Q&A with Cushing Terrell Design Director, Charlie Deese

Charlie Deese.

Cushing Terrell is a nationally recognized architecture, design, planning, and engineering firm with a dedicated regional office in Denver serving clients across the Front Range and Colorado’s mountain communities.

In the last year, Charlie Deese was named a design director for the firm. Charlie has worked out of the Denver office for five years, and in that time has completed award-winning projects all over the country with a particular focus on unique, contextual and community-driven design for higher education, custom residential and affordable housing projects.  

How did you get started in the A&D industry? 

While I’d thought about pursuing architecture school immediately after high school, I opted instead for a degree in finance from the liberal arts school, Franklin & Marshall College, which landed me a job as a spreadsheet geek for a prominent commercial real estate firm in Chicago. 

I remained fascinated by the design and development process, however, and finally decided to pursue a master’s degree in architecture at the University of Oregon. That particular program’s pragmatic approach and emphasis on real-world application, coupled with a focus on sustainability, were appealing to me and laid the foundation for my design philosophy today.

After earning my degree, my wife and I relocated to Montana in 2012, where I was given my first architecture job at Cushing Terrell. We have several offices across the state, and I had the invaluable opportunity to engage in a big way on a variety of projects, honing my skills first in custom residential projects before moving into higher education and ground-up development work, which has taken me all over the continent.

In 2019, I relocated to Denver where I began consulting across Cushing Terrell on ground-up development design while building my education planning skills and experience. In 2023, I officially became one of the design directors for the firm, which now encompasses 13 offices across seven states.

Tell us about a favorite recent project(s). 

The first project that comes to mind is Aspen Lumberyard. At the base of Deer Hill, three miles down valley from Aspen, the Cushing Terrell team is working on a 277-unit affordable housing development that will create a new sustainable community-focused entrance to the town. 

This project has been years in the making and included extensive public outreach and work to align with Aspen’s vision for affordable housing. We’re coming out of the design development phase on a community that will include a mix of 195 rentals and 82 for-sale units with deed restrictions. This is a design that looks, lives and feels authentically Aspen.

I’m especially proud of this one because it’s a perfect showcase for our team’s holistic design process and our ability to become a true partner to our clients. As we all know, housing in our mountain communities has become prohibitively expensive. This project is a great example of not only beautiful, high-quality affordable, and workforce housing, it’s also an example of the transformative power of collective will to meet the challenges our communities are facing.

As a design professional who works across markets, what are some of the opportunities you’re particularly interested in addressing for this market from a design perspective? 

It’s exciting to think about how design is going to shape our future. At Cushing Terrell, we find ourselves at the forefront of some pretty significant design opportunities. 

First, we have a major opportunity to focus on designing for long-term resilience. We work with a lot of municipalities, particularly smaller towns throughout the region, creating comprehensive plans, helping them plan for smart growth, addressing resource demand, and supporting their decarbonization and energy goals. This work translates well to our higher education campus work as well.  

Secondly, as an integrated architecture, planning, and engineering firm, we’re especially well-suited to working in affordable housing, which has become a critical issue not just here in Colorado, but nationally. We’re essentially able to bring a full planning, engineering, and design team to the table on day one, which allows us to efficiently address each project — from start to finish — as a self-contained ecosystem, considering all aspects of the site, community engagement, and design. With land growing scarce and prices where they are, we love helping our clients find creative opportunities to use what they have in new ways. 

We’re just finishing up a new four-story 63-unit senior affordable housing community right now with Catholic Charities Housing that’s a great example of a creative land use approach. The Monsignor, Peter Quang Nguyen, has himself been homeless as a refugee and was passionate about the opportunity to bring affordable housing to their area’s most vulnerable residents. Using a church-owned parking lot at Federal and Vassar, we were able to help them create a permanent asset to serve this community. There are countless parking lots like this around the city, and with the right support from the municipality, there is a lot of opportunity here to meet housing needs.

Cushing Terrell also does a lot of work in smaller Colorado communities and mountain towns. What are some of the challenges/opportunities you see in those markets?

As we discussed earlier, housing stock in mountain communities has become increasingly unaffordable. It’s going to be incredibly challenging to get the units needed inside some of the more expensive towns, but there is a strong desire to see more housing and more affordable housing. We see a huge opportunity to turn that will into action, helping these communities implement their visions and realize the change they want to see. 

The most meaningful solutions here are going to need to be regional, working across communities and bringing together public, private, and nonprofit partners to address particularly workforce housing more holistically. 

We all know how imperative it is to create more affordable housing here in Colorado. For cities/municipalities looking to engage the community around these projects, what’s your biggest piece of advice? 

The biggest piece of advice for cities or municipalities looking to engage the community around these projects has two parts – the first is to take the time to understand your specific audience. Not all affordable housing communities will have the same needs. Even within a particular AMI or age demographic, the needs of each community will vary. That’s why an equitable, robust engagement process is so vital. 

The second consideration flows from the first. Beyond designing for a specific audience, a true community meets more than just the need for shelter. Everyone in our communities – whether it’s a mountain community or here in the city – deserves a quality lived experience. Thoughtful planning and design can help ensure that reality. 

We need to look at resident needs beyond rent, incorporating amenities and services that foster a sense of belonging and opportunity. This can include things like educational resources, job training programs, and green spaces for recreation and connection. Engagement can tell you how to effectively program so that services and spaces don’t go underutilized.

You bring extensive experience nationally in higher education projects. What are some of the trends you’re seeing in that market right now that are applicable here in Colorado?

Designing for sustainability and long-term resilience is especially top of mind for higher education projects across Colorado. When it comes to meeting energy code and campus sustainability commitments in retrofitting these campuses, approaching it with a comprehensive planning, architectural, engineering, and design approach is crucial. 

The second trend is designing more flexibility in campuses, buildings and individual spaces. This is by no means a new topic, but educational institutions of all levels are facing more challenges than ever… cost of tuition, enrollment declines, student retention, and of course adjusting to the ever-changing needs of the workforce.  What we can do through the built environment is to help ensure that those dollars are going to learners and not construction. We’re focused on high-value and adaptable solutions whether that is a new campus boiler plant, an academic building, or how you approach staff workspace. We design with the whole student in mind from a health and wellness standpoint and ensure the environments we create are welcoming to and enhance learning for all.

What makes you excited to come to work every day? 

For me, it’s about being part of a team that is truly focused on community impact. I’ve always been immersed in the world of design, so getting the opportunity to lead a diverse team of professionals who are united in their desire to make Colorado a better place to be is something I don’t take lightly. Years down the road, we want to have used and enjoyed the spaces and places we have created together alongside our friends and neighbors.

Related Posts

Scroll to Top