Employee-owned architects rebrands to fit its collaborative social purpose

Studio Skein in Plymouth is working on a number of projects with the region’s growing co-op economy

A Plymouth architect business which switched to employee-ownership two years ago has launched a rebrand to match the business model – and is working closely with the city’s burgeoning co-op economy.

McCaren Design Ltd now trades as Studio Skein, a reference to the V-shaped flying pattern of geese where each bird benefits from the flyer in front breaking the air, and the strongest flyers take it in turns to lead the flock. Research suggests that birds in V formation can fly 70% further than one bird flying alone – an excellent example of cooperation in nature.

At first the team considered the echelon formation of cyclists, which offers protection from crosswinds. Co-director Hilary Kolinsky says this led to the image of the skein, “a metaphor of everybody benefiting from formation flying”.

The Studio Skein brand has been “90% ready to go for two years”, added Ms Kolinsky. “We moved to the employee-owned model in 2020, a process which took about a year. The rebrand was ready to go when the pandemic hit and we decided it would not be the best time to launch with everything that was going on.

“We really wanted to create a brand and a name that reflected the equal status everybody had within the new structure. We had a huge respect for the legacy built up by McCaren Design but we wanted an identity which was not tied to one individual.”

This journey began in 2018, following the retirement of director Robin McCaren in 2013. The team was keen to preserve and build on the firm’s 30-year legacy and a strong client base, but to find a structure that aligned with their sense of social purpose.

The transition was made with advice from Chris Crookall-Fallon at the Hive, the co-op development agency run by Co-operatives UK. Legal advice on the transition came from David Allcock at Anthony Collins LLP. 

The business now is owned and run by its employees via a trust; Ms Kolinsky says the model is “the right way to run a small business”, giving each of the six-strong team a fair share of the profits, and an equal say in decision-making. “It’s very effective – everyone gets to bring their insights, and transparency has been very important in helping us work through the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The model is also well suited to a creative industry like architecture, helping to foster innovation and collaboration.

“This model is becoming more common in architecture,” she said. “The nature of the industry is a collaborative one, within teams and also with external partners.”

Opportunities for this sort of collaboration are in good supply in Plymouth and the wider south west, where there has been a resurgence of co-operative development in recent years.

Projects include the Jabaluni food court

“We’re really excited to be part of this growing scene of co-ops and social enterprises,” said Ms Kolinsky – who is also a member of renewables co-op Plymouth Community Energy. “We’re working hard to  support emerging co-ops and social enterprises. There’s some nice projects in the built environment at the moment, and refurbishments of existing buildings, which are being led by these businesses.”

Examples include a community site in north Plymouth, where the Pioneers Project, a community interest company, is restoring an old barracks to life. Another community interest company has enlisted Studio Skein’s help for the St Ives Baystation, a hub created in a disused Grade II listed building to address inequity in Cornwall’s seasonal economy.

The team has also worked for Jabaluni, a multi-cultural food court based at the Plot, a development led by Plymouth’s Nudge Community Builders co-op.

Working with like-minded organisations takes Studio Skein back to the metaphor of the flying geese, “which has such important lessons for business,” says Ms Kolinksy, “the idea of people helping and supporting each other.”