, and completed the project with financing from a local cooperative bank, Coop57. Their network draws vitality from the density of participating coops, providing services to each other as well as political energy and public support for the projects. Furthermore, participation in such a network—noted on their websites alongside team members and projects—functions as a key feature of each firm’s identity. In Australia, ArchiTeam Cooperative is a sector-based membership association that demonstrates how small architecture practices can start pooling resources and knowledge. Member firms are not necessarily cooperatives, but in joining ArchiTeam they have access to professional and business development workshops, group insurance rates, research, advocacy, and awards that raise the profile of members and architecture in general. While diverse in nature and structure, these examples provide valuable insight into the real-world possibilities afforded to small firms that organize as cooperatives and into cooperative networks.
Imagining a Cooperative Network
A firm elects to join the The Cooperative Architect’s Network by agreeing to the cooperative network bylaws, and it enters the internal economy of the network. The firm receives a full suite of practice management tools: payroll management, billing/invoicing, modeling assets and templates, model contracts with appropriate metadata and support, and access to non-design professionals, lawyers, etc. Following an onboarding process, financial processing would be taken care of by the cooperative network, with various aspects bundled based on need and as appropriate for cost savings. Profit and overhead for the firm would be calculated based on standardized employee pay scales and management templates, with a percentage of invoiced payment going to the cooperative network to fund its activities and operations. A standardized policy of pay scales and credits, fundamentally based on hours worked, facilitates labor-sharing.
Employees of any member firm can collaborate on another member firm’s project via standardized inter-firm arrangements. A labor-credit registry streamlines such collaborations, allowing firm principals to easily draw from the larger worker pool and enable young professionals to both gain substantive mentorship and see their first projects through successfully. Strategic constellations of firms based on specialized skills and project needs can easily coalesce to maximize cooperative network firm’s competitive edge in the market for larger projects that would previously have been unattainable. Strategic decisions of how to allocate assets and distribute profits and manage costs would be determined via a democratic process inclusive of all member-owners, ensuring a diversity of perspectives that optimize results based on shared values.
The right blend of stability and flexibility is needed to appeal to the great variety of architectural workers: a steady-going, middle-aged, experienced architect should know that their mortgage and family will be supported; a young non-American MArch graduate, feeling the pressure of the “go corporate or go home” post-F1 visa decision, should feel supported while given the freedom to work on local projects that they are passionate about; an employee should be able to negotiate vacation, parental leave, and schedule shifts without the risk of losing their job or benefits. Most importantly: a young, community-minded individual should have full access to structures that support their efforts at starting a new architecture practice aimed at contributing to social good, and not feel forced to sacrifice that vision to survive in our professional order.
The proposed network is systems-specific and not simply a loose association. The system is what moves the network away from the competitive race to the bottom. While it makes practical sense by sharing administrative costs, it does so many more things. It allows small firms to help one another. It consolidates power when it comes to professional capabilities. It commits networked firms to think about the social contexts in which they work. It gives political voice to not only small firms, but the discipline as a whole. It allows workers to own the means of production. It starts the work of replacing the capitalist system that works for neither us nor the society we work for.
We could go on. How any cooperative network operates, and what it achieves, will be up to the individuals and firms that comprise it. The Lobby believes that a cooperative network for small architecture firms presents the vital framework for building a viable alternative mode of practice and puts architects in a position to ally ourselves meaningfully with other cooperatives in construction, maintenance, and other industries for a more equitable reality. If you are interested in learning more and being a part of the alternative that we are building, please visit our website (coop.architecture-lobby.org) and become involved. Our futures as architectural workers, and the futures of our cities, depend on it.