Small architectural firm tackles big projects with creative listening

Cris Collingwood//September 27, 2022

Small architectural firm tackles big projects with creative listening

Cris Collingwood//September 27, 2022

Penn State Health Cancer Assistance and Resource (CARE) Center at Penn State Milton Hershey Medical Center offers an inviting space for patients and families – Photo by Anela Bence Selkowitz

Chris Dawson wants to make architecture easy to understand. 

The gregarious designer started his own small firm in Harrisburg to do just that.  

After working for three larger firms, he branched out on his venture in 2009 to work closely with clients, listening to their ideas and taking the mystery out of the process. “It’s all about listening and sharing ideas,” he said. 

The firm, which now has 11 employees, is a space where architects can grow. Dawson said that growth comes from the ability to get into all phases of the design and building process. “We have more talent because we do it all,” he said. 

Chris Dawson

Big firms tend to tackle projects in groups so an architect may only get to work in one area of a project, he explained. With a smaller firm, the architects can work on a project from start to finish. The project, he said, is not handled differently, it’s just handled by everyone in the firm.  

“It gives us the ability to do creative work,” he said. “And we want interesting work, so we have no specialty area.” 

A problem he faces, “is we don’t want to get pigeonholed into small projects.”   

Being small, Dawson said some clients may think the firm hasn’t done enough of the type of projects they are looking for, so his company doesn’t always get the job.  

That’s okay with him. “We continue to do a variety of jobs and, to me, it’s a more interesting way to work.” 

In fact, his firm tackles the gamut of designs except for schools. “And if you want a tricked out surgical suite, we may not go there,” he said. 

“But we adapt and when people give us a chance on something, we get repeat work,” he said. “If someone wants something thoughtful, they seek us out for creativity. We are not trying to be offbeat or trendy.” 

Dawson said his team listens closely to what the client is looking for and what kind of memorable space they are seeking. “It starts by stepping back and learning what they want. Then we give them three to five options which starts the process,” he said. 

“If it’s just esthetics, it comes up short.” Every project, he said, needs function and “it has to look beautiful too. We balance that.” 

An example Dawson cited is the Penn State Health Cancer Assistance and Resource (CARE) Center at Penn State Milton Hershey Medical Center.  

The space was the vision of Founding Program Director Dr. Michael Hayes, assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health and Medicine, Penn State Milton Hershey Medical Center, he said. He wanted a lot of daylight and comfortable seating in a space that didn’t feel institutional.  

The team created a new glass entrance that is surrounded by warm wood slats to make patients feel at ease, Dawson said. 

“They did a spectacular job,” Hayes said. “It reminded me as a child watching Disney’s Magical Kingdom; the experience was truly magical.” 

Hayes said Dawson has the unique ability to hear and see beyond what can be seen and heard about a space.  

“It delivers on our pledge of providing truly personalized care,” he said. The space makes patients feel welcome offering light and inspiration. “It makes them feel at home.” 

Another space Dawson cited is the Zeroday Brewing Co. Taproom, 1900 S. 2nd St., Harrisburg. President and Partner of WCI Partners David Butcher was looking for a space that allowed patrons to feel connected to the outdoors so they could relax, Dawson said.  

The design of the taproom and event space brings a strong connection to natural surroundings using daylight.  

The 3,500-square-foot space includes an 80-foot-deep tasting room anchored by a 50-foot-long bar that “visually connects the historic storefront to new glass garage doors that open to a beer garden for outdoor dining,” according to Dawson’s brochure. 

The private event space with seating for 50 resembles a mini brewhouse. 

“This historic building allowed us to use our talents to showcase the outdoor theme,” Dawson said.  

David Butcher agreed. “It was a great experience. They helped us achieve exactly what we and the owners of Zeroday were looking for in both fit and finish.” 

Butcher said his company chose Dawson because the firm’s experience with urban design was the right fit for the type of building and space the brewery was looking for.  

“This is a high-quality design with efficient use of space for the quality product Zeroday puts out,” he said. 

Dawson also works a lot with the cannabis industry. “There are a lot of benefits from using cannabis for treatment,” he said. “We work with grow facilities, processors and dispensaries.” 

He said working with this industry came about by accident. “I was helping a client in Denver, Colorado, and he liked working with us, so we got licensed in other states to continue the work,” he said.  

“There is a lot of creativity in working with dispensaries. It’s like dispensary meets Apple Store,” he chuckled. 

Dawson said working with growers is complicated because of the humidity and water issues. “These are very expensive buildings. It’s a young field and we are getting to be experts after spending the first few years learning about it.” 

So how does a small firm like CDA find clients? Dawson said it comes from relationships and being involved in the community. “I’m a soccer coach and interact with a lot of people,” he said. “When they think about architecture, we come to mind.” 

Starting a small firm was not without its challenges. “It takes time to get traction,” he said. “Projects can take years to complete” from the idea stage to construction. 

“I was confident from the beginning and the market tells you if it will work. It’s working,” he said.