LA CO-op. A way to stay in the profesion?

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums GENERAL DISCUSSION LA CO-op. A way to stay in the profesion?

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    While reading Architect magazine I came across and article about an Architecture Co-Op.


    A group of people, most with day jobs, that work together on research and design projects. There is no office only a website, and at that it is a Facebook page. The partners do not live near each other, in fact they are spread across the country.


    Weekly meetings consist of Skype and file sharing to go over projects or discuss theory.


    What about us LA’s. Would this type of non traditional firm flourish in today’s profession?

    Could you see yourself working your day job to pay the bills and then coming home to work on interesting design projects or research?


    Sounds like a great way to keep a portfolio fresh. May turn into a full time job. Will allow those not currently in the profession space to continue their passion.


    My hope is to bounce around ideas and theories on this concept. Will it work? Should it work? Who’s tried?

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    I always think about what client is likely to be interested in any type of business plan that is out there. What would be the likely client? Why would they prefer such a group over a local existing firm or a well known firm that does similar projects to the one that they need help with. Why would it get work that the peole who join it can’t get on their own?

    Jonathan Smith, RLA

    I think it could work.  Right now I’m putting together a proposal with a firm a few hundred miles away.  Never met them face to face.  But I know their work from their website, know them from e-mail and phone conversations.  This idea could even work with interdisciplinary projects as well.

    Thomas J. Johnson

    Personally, if I’m going to put in extra hours, I’d rather do it at one place / for one project (with pay reflecting extra time).

    I’ve thought about the Co-Op thing before and I always return to the same question; How does the money work? If I can find jobs and see them through, why would I want to share the profits? It seems like the main benefit of a Co-Op arrangement would be “specialization”. If you get a project that has some aspect that you don’t want to or can’t do, you can farm it out to somebody in the group. This raises another question; How is a Co-Op different than “having friends”?


    I think it would be more of a specialization set up. I also agree with Jonathan in that it would problably need to be a interdisciplinary co-op.

    I may not have explained well that in the arcticle the partners of the Co-op are not working in the architecture feild. They have ‘Day jobs’, in essence they are just a group of ‘friends’ getting together to work on design.

    Without the Co-op they would be only serving coffee or managing a retail store, two examples.

    As far as money goes that was not their first motivation. All they wanted at first was to work on projects. It was not clear in the article if they did pro-bono design at first but I would assume it was that or just research.

    So in our case it would be a great place to work on unsolicited master plans.


    A co-op has a new, young, fresh sound. It gives the impression of working together for a common good. So from that stand point, marketing.

    If it is an interdisplinary co-op it may bring in projects normaly only given to large engineering or LA firms. Yet the client does not want such a big firm working on it.


    The people joining may not be currently working in the feild and this is a way for them to work ‘part time’ on projects to keep their skills up to date.


    I think I am interested in the educational purposes of this set up more so than money. I currently have a ‘day job’ that pays my bills and allows me to work on design. Yet I have an urge to work on larger projects to learn more.


    For me this would be working on a project for the joy of it. Not the paycheck. This co-op would be in line with the studio I had at school.

    In the arcticle I read that is how it started…just for the joy of it. Later they did start getting paid projects but that was never a set goal.

    Elizabeth Renton

    I think it sounds like a good idea for anyone who doesn’t have a job in the profession and wants to stay current and fresh and engaged. Like Thomas said, if I already have a fulltime paid job in a landscape architecture office, i think i’d rather put in the extra time (and hopefully get extra pay!) at my existing job. But yes, for a bunch of friends who’ve been laid off and are now paying the bills by working at a coffee shop, I think it’s a good way to keep the portfolio up to date and work on projects that really interest you.

    mark foster

    Jonathon–If money is not a consideration, you should have no trouble finding work!    My pro bono work comes from local groups (Youth Build, E-Corp, local neighborhood councils, etc), but if you want to work in a broader context, NGO’s (non government organizations) may be the way to go.  Lots of folks need our expertise who can’t afford it.  It’s a good way to build a portfolio too.  Good luck!


    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    Playing Devil’s advocate here:


    The idea is to have a group of talented LAs to be in the position to take on projects that require a group of LAs. My first reaction is that because it is a group it would not be marketable for smaller jobs where landscape design budget and client’s needs would not match. The group would have to target a higher market that would require a group and have the budget to support that level of design service. Right away you have to be in competition with bigger firms.


    If that is correct, and please explain how it would not be correct, then you are starting out competing against large well established firms who are all scrambling to get any work that they can. They are not only at an advantage from being established, but because they will be refered by other professionals, have portfoilios of built work, testimonials, awards, teams of experienced marketers, managers, contract writers, full time staff in a physical office that will tranfer the initial call to a very experienced person who has managed similar projects, a meeting can be held in their conference room within 24 hours, or someone can be at the developer’s office or on site in that time period,  …. All of these things are what bring a client and designer together and have little to do with producing design and everything to do with being able to get work.


    How is this CO-OP going to take that work away from established firms?


    Is anyone who is developing a project requiring a team of LA’s going to be fooling around trying out a group of web based people scattered all over the country?  Let’s say that some prospects look into it. There will need to be a live person answering the phone and real people who know what they are talking about to transfer the prospect to in real time. There needs to be money ready for travel on short notice. There needs to be a hierarchy in place to determine who is doing what from the get go. There needs to be the ability to write up a proposal and coordinate schedules to meet the demands of the developer. That means management and overhead whether work is coming in or not. You will all have to be paying in to be part of the CO-OP whether it is getting work or not. When work comes in, some will get more of it than others based on ability or available time (that will be trouble).


    Can you hire a marketer who will bring you in work? If (s)he is out there (s)he is getting well paid by someone else and is unlikely to join a co-op in my opinion.


    These ideas come from people who fantasize about other people taking away all of the reality of our profession and allowing them to do only the parts that they want. The only way it can work is for a group of experienced LAs with experitise in all aspects of the business were to do it on a full time basis with enough capital to get it rolling. That would pretty much make it just like any other big firm, but with less real estate.


    I think there is a strong likelihood that design quality will suffer in this model.


    I work from home, but my colleagues and I know each other well enough to communicate effectively. I also have a very specific role in the operation at this time, so it works out.


    You should ask yourself what kind of incentive you offer the potential client with this working model–The most obvious answer I can think of off hand is less overhead, lower cost. Say, for example one person is located in an area where a public project comes up, but they are not licensed to perform the work. They may team with a licensed professional remotely, and perhaps other consultants.


    I think the more likely scenario we’ll see in the future is telecommuting and downsizing of office space. I think there are still many reasons to have collaborative space, but perhaps there will be less need for large corporate cubicle farms.

    Tanya Olson

    A co-op could compete against larger firms because their overhead is lower resulting in more actual work hours for the same budget or justifying a lower overall bid even if the hourly rate is the same. Small offices even now group together in multidisciplinary teams or discipline-specific teams depending on the size of the project and what services they think will appeal to the client. They often search out specialists to be on their team that they have never worked with to gain an edge. The client gets a team tailored to their project and small offices get to compete for larger projects.

    Beyond the ‘hobby’ setup Jonathan originally described, I think this is one of the business models people are talking about that has some real potential and is actually not very different from what I described above. You are right – for a residential client a single-person office would have no need for the co-op, but if I wanted to put together a team for a larger project RFP or RFQ something like this could really work. It would be handled exactly as it is in offices now – the prime gets paid and pays the subs. The prime would be the contact person for the client exactly the way it works with non-virtual offices. Any potential travel and other expenses would be in the contract price, as it is now.

    There are several web-based setups that can handle the $ already – Elance, Dreamfish (which is actually a co-op, but leans more toward startups), and maybe others. Whoever takes the initiative to answer the RFQ would be the prime contractor. The problem would be if one link in the ‘team’ chain is weak or flakes out….there is a doorway for shysters I suppose…but as small a group as LAs are, I would think someone like that would be exposed fairly quickly. If you used typical subcontracting contracts then you would have legal recourse.


    mark foster

    Well said Andrew.  There is a huge divide between a hobby/learning experience and a profession. 

    There is also the fact that of all the design professions, LA is probably the least adaptive to remote design.  Unlike interior designers and architects who work with climate controlled spaces on flat planes, we work with natural elements on slopes–both of which can vary greatly.   Plants, soil, water, sun and wind, heat, cold–all change from one geographic area to the other.  Even when traditional LA design firms stretch over long physical distances, they almost always have a local design partner who fills in the rather large gaps. 








    Tanya Olson

    You’re talking about this!

    The thing I love about this model is that the coworking space is open to anyone – not just designers, so you might have design professionals, web designers, telecommuters that are sick of sitting in coffee shops, etc. It would be a great source of cross-pollination, feedback from outside one’s own profession and potential collaboration. They’re specifically NOT ‘executive suites’ – really more design conscious…I’m trying to get something like this started in my small town in our old elementary school – really a cross between co-op space and business incubator….



    To address a few issues.


    At the creation of this Co-op I do not see it competing right away with large established firms. It would need to have a collection of work produced as reference to go after some larger projects. The only way I see getting this would be through pro-bono work or work brought in directly from the Co-op’s members.


    After a length of time the Co-op would have a body of work to show when they are competing against big name firms. And at that point they have the advantage of being different. They do not have the large overhead and traditional office but they have a body of work that shows what they can offer.


    As far as small design projects I see no reason they can’t take these on. With very little overhead any of the LA’s could take on small projects on their own. The benefit of having the Co-op at this point is that if you need help or just want to ask a question you have others that are there at the ready. Another benefit is if a member brings in more small projects in their local market they can have help and not turn away work.


    This may cause problems with who gets paid what if only one member does all the work for a design project. Yet it can be simply resolved by having established percentages at the creation of the Co-op so no one goes into it blind.


    This model, of doing smaller designs, would also allow others to work more if they have time, unemployed, and others less, currently hold a full time job.

    These smaller jobs in this model, I predict, may also pay more to the designer than if they were done in a traditional firm setting.


    Sure some projects may require brining on local LA’s but that is part of keeping a low overhead. The co-op can expand and contract. Bring on partnering firms or not.  


    Another log on the fire is what about licensure? There was mention in the original article that some of the co-op partners are studying to become licensed but are in the mean time working under other members of the co-op.


    Some right out of a BLA or MLA program that can’t find work and are not licensed could have a chance to be apart of a co-op and work toward the goal of getting their license.


    Very well put. I agree with this stance completely. The co-op is not a singular firm it is a group of individuals, and possibly other firms, and so the ideas will be unique and unlike what you get from a traditional firm.


    I belive this model would be apealing to clients becuase many are at a point with the economy  and overconsumption that they want a new fresh idea.

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