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Behind Olson Kundig's Design Culture

Behind Olson Kundig's Design Culture

In this article, we’ll look at how Olson Kundig grew from a small Seattle-based studio to an internationally recognized global design practice.

We will take a look at their: 

  • Open Culture
  • Hiring Criteria
  • Business Strategies 

to learn how all of it contributed to their success. 

Infographic showing the statistics about Olson Kundig

Founded by architect Jim Olson in 1966, Olson Kundig Architects grew from a firm of 7 to a firm with approximately 200 employees and annual revenue of $69.8M.

Today, Olson Kundig is one of the most prominent names in the industry and has won more than 70 regional and national AIA awards.

Olson Kundig’s Dragonfly House that blends into its natural surroundings (Olson Kundig)

How Olson Kundig Architects Started

A photo of Jim Olson and Tom Kundig (Scribd)

During his work in the late 60s, Jim Olson explored the relationship between residential buildings and the natural landscapes of the American Northwest.

Olson started the firm with a vision that buildings can serve as a bridge between people, nature, and culture.

Longbranch cabin and the forest landscapes surrounding it (Olson Kundig)

After working for several other firms around the world, Tom Kundig joined Jim Olson’s practice in 1986 and became one of the co-owners in 1996.

At the time when he joined the firm, it had downsized from 12 to 7 employees and was struggling to stay in business, recalls Kundig.

This was because they were overly focused on what then was a completely diminished mid-scale commercial market.

However, this helped them realize that instead of turning their back on residential work, they need to embrace it as the core of the business.

Retrospectively, this decision helped them in several ways:

  • Through working on smaller residential projects the firm established a financial base and started generating enough business to be able to invest in its future.
  • They realized that being good at design isn’t enough and started focusing on improving their overall project delivery methods.
  • By rediscovering the value of residential architecture, they strengthened their identity and later built their name around it. 

Olson Kundig’s Focus on Residential Niche

According to Design principal Tom Kundig, recognizing the importance of residential architecture was what impacted their success the most. 

Chicken Point Cabin photo taken from the outside (Olson Kundig)

Focusing on one niche - residential projects - helped them in 2 main ways:

1 - It Strengthened the Quality of Their Designs

Through working on small-scale projects they became experts on designing for the human experience.

This meant that they were able to create spaces that fully fit the needs of the users, a practice that now translates into their other work too.

2 - It Helped Them Develop Ideas Faster

They recognized residential architecture as a platform for research and development.

This meant that since the work is done faster, they could see how their ideas develop and get even more creative.

The interior of False Bay Residence (Olson Kundig)

Implementing these creative solutions in their residential work led them to more media recognition which started to bring institutional projects too. 

Today, despite their rapid growth, Olson Kundig still takes up small residential projects.

According to Tom Kundig, they serve as arenas where younger employees learn valuable lessons on how architecture is developed with the help of the senior staff.

Takeaway: When starting out, most architects want to try out working on different types of projects.

But, what we can learn from Olson Kundig is that focusing on a niche first can be very beneficial for your firm.

Choosing a niche can enable you to build your brand and establish your firm’s identity, which can help your business grow

Awards and Recognitions

Olson Kundig won AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Design Awards and AIA Seattle Honor Awards (Olson Kundig)

Their residential projects that explored the relationship between architecture and nature made the firm stand out.

In fact, they led to some of Olson Kundig’s first awards and national recognitions. 

As their work started to get recognized, they got to work on more and larger-scale projects, which later brought them international recognition. 

Since then, the firm has received many other valuable nominations and awards.

Olson Kundig's award-winning work has been widely exhibited and published in renowned magazines such as:

  • New York Times
  • The Wall Street Journal
  • Architectural Digest

Olson Kundig’s Open Work Culture

Despite the firm’s rapid growth, Olson Kundig prides itself as a company whose culture is based on equality, community, and mentorship. 

The firm is known for its unique weekly rituals that bring together everyone in the firm - from principals to interns.

How Weekly Rituals Contribute to Their Culture

Olson Kundig’s employees all gathered in the office (Olson Kundig)

One of Olson Kundig’s weekly rituals includes the Monday morning meetings.

3 times a month, these meetings are devoted to speaker presentations, often by outside guest speakers. The Speakers Series, as they call it, was created by Alan Maskin over 2 decades ago.

The goal was to inspire the firm’s staff by exposing them to people doing remarkable work in other disciplines such as art, craftsmanship, activism, and many more.

“When I started there was a Monday morning meeting that had just begun. It was an all-staff meeting and it still happens today but has much more layers and depth than it did when it originally started.” 
- Alan Maskin, Design Principal at Olson Kundig on How to Foster Design Culture in the Firm

On our Best Practice Fireside Chat, Alan Maskin recalls that he joined the firm when it had about 25 employees.

Today, Olson Kundig still manages to include all of its 200 employees in these meetings, which contributes to the community aspect of the firm. 

Thursday Crits

Olson Kundig’s employees during a Thursday Crits session (Olson Kundig)

However, the most important ritual that is a part of Olson Kundig’s culture is the Thursday Crits.

Every Thursday at 4:30 PM, everyone stops what they are doing and comes to the piazza space where projects are being presented.

During the Crit, 2 or 3 projects are being presented and everyone in the office from interns to principals can share their opinion on the work that’s being done. 

The idea is to start a design conversation that everyone can participate in order to: 

  • Share ideas
  • Improve the quality of projects
  • Encourage critical thinking

Takeaway: It is important to let your employees know that their opinion is valued and give them a chance to be heard.

This goes for both day-to-day activities in the firm and design ideas and suggestions. 

You can follow Olson Kundig’s example and suggest weekly or even bi-weekly crits for everyone to share new ideas and gather valuable insight to improve their work. 

How Their Work Culture Translates into Their Workspace

Olson Kundig’s Seattle open plan office (Olson Kundig)

Olson Kundig's main office is based in the historic Pioneer Square neighborhood in downtown Seattle.

As they describe it, the office space serves as a laboratory for design experimentation which reflects both their design practice and office culture.

Many of those who got to tour the office have said that it describes exactly who Olson Kundig Architects are as a firm.

Open Plan = Open Culture

Olson Kundig’s office showing the central stairs and the space around them (Olson Kundig)

There are no actual offices and everyone is constantly moving around a large open plan space. Even the furniture is moved around to accommodate different situations.

For example, during the Monday morning meeting, the tables and chairs in the piazza are set as bleachers so that everyone can sit together for the meeting. 

The idea behind this large open-plan office is to create a space where collaboration and mentorship come naturally. 

This way, employees can: 

  • Overhear conversations
  • See how different people approach different problems
  • Ask for or offer advice
Olson Kundig’s office uses modular furniture (Olson Kundig)
"The office is completely open and there's very little hierarchy. My desk looks like everybody else's, pretty much." 
 - Founding principal, Jim Olson for Architect Magazine

This arrangement allows for the employees to better communicate with each other and feel like a part of a community.

And as you already know, this is precisely what Olson Kundig’s culture is all about.

Takeaway:  As architects, we understand the impact that an office space can have on our productivity and overall performance.

But, it also affects how we work as a team.

So, if you want your team to communicate more and share their ideas out loud, you can start by creating an office space where this comes naturally. 

Online Presence: Big Part of Olson Kundig’s Marketing Strategy

Olson Kundig’s design aesthetics and open culture can be easily recognized in their online presence as well.

For example, you can find that they shared many of the presentations given during the Speaker Series on their Youtube channel

Olson Kundig’s work shown on their Instagram page (Olson Kundig Instagram)

In addition, Olson Kundig is very active on social media too, and regularly engages with their Instagram and Linkedin followers. 

You will find that photos, videos, and sketches of their work as well as all of the relevant news for the firm are shared daily on their Instagram page

Their aesthetics translate well in their online presence and give their followers a solid introduction to the work that they do. 

Takeaway: Online presence is very important for every business, especially if there are visuals involved. 

This is why Instagram can be a very valuable tool for architects. You can use Instagram to market your work, promote new ideas and foster new talent.

But remember to consider the (especially visual) quality of your content too.

As architects, we have a reputation for creating visually pleasing things, which should be carried throughout our marketing efforts as well.

Olson Kundig is Hiring Through Passion

When it comes to new hires, Olson Kundig is always looking for staff that can fit well into their culture.

Although they are a large firm, they believe that each employee changes the DNA of the firm a bit. Olson Kundig recently brought in a recruiting firm to help them find the right talent.

What they did differently however is that they told the recruiting firm to come to the office and observe their day-to-day activities.

So that the recruiters can understand the firm’s DNA, observe their weekly rituals and see the way they work and communicate with each other.

“What we did differently was we told them if you're going to identify and hire talent for us, you have to effectively be one of us. You have to be in our space to spend some time, understand what we do, what makes us tick, understand our DNA.”
- Hemanshu Parwani, CEO of Olson Kundig on How to Blend the Art of Business with Architecture

Takeaway: There is a reason why Olson Kundig has such a specific hiring process.

Each employee needs to perform well individually, but it’s even more important for your team to work well as a group. 

Utilizing Olson Kundig’s method of engaging their recruitment firm as part of their team can help you find the right fit much easier.

Business-Focused Leadership

Hemanshu Parwani, Olson Kundig’s CEO (Olson Kundig)

Olson Kundig’s growth meant that the firm had to direct its focus on business and leadership. 

This is why they promoted Hemanshu Parwani, their finance, and operations director, to CEO. 

Although having a CEO made Olson Kundig feel more corporate, it left more time for principals to focus on architecture and design.

According to Parwani himself, everyone and everything in the firm is there to support design, which is what drives his business decisions. 

Parwani’s role is to align the business and design side of things by making sure that the firm is headed in the right direction.

For example, some of his project selection criteria include making sure:

  • the project will enhance their skills
  • the project pushes architecture forward in terms of design, innovation, and sustainability
  • the client has set a realistic budget

Where is Olson Kundig Architects Heading?

Almost 60 years have passed since Olson Kundig was founded, but the firm isn’t ready to just stop at its current design portfolio.

1 - Expansion into Product Design 

In addition to their architectural services, Olson Kundig produced a hardware and home furnishing line known as the Tom Kundig Collection.
What started as a set of 25 small-scale steel pieces has now expanded to over 125 products including household tools, lighting, and furniture. 

The firm’s philosophy that architecture and design should serve as tools for creating better human-scaled experiences translates into their product line as well.

“I believe a true architectural experience is one that operates on both a macro and a micro-scale. I’m interested in the smaller‑scale element of touch because it contributes to the overall experience of architecture.”
- Tom Kundig, Design Principal and Owner

Other renowned design firms such as BIG Architects and Studio McGee have taken this approach as well, both offering their own product lines. 

2 - Digital Tools and Technology

Olson Kundig tries to incorporate new tools and technologies into their work to maximize efficiency. 

This includes digital tools and software that help facilitate project management as well as incorporating new technologies into their architectural work.

“We look into digital fabrication and how to innovate and work on such projects as well. A lot of new construction processes are happening right now and we try to bring them into our thought process." 
- Hemanshu Parwani, CEO of Olson Kundig on How to Blend the Art of Business with Architecture

What to Do Next:

Now you know how Olson Kundig came to be one of the most renowned firms in the industry.

And you have seen how their culture and business strategies affect their work and what are the next steps for the firm.

Which of their practices and strategies would you like to try out for your firm?

Let us know in the comments!

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