I Create Birmingham: Charles Williams and Charles Williams II

"I’ve learned so many valuable lessons from my dad over the years. What has been most impactful has been watching him create space for the the future and building roles that the next generation is able to step into. I think that is a social responsibility we all have: to pay it forward and create career paths for the generation behind us."

Interview by Tonia Trotter
Photos by Ambre Amari

Charles Williams & Associates has been steadfastly carving out a niche in Birmingham’s design community since it started in a garage in the mid-nineties. Today, the father and son proprietors, Charles Williams and Charles Williams II, are focused on building a legacy for future generations.

You two have created a brand and reputation for yourselves in the field of architecture, particularly with municipal projects and educational institutions. How did you get started?

Charles: I always gravitated towards art and aesthetics. I loved to sketch as a child, and when I got older and started thinking about college and what my options were, I decided to pursue architecture. I graduated from Tuskegee University and went to work as a project manager for a firm. A lot of architects, when they decide to go out on their own, end up taking clients with them. I didn’t have any clients, but one thing I had been in charge of with every project was roofing. So, I marketed myself to take on any roofing replacements. That eventually led to other opportunities that have grown into what we are continuing to work on today.

Charles II: I grew up immersed in architecture. When my dad started his own company in ’96, I was in middle school and going into high school, so I was thinking about what I wanted to pursue. I went to Alabama School of Fine Arts, but I didn’t have the same natural artistic ability that my dad has. I studied math and science but ultimately decided that I didn’t want to pursue medicine or science. Architecture offered a relief from the minutiae of numbers and felt like a good fit.

Charles, did you ever question following your dad’s footsteps? What have you each learned about architecture from inside the business that you didn’t learn in school?

Charles II: I think everyone questions themselves. When you’re coming up against adversity, it’s natural to think, “Should I be doing something else?” But, I also think probably 90% of any profession is just hard work and behind-the-scenes follow-through. What others see is usually the 10% that is specific to your particular job. Drawing, designing, and building is our 10%. We spend a lot of time marketing and hunting down the next project. Architecture involves a lot of listening to clients and talking through ideas and challenges together and finding ways to resolve issues.

Charles: You can’t run a business if you don’t have any clients, so relationships are key. When a project is complete and the lights come on, you’ve had to do so many other things before designing to get to that point.

What individual skills do you bring into your business, and what do you admire about the other’s mindset?

Charles: We see the big picture together. As a manager, I realize I have to give people the opportunity to speak up and try new things. Sometimes, that leads to failure and sometimes it leads to success, but you won’t find out otherwise. Charles II is a millennial, and what he brings into our business is an innovative perspective. Something he said that really stuck with me is, “Technology is the great equalizer.” If you don’t have equal footing in terms of human power, technology takes that place.
Charles II: We really try to manage what we do in terms of expectations, thoughtful and strategic growth, and how we use our resources to advance our business. I think what my dad and I do well together is value each other’s perspectives. He views the firm through the lens of a business owner: managing projects, responsibility for our employees, and accounting for cash flow. I look at things from the viewpoint of project type, market share, and how we can get from point A to point B in achieving our goals.

What philosophies transcend beyond your current projects? What do you hope you impart with the success you have experienced?
Charles: We aren’t a big firm, nor do we aspire to be a big firm. That has its pros and cons. We don’t have a lot of overhead, but we do have employees, and we feel responsible for them. They have families, and they are our family too. Their well-being is important, and people are more engaged in their work and find enjoyment in it when they can have balance. A lot of big firms expect incredibly long hours. Most people associate architects with pulling all-nighters and day-in-day-out efforts. We don’t do that. When it’s quitting time, people need to go home and spend time with their families. That isn’t always easy to do, but it is vital to a truly successful life.
Charles II: I’ve learned so many valuable lessons, not just regarding architecture, from my dad over the years. We’ve always been close. What has been most impactful has been watching him create space for the the future and building roles that the next generation is able to step into. I have made my entire adult living off of a foothold that my dad built and have been given the opportunity to sustain, thrive, and grow. I think that is a social responsibility we all have: to pay it forward and create career paths for the generation behind us.