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Professional Profile: Chris Knorr

Lab Manager spoke with Chris Knorr of SmithGroup in Phoenix

MaryBeth DiDonna

MaryBeth DiDonna is managing editor, events for Lab Manager. She organizes and moderates the webinars and virtual conferences for Lab Manager as well as other LMG brands, enabling industry...

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Chris Knorr is forensic market leader with SmithGroup in Phoenix. Lab Manager recently spoke with Chris about his career, experience, and personal interests. 

Q: How did you get started in your career? Did you major in your field in college, get an internship, switch careers along the way, etc.?

A: Although I graduated from North Dakota State University with a bachelor of architecture, specialties within the field were rarely discussed. In hindsight, I’m glad specialization wasn’t addressed as I likely would have shied away from planning because I envisioned myself taking on all roles in design. However, the great part about planning is that it impacts every aspect of a project, from management to building systems. 

My path in the field has followed a traditional route. I have grown from an intern who works with a team to a project manager who helps to lead the team. I was lucky to be exposed to multiple project types from aviation to global satellite communication infrastructure to public safety, which allowed me to build a broad understanding in the field. It was only after working on a project at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that I found myself jealous of our planning partner’s role in design. 

Science has always interested me. Transitioning to laboratory planning has been both exciting and humbling when seeing the enthusiasm and energy of our science & technology clients on a daily basis. However, it was only when I saw the tremendous service that forensic pathologists, scientists, investigators, and directors provide to our communities that I found my true passion in forensics. Although their hours are long and the compensation is tied to public service, planners have an opportunity to provide them with dignified spaces that help their daily life. Leading the forensics market for SmithGroup and overseeing the firm’s medical examiner and crime laboratory facilities planning and design allows me to have a direct impact on the daily activities of those who so honorably bring answers to critical questions. I couldn’t be happier in the role!

Q: If you weren’t in this profession, what job do you think you’d be doing instead?

A: While growing up, books on physics, biology, and chemistry were commonly included within my “recreational reading” but I was most drawn to astronomy. If I made time for another passion, it would most definitely involve exploration of the physical universe.   

Q: What’s a common misconception about your job?

A: “You’re an architect? You must be really good at math!” Although I have an appreciation for math, physics, and life sciences, it is the creative problem solving that makes my job truly fulfilling. In planning, we are challenged with putting ourselves in the shoes of our client to really understand their needs. Most times, our clients need assistance to look beyond the urgency of their current situation and visualize opportunities for the future. Today’s operational challenges can yield some of the best design solutions. Current spatial constraints can help clarify the project’s goals. Budget difficulties can bring consensus on growth strategies. As long as the team can maintain an optimistic outlook, a great answer can be found.

Q: What lab projects are you working on at the moment?

A: I am extremely excited for the opportunity to work with Ada County Coroner staff on the design of their new facility. The Ada County Coroner serves the growing metropolis of Boise, Idaho, along with 33 other counties and three Native American reservations. Not only is the coroner in desperate need of a new facility, they are serving one of the fastest growing populations and largest geographical areas in the country. The US Census Bureau estimates that from 2016-2018, Idaho had the highest percentage population growth in the country. Although that may be good for the economy, it increases the number of cases coming through the facility. Geographically, the state may not be as large as Texas or California, but the coroner’s office provides Medicolegal Death Investigation (MDI) services for more than three quarters of the state. 

Having an opportunity to assist one of the fastest growing coroner’s offices in the country is quite fulfilling. With this design, there are almost endless opportunities. Bringing natural daylight into the working environment while shielding views directly improves conditions for staff. Affording a small exterior space for respite can alleviate some of the stresses found on the job. We have also included a humane space for staff to meet and talk with families. Our goal is to design spaces that support both the scientific and humanitarian mission of these labs.

Q: If you won a million-dollar lottery tomorrow, what would you do with your winnings?

A: If I won the lottery, I would take a long vacation to New Zealand and Australia to hike and appreciate the ecological diversity (once social distancing isn’t mandatory). I would also donate to animal rescues so that my wife doesn’t try to start one herself. Finally, I would donate to my alma mater … if only to help reinforce the common refrain from my professors that, “the only rich architects were those who won the lottery.”

Q: What kinds of hobbies or interests do you have outside of work?

A: Although I’m not an accomplished hiker, reconnecting with nature after a week of meetings and sitting at a desk makes for some of my favorite days. I don’t think it needs to be a strenuous hike to find a deeper appreciation for where you are. I learn more about where I live and where I travel when wearing a solid pair of boots. Any vacation allows me to recharge, but the recharge is more meaningful after sharing the experience of a picture-perfect natural feature or vista with family and friends. I’m sure many have had a similar experience, but for me hiking helps to reinforce that we live in a truly beautiful world!