They feud about tea bags and rodent rights, they take afternoon tea together every day and have cycle paths in the office. Meet Feilden Clegg Bradley, the firm that won Building's best practice award.
once upon a time, Mr Feilden, Mr Clegg

and a cow called Matilda lived a bucolic and apparently idyllic life on some farmland near Marshfield, Wiltshire.

More specifically, it was in the 1970s. Richard Feilden and Peter Clegg, friends since their student days at Cambridge, were eco-warriors. They drank warm milk, lived communally with two other families and entered some architectural competitions.

An interesting start. Now, Feilden Clegg Bradley (the third senior partner joined in 1985) is a Bath-based firm of 70 people. Its name has become synonymous with environment-friendly design and it is one of the few regional practices to enjoy a truly national profile. It opened a London office in 1998 and increasingly attracts high-profile clients, including BRE, Greenpeace and Peter Gabriel.

It also carried off the DETR-sponsored best practice prize at last month's Building Awards. This was more than a recognition of its green design skills. This was about running an efficient practice, setting new standards in staff management, and delivering clients' requirements in a show-stoppingly contemporary and successful style.

Zara Lamont, chair of the judges and director of the Construction Best Practice Programme, praised the firm's "total belief in the importance of respecting people – its own staff, its clients and those it worked with". Feilden Clegg Bradley's learning culture, lack of pretension and commitment to partnering were also noted by the judges – as was its determination to practice the green values it preaches through design.

So how, exactly, has a regionally based and rather idiosyncratic practice managed to adapt so effectively to the fast-changing world of 21st-century construction? At least some of the answer, it seems, lies in the firm's early history and that penchant the founding partners shared for communal living. Says Feilden: "Take partnering, for example. We currently have successful arrangements with a number of clients including Imperial College London and The Peabody Trust. It is true partnering, based on trust, free access to information and the open-book approach.

"But we have always operated like that, influenced as we were by Edward Cullinan and the co-operative style of running things. I feel an almost pathological obligation to be open. Secrets, like corruption, are ultimately undermining."

That co-operative spirit has also meant that employees are treated more as equals than subordinates. The practice has always had a individual reviews, a high partner-to-staff ratio and it has always had "get-away-from-it-all-and-think" days.

"These days were very significant, even when we were a small practice," says Feilden. "We'd talk about where we were and where we might prefer to be. They have always generated a lot of emotional energy and helped us keep in touch with each other's aspirations."

These practices continue. Others, however, did not survive the practice expansion and what Feilden calls the process of "growing up".

"Running a practice of 30 people isn't that hard," he says. "It's small enough to be coherent so, for example, we used to have a system of communicating by gossip. But with more people, that wasn't going to work any more."

The office is open plan; the senior partners are not hidden behind doors. Everything is open – that’s what makes this place work

Young practice member

So in 1999, after taking advice from external consultants, the firm undertook a long look at itself. "The result is that instead of having management structures which sort of get by, we now have a structure that is really crisp and would allow us to grow to about 120 – though that's not an objective."

In essence, the structure that has been created has resulted in a number of groups meeting at agreed intervals to co-ordinate and put into action pre-set agendas. The design forum, for example, organises project reviews and keeps abreast of design developments. The practice group deals with housekeeping, IT and PR.

"We are much less egalitarian than we used to be," concedes Feilden. "With more people, it's necessary. But we are not managed by the senior partners. Our strategy group, for example, creates the business plan, sets budgets and assesses work opportunities. But, to an extent, management is everyone's responsibility and we try to make it happen in a natural and unobtrusive way."

The new management structure is proving itself in a number of ways. For example, the firm has purchased a fleet of folding bicycles for its staff to use and is replacing its company cars with more environment-friendly propane fuelled vehicles.

Within the firm, IT has been upgraded, larger London premises opened, a staff profit share scheme introduced and the practice manager made partner – another example of the non-hierarchical approach to running a business. The firm's long-standing commitment to research, particularly of the environmental kind, has also been formalised.

It is all part of a significant expansion – the firm has just accept its first project over £20m. But as the jobs get bigger, Feilden admits, so it gets harder to stay in touch.

"We have used consultants to monitor our clients' satisfaction, and the results have always been gratifying," he says. "But now we need to do more – perhaps three-monthly reviews would help on larger projects. You have to dare to ask the right questions."

However, some staff are worried that the firm might compromise its ideals and accept projects with poorer environmental credentials in order to maintain its expanded workload.

In many firms, such anxieties might fester behind closed doors, but at Feilden Clegg Bradley they are openly debated.

Says Feilden: "Yes, we are thinking about this. What do we do if there is a downturn? We have never yet forcibly made anyone redundant, but it is better to think about these things before they happen. It may be that the best way would be to take a wedge out of the organisation, while retaining core skills."

The great rat debate

Feilden Clegg Bradley’s culture of constant self-analysis can come as a shock for those who have worked for other practices. It is fondly described by one young practice member as “incessant navel-gazing. Should we, for example, have Fair Trade tea? At the moment it is PG Tips and not everyone is completely happy with that”. Other feuds have included whether Feilden’s speeding fine should have been met by the practice (“Some felt paying it might encourage speeding”) and the rat in the practice garden: “Was it a threat to health, or did it have a right to live in peace?” The tradition of all sharing afternoon tea together in the library may also seem quaint, but the impression you get from employees is that they would have it no other way. “The lack of walls is what you really notice,” says one. “Look around. The office is open plan; the senior partners are not hidden. Everything is open – and that’s what really makes this place work.”