Though all four of the principals at Olson Kundig have been working in the studio for more than 20 years, they have a hard time pinning down exactly when it grew to its present size. “It’s grown incrementally,” says Kirsten Murray, AIA. “It’s sort of like gaining weight. You gain a pound a year and you go, ‘Oh, wait?’ ”

“It’s kind of lonely working all by yourself,” says Jim Olson, FAIA. When he started his own shop in Seattle in 1966, he split a warehouse office with another architect, Gordon Walker. “I’ve always liked working by myself and bouncing it off somebody and going back and working by myself again,” he says. “This relationship was perfect, because he kind of liked to do the same thing. That idea has pretty much stuck with us all the way for these 40-some years.”

Tom Kundig, FAIA, joined the firm in 1986 after working in Switzerland and Alaska, where he had his own firm. “I came back to Seattle and was working for another firm when the opportunity to work with Jim arose,” Kundig says. “I had long been an admirer of Jim’s spirit and jumped at the opportunity.”

Principal Alan Maskin joined the firm 20 years ago—but he says that he knew its work before he started architecture school. For Maskin, art was the draw. “When I was hired, I was torn between pursuing a career in architecture or art,” he says. “I gave myself five years to see if there was enough art and design at Olson Kundig to keep me in the practice. I still ask myself the question every five years, and the answer, for me, remains a definitive ‘yes.’ ”

Critique drives the culture at Olson Kundig. “I’m sure my partners have told you about our weekly crit,” says Maskin, 57. (It’s true: every one of them did.) “Every Thursday since the inception of the firm over four decades ago, we turn off computers and put down pencils, and the entire office gathers in a conference room to discuss an ongoing project. While there is beer and some food, the prime motivator is a design discussion.”

Even when 50 people are giving one-minute presentations, the crits are more than scratch sessions. The firm came together “in real time” to design a project for a Seattle ideas competition, Murray, 47, says. “The products of that [the crit sessions] were what we submitted.”

“All the office is completely open. There’s very little hierarchy,” says Olson, 71. “My desk looks like everybody else’s, pretty much.” The firm keeps its Pioneer Square warehouse space flexible in part by building out the interior with plywood cubes, which allow for modular, personal work spaces. The hours are flexible, too. “It’s kind of like a beehive,” Olson says. “I might go there at 10 o’clock at night—and there’s always someone there.”

Much of the studio’s work is still centered in Seattle and residential in nature. But the firm is engaged abroad more and more, says Kundig, 57. “It is hard to predict, but we will go where clients are interested in our work and where they want us to help them make special places.”

“The project types we do are still predominantly reasonably small, whether it is adaptive reuse or residential,” Murray says. “Growth was never our plan. We’re a little surprised by how big we are. Lots of firms create a need and profile for their firm—higher-ed, healthcare. We’ve always looked for projects that are a little bit on the edge.” The choosey approach to projects helps them work small.

Olson doesn’t foresee much more growth. “It’s been about this size for 10 years. We’re handling about as much as we physically can,” he says. The firm rarely loses any metaphorical weight. “Most people stay here forever and ever.”