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With assistance from VEOC, Austin Design transitions to a worker-owned cooperative

The New England architecture firm has long taken a different approach to its design work. Now it has joined the movement for a different type of ownership.

A sampling of words that came to mind for Austin Design’s architects and designers when asked to briefly describe what architecture means to them: Purpose-driven. Enhanced living. Life-focused. Collaboration. The words stand out not only as helpful descriptions of what high-quality architecture can achieve, but also as reflections of some of the core ideals that continue to shape and propel forward the movement of companies becoming employee-owned, a movement which the team of 10 workers at Austin Design has joined as of early September.

Bill Austin started the architecture firm Austin Design, Inc., in Colrain, Massachusetts, in 1993, offering architecture services for a mix of residential and commercial clients, ranging from small renovations to large-scale new construction. Now operating primarily out of its office in southern Vermont, the firm has earned a reputation as the go-to firm in New England for craft breweries, and boasts some of the region’s best-known names as its clients, including The Alchemist in Stowe and Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Waitsfield.

This month, after a forty-year career in architecture, including thirty years at Austin Design, Austin retired, leaving the firm in the skilled hands of its employees to own and operate the business democratically as a worker cooperative.

“Over the last several years, our office evolved into a tight, effective team serving our clients to the best of our abilities,” Austin said. “We developed an exceptional, if diverse, portfolio in affordable housing and craft breweries, among other areas of architectural design. During the last year, we developed a plan to create a worker-owned cooperative to take the reins of Austin Design, Inc.” 

From collaboration to cooperation

Looking toward retirement after three decades of leadership, Austin initiated group discussions about what his departure meant for the future of Austin Design, quickly discovering that the team was eager to stay together and continue working on the projects they find meaningful. As the team discussed its options, the worker co-op model emerged as a viable way to keep the team together and nurture the existing culture of collaboration while taking on greater control over the company’s future.

“The idea of forming a worker-owned cooperative to buy the business from Bill came very naturally to the group because the company was already run in a very collaborative spirit,” said Chamois Holschuh, Office Manager. “The nature of our design projects requires constant communication and problem solving, and for many years, Bill had included the employees in big-picture decisions like opening a satellite office in Vermont (now our primary office), deciding what kinds of projects we wanted to pursue, and so on.”

Jen Kimmich, co-owner at The Alchemist, attested to the firm’s strong ethic of collaboration when it designed The Alchemist’s state-of-the-art production brewery and retail center in Stowe.

“We are not surprised to learn that Bill Austin has decided to transition Austin Design to an employee-owned model,” Kimmich said. “We had the pleasure of working with Bill and his talented team to design our Stowe Brewery which opened in 2016. Every member of the Austin team brought a lot to the table- from understanding commercial processes and functions, to expertise with minimizing environmental impact. Throughout the planning process communication was clear and the Austin team really listened to us. They understood our needs for beer production, our energy and clean water goals, and our vision for a beautiful, light-filled brewery full of innovation and art. They were able to bring all of these things together because they worked so well as a team. I can only imagine this new employee-owned model will only bring this talented team closer together. We can’t wait to see what they do next!”

VEOC proves invaluable

After giving some thought to its options for the future, the team was becoming more serious about the transition to a cooperative and needed to try its hand at leading itself. Austin, thinking ahead, started creating more space to allow cooperative management practices to develop.

“Bill intentionally took a step back,” Holschuh said, “creating a training-wheels period for us, where we were able to make decisions and lead ourselves forward.”

Ready to take the next step, Austin Design contacted the Vermont Employee Ownership Center in May 2021, holding an initial meeting with Executive Director Matt Cropp. After giving an overview of the conversion process and timeline, Cropp helped put the wheels in motion by providing more detailed information about worker ownership transitions and connecting the team with educational materials, existing worker co-ops, and the professional advisors who would guide the business throughout the conversion process.

According to Holschuh, the resources provided by Cropp and the VEOC proved invaluable. A little over a year after that initial meeting, Austin Design had determined the economic value of its business and assets (thanks to Lynne Silva at the Silva Group), officially incorporated the cooperative (thanks to attorney Joseph Andriano), secured a loan to buy the business (thanks to Cooperative Fund of the Northeast), and closed on the sale of the company (thanks to Mark Saunders and the team at Dunkiel Saunders Elliott Raubvogel & Hand). As of early September, Austin Design Cooperative, Inc., is officially up and running, marking the second worker-owned cooperative conversion in Vermont of this year.

“All ten members of our team signed onto Austin Design Cooperative, Inc., which is a great compliment to everyone involved,” Austin said. “ADCi is off to a great start taking over during the busiest, most prosperous year the company has ever had. I could not be happier!”

"I am still amazed that we had total buy-in from all the employees,” said Patrick Kitzmiller, Architect. “It just speaks to the company culture and the tight-knit work family that we have created here. I can't wait to see where this all leads us."

Architecture for enjoying life

Now a worker co-op, Austin Design will continue to be led by its motto, “architecture for enjoying life.” Holschuh says the motto refers to the firm’s mission to “bring our client’s vision to vibrant life, to create space and place that both reflects and drives their sense of purpose.” Though the firm has become known for its innovative designs for breweries, it also has extensive experience in residential architecture and has recently increased its work in the design of affordable multifamily housing to help address the region’s housing shortage.

Eight of Austin Design Cooperative’s worker-owners are located in southern Vermont and two work across the state line in Greenfield, Massachusetts, a 30-minute drive south of the firm’s Brattleboro office.

“We are grateful to Bill for his many years of leadership and friendship, and we are pleased to honor his life’s work by keeping ‘Austin’ in the company name,” the Austin Design worker-owners said in a joint statement. “We consider ourselves very fortunate to have been able to form a worker-owned cooperative and are excited to go forward as an even stronger, more capable team.”