Chris Charles Honored with Virginia Emerging Professional Award

Leadership skills can show up early, as can compassion and talent.

Christopher Charles, an associate and designer, was recently selected for the Emerging Professional Award from AIA Virginia, a 2,500-member society of the American Institute of Architects.

In selecting Christopher, the society noted his ability to combine “leadership and engagement skills to collaborate with clients, peers and students in advancing the profession, mentoring, lecturing and in service to his community.”

Here are edited excerpts of an interview with Chris:

Q: Tell us a little about how and where you grew up.

I grew up in West Baltimore, in a lower middle class neighborhood. My dad was a social worker. My mom worked a desk job with CSX, the railroad company. I grew up the youngest of four. My father was an immigrant from Trinidad. My parents’ mentality was about working hard and being the best you could be – I got that from both sides of the family. I was pretty focused in school and was able to socialize and make friends but when it was time to focus on work, I was good at that. Our parents helped us prioritize school work. They gave us a good foundation.

Q: When did you know you wanted to be an architect?

From as early as I can remember, I always wanted to be an artist. I was always drawing and sketching. My parents were good at taking note of my interests. Knowing that it might be difficult to be an artist and make enough money to eat, they led me down the path of finding something related. In high school, I was already in an engineering curriculum. I’ve never veered away from architecture.

Q: Was your first job in your field?

No, my first job was working in a retirement home, in the kitchen and dining room. I was 14 years old. I was a buser. Then I got a summer job at Haagen Dazs. Relationship building paid off early for me. My high school drafting teacher introduced me to a friend who had an architecture firm in Baltimore. He gave me my first architectural job the summer of my freshman year in college. Still having the West Indian mentality, I did that and the other jobs to save money for school.

Q: You’ve got two children, ages 14 and 5. How do they describe what you do?

They say I draw buildings. It goes a lot beyond that, of course. A portion of what I do is draw buildings. A bigger portion of what I do is figure out what buildings are about, what they need to do, and how they go together. You have to ask different people different questions to get that information. One thing I always try to do is to possess a lot of knowledge about the conversations going on with stakeholders and to hear things from every source. Buildings are more than just places we go, and they should be designed with intent.

Q: One thing the Virginia AIA noted was your leadership skill. Where did it come from?

I think it’s just always been there. I remember in kindergarten, we had nap time and were supposed to bring a blanket. Well, not everybody would and so sometimes kids got cold. I noticed a problem and mentioned it when I got home. My mom and dad sent me to school with a big orange blanket, one that could fit on a king-sized bed. At nap time, I pulled it out and pretty much the whole class slept under that blanket. It became fun for everybody.

Q: Were you voted most likely to succeed in high school?

No. I won most school spirit in high school, and lost by one vote for the most popular. I think it was that leadership quality that helped with most school spirit. I wasn’t afraid to do things because I wasn’t worried about what others would say.

Q: What happens if people hate your designs?

That happens. It’s fine. It’s fun to me because it’s like you’re trying to figure out what language somebody speaks just by looking at them. It’s your job as an architect to figure out what they want, even if they can’t communicate it, and put your goals in there, too. I don’t take exception to a client not liking a design. It’s an opportunity to rethink and it improves you as a designer. My wife is a great example of someone who tends to have taste opposite of mine. If I’m doing something for her, I really have to apply some thought outside of my natural inclinations to get it right.

Q: Do you have any career advice that you’d pass to others?

Yes, one little piece really stuck with me. I was with another architect. We were on the road driving to a project. He told me to shape my future, to take the reins. It opened a door for me to speak my mind a little bit more. I think in general, I’ve always had good support from people (architects and other) who took a genuine interest in me. I take parts and pieces from the many valuable lessons they’ve passed on and opportunities they’ve made possible and I build upon that and carry it forward.

Q: You give to your community, organizing clothing drives for the homeless, giving them water, volunteering at Hampton University, working with our summer scholar program. What does that mean to you?

A lot of it stems from what my parents gave me. If you have a neighbor and you see them, you speak to them, right? It’s the same way with homeless folks. I walk past them every day. They are people, just like me, so why wouldn’t I talk to them? People in the office, they donate their clothes. Then, they see someone around town with their coat on, their shirt. They see that they’ve helped someone. I think it is our duty to help people no matter what. It’s something I try to do in architecture and everywhere. I was fortunate to have people around me who had my best interests at heart. So I try to do what I can to pay it forward. I try to see the best in people and hopefully help make them even better. My wife says I’ve never met a stranger.

Chris, 34, joined our firm as a Summer Scholar in 2003. This program is highly competitive and open to students from around the world. Upon graduation from Hampton University in 2004 with his Bachelor of Architecture degree, Chris joined the firm full time.

He has gained a wide variety of work experiences, in project types and scale, as well as each of the phases of design, bidding and construction. He takes great care in understanding the design intent, and making sure it’s carried through into the details and the built product.

Chris has also demonstrated exceptional client leadership capabilities, earning the trust and respect from college and university staff. What’s more, Chris recognized early that he needed to fully comprehend the many facets of architecture to be a competent designer and well-rounded architect. Chris is an inspiration to us all. 

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