Architects design with co-op inspiration

An architecture co-operative is hoping to prove that when it comes to good design, the views of the people using a building matter just as much, if not...

The Cave Co-operative was established two years ago by Liz Crisp and Vera Hale and it is making a name for itself with its sustainable approach to design both in the UK and further afield.

And the co-operative is keen to distinguish itself from its competitors not just through its designs, but also through its business ethos: “Too many architects have forgotton that they are part of a service industry,” says Liz. 

“It was really important to us when we started the co-operative that we had a business model that reflected our ethos rather than just setting up a profit-making machine.

“Everyone is equal within the co-operative, which is unusual in architecture where you get a lot of big egos — people who want to force their ideas on other people.

“For us, consultation with the people we’re designing for is a crucial part of our work. How can you design an estate if you won’t ask the people who live there what they want? It’s really important to us that people are involved as early in the process as possible.”

She suggests the Cave approach is not the norm within the industry: “If you’ve gone into architecture because you have a big ego and you want to develop iconic buildings then maybe giving that power away is difficult. But people have a lot to offer and have a lot more design scope than many architects given them credit for. Good architects should be able to see that as an opportunity, not a threat.”

Having met at college, and despite Vera having moved back to her native Holland for seven years, she and Liz remained good friends and had been planning to work on a project together. “I was asked to submit some designs to a competition,” explains Liz. “So I asked Vera if she’d like to work with me on the designs. She did and we won, which meant we suddenly had a real life project to fulfil so we decided we’d better set ourselves up as a business.”

Vera moved to England and the co-operative was formed in Kingston upon Thames. They have since taken on an additional worker who in time will become a member of the co-operative. The time it takes to become a member is an unusually long three years, but Liz and Vera are keen to ensure membership is taken seriously and that all concerned have to be happy with the decision.

The word ‘sustainable’ runs throughout the co-op. “We don’t believe it’s enough that we just do sustainable design,” explains Liz. “We also need to be sustainable socially and economically if we’re to make the sort of impact we want.”

Around one third of the co-operative’s work is currently for the charitable sector, which Liz admits might not pay so well but is always interesting and rewarding. “Often you’re working on a project before the client knows whether they will have the funding to go ahead, but getting the designs and the architect’s input is a prerequisite of funding bids.”

Cave is working on projects as diverse as a community garden in London, a barn conversion in rural France and the creation of a training village in Malawi — to help address the ‘missing generation’ created by AIDS and HIV.

“We are working with a charity that supports AIDS orphans. Many parents have died, meaning you have a population of older people and children. One of the consequences of losing that middle generation is a massive lack of knowledge including knowledge of building skills.

“The project we’re working on is a training village which will serve the health, education and training needs of local people, as well as creating a permaculture centre.

“The whole of the build will involve local people who will themselves acquire skills that will help them to start their own small businesses. One of the obstacles we’re having to overcome is their insistence on wanting to use concrete and cement as they assume that because they’re used in ‘western’ countries they must be good. 

“We’re trying to help them to avoid making the architecture and building mistakes that we made in the last century and to appreciate that their traditional methods have real relevance for the future.”

This reliance on traditional methods and materials is also being employed in France where the co-operative runs regular Cob Camps as part of a barn renovation project. 

Volunteers spend a week learning new skills working on the building. One of the biggest successes so far has been the completion of a tree bog, a toilet which relies on nitrate loving plants such as willow and nettles to quickly break down the contents of the toilet, meaning there is no need for emptying. As the tree bog enjoys spectacular views over French wheat fields, it’s proving to be very popular.

Closer to home the co-operative is working on a children’s garden and community vegetable plot at the Broadwater Farm Estate in London. Liz said that local people, after some initial hesitation, are now really getting involved. “People on the estate have felt so marginalised and excluded that they were initially quite sceptical and cynical about what we were doing. It was a case of ‘You’ll be just like all the others.’

“But now they can see the project taking shape and things growing they are coming out and getting involved.”

• To find out more about the co-op visit:

In this article

Join the Conversation