Bill Chegwidden has seen a great deal of change since he, Don Dorsey and Chuck Holmes founded architectural firm CDH Partners in 1977 in a tiny office located on the property where SunTrust Park is now on the rise.
But, while change can be scary for some, he accepted and embraced the changes in his office and the construction industry and it is now a part of the company’s mantra.
“The three of us are very conservative,” Chegwidden said of he, Dorsey and Holmes, the latter two of whom are now “mostly” retired. “We operate cash-based, not on leveraged money. We lost a lot of friends in the business during the recession. The market sector changed. Churches and schools weren’t building, but healt care was, so we latched onto that. It’s part of being an adaptive culture. It was always about having a broad base and expertise in different areas. And cross-training people. We’re all sort of changing together. But it works.”
Chegwidden said the three founding partners and a secretary were in the Cumberland area for close to eight years before building CDH’s current structure on Tower Road in Marietta. And 10 years ago, the firm expanded the building to its current 25,000-square-foot structure, which now houses 70 employees.
“We always knew we wanted to grow because that provided opportunity for our staff to grow,” he added. “We have people who have been with us since we started and some who retired after working with us their whole careers. We wanted to grow internally, not by acquisition, and we’ve done that. We would hire people and they could see there was a plan for growth. That only works if you actually continue to grow. You have to have that core of new leaders to keep growing. That doesn’t mean that everyone stays, but they know that opportunity is there.”
Chegwidden grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and moved to Georgia when he was in high school after his father’s job with an equipment company moved him to the Atlanta area. Chegwidden said he always liked to build and assemble things as a boy, so architecture was a natural fit.
“I still like the smell of fresh dirt when you go out there and see a building coming up,” he said, with a smile. “As we began to grow CDH, I learned I had a knack for building for the clients and helping them to see the bigger picture.”
“When we started, everyone worked at a drafting boards and stood up. Then we went through a thing where things were low office desks. Then tracing paper moved to computers. Technology has really changed. Everything used to be hand-drawn and now, everything is done on computers. It’s a different type of artistry, but it’s better in many ways. We can communicate with our clients better, it helps us draw better; it changes design process, how we think about design. Again, it’s that adaptive culture and you keep working on it. We’re always watching what’s going on so we can stay with the curve.”
Some of the firm’s most recognizable projects are the WellStar Health Parks, the Church of the Apostles that can be seen from Interstate 75 near West Paces Ferry and Mount Paran Church nearby. Chegwidden himself has worked on the design of more than 600 churches.
“With the churches, it’s about how we make can the community better and the Sunday morning experience work better. With the healthcare clients, it’s about how we can make client experience better and their patients’ lives better and easier. With the education clients, it’s about how we can make it better for children and the learning experience. It’s not the building, it’s the outcomes,” he said.
“We’re all about helping the community and people,” Chegwidden added. “For us, it’s about what the building produces. We have to make money and feed our kids, but it’s the purpose of why we’re here. Design work is difficult. Something always goes wrong and if you live with what’s wrong all the time, you’ll drown. It’s the purpose that keeps us going. It’s going to be OK at the end of the day. The focus is that people getting healthier, the community is getting better and everyone involved is getting a good experience.”