Employee-owned architects’ practice shares lunch and more

Last year it moved into a new office and took a new name, but Cullinan Studio is still owned by its architect members and it remains at the...

Last year it moved into a new office and took a new name, but Cullinan Studio is still owned by its architect members and it remains at the forefront of sustainable building.

Since the practice was established by Ted Cullinan in 1965, it has employed co-operative principles. In the early days Edward Cullinan Architects was a collective of self employed individuals, but issues around how liability and risk were shared encouraged them to consider a new organisational structure.

After a short stint as a partnership, the practice became a limited liability company. Architect member Carol Costello says: “When we were a partnership everybody was a partner – there weren’t just two partners and all the minions below them. We became a limited liability company and instead of just having a few directors everyone became a director, and that’s still how we’re set up. Everyone has a say and everyone receives a share of the profits.”

Pay is related to skills and experience and never exceeds a 3:1 ratio. Ms Costello says: “We take this whole thing quite seriously. Some architects spend a lot of time and money getting trained so it’s fair to pay some members more, but in difficult times the ration has gone as low as 2:1. Instead of trying to collect assets we give the profits out and encourage people to put it in to a pension or bricks and mortar.”

The practice comprises 25 employee owners working in a newly renovated, environmentally sustainable studio in Islington, North London. Working together allows them to share knowledge and experience across projects, and allows teams adjust as their needs ebb and flow.

The studio produces different solutions for different clients, in commercial, cultural, housing, health, education, urban regeneration and masterplanning. Recent clients include Kew Gardens, for whom it designed a concrete framed Herbarium, Library, Art & Archives Wing. The structure uses thermal mass and ground source heat pumps to create a stable environment for Kew's priceless collection of dried plant specimens, botanic books and illustrations.

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Another recent client was the British Film Institute, which commissioned Cullinan Studio’s BREEAM excellent design for its new Master Film Store in Warwickshire. The building is the first of its kind to store large quantities of film, over 450,000 canisters, in optimal environmental conditions. In 2012 it received a RIBA Award and RIBA Regional Building of the Year Award.

Cullinan Studio is committed to social as well as environmental sustainability, and consultation and participation by the users forms an essential part of its design process. The firm has enjoyed a longstanding reputation for good employment practices and more recently has made great strides in analysing and reducing its own carbon footprint.

“There are always challenges with employee ownership,” says Carol Costello. “It doesn’t make it easy. Sometimes knowing everything is quite painful. You have a share in the worry, as well as the success. It’s a kind of family. We’ve seen people through ups and downs. I think it’s great the company stands by people and supports them.

“It also works for us if we need to react quickly or someone sees an opportunity. We think it makes business sense. Everyone has a stake in it. It’s challenging but never boring.”

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