Featured Member - Sara Martin, AIA

Sara Martin is a co-founder of Open Door Architecture in Knoxville, Tennessee, with her husband Sean; they were also chosen as the architect for the HGTV Urban Oasis 2017, an honor that exemplifies her firm's status as one of the city's finest residential renovators.

Sara Martin, AIA, is the co-founder of Open Door Architecture in Knoxville, Tennessee. Along with her husband Sean, she specializes in residential renovations and operates under the belief that every home needs an architect. “No house is too humble for an architect,” as she puts it, and she’s bringing that mindset to HGTV Urban Oasis 2017. Open Door Architecture was chosen to renovate the home for HGTV’s upcoming sweepstakes, an honor that illustrates just how far Martin’s firm has come in four short years.

I spent roughly 10 years at Ross/Fowler and—given its medium size—took on enough responsibility to learn that I like to be involved at as high of a level as possible. I began to think about how to advocate for the profession, and how to think about architecture differently. I like to talk about architecture on my own terms, and starting my own firm was a way to do that. It gave me an opportunity to be truly expressive, and it’s led to a lot of good work and great clients.

I actually decided to quit my job before we even started our practice. After surviving three rounds of layoffs during the recession, I went to work for the city planning commission; at the same time, Sean was considering leaving his firm. In a stroke of good fortune, he got a call from the University of Tennessee to teach studio for a year. We thought, “I’ve left my firm, you’ll have part-time income coming in, we don’t have kids yet; why don’t we start our own practice?” It hadn’t even really occurred to us until then.

Specializing in residential renovations was a strategic decision. We have a long history in the community of being involved with older homes. We’re in the old house culture in Knoxville. And our timing was perfect: we had a lot of friends in their early 30s who were moving into big older homes that needed fixing up. Our first clients were our friends, and we grew the firm from there.

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Working on the HGTV Urban Oasis has been so much fun. We’ve had conversations with other production companies about a series or pilot on architect couples, but we thought that sort of commitment would monopolize our practice. But when this came along, it was perfect: one episode, one year, and a great way to get some exposure and experience without having to commit to a change in our practice.

You might think that being selected as the architect for a nationally publicized giveaway house would mean a lengthy audition process. But in reality, this job came along the same way they all do: by referral. An architect friend of mine had worked with the production team before and they called her to see who she'd recommend. When she heard the house was in Fourth and Gill, one of Knoxville's prominent historic districts, she said, “You need to call Sara Martin.” That's when I really felt like we were starting to make a name for ourselves working on older homes.

The project manager called and pretended to be the homeowner; when we tried to put him off because of scheduling, he admitted, “It's for a production company.” HGTV is headquartered here in Knoxville, so when a production company calls about a home renovation there's a good possibility it's for national television.

We got excited and asked ourselves, “Can we handle this?” We decided to say yes and sat down with him at the house; in terms of the paperwork, we weren’t hired on the spot but I feel like we were. We got to talk through ideas, Sean sketched floor plans on the front porch. It felt so good, like we were the architects who were made for that job. It was five houses away from ours; it was our favorite style of house; it’s a house we’ve admired for a long time. It felt like a dream come true. We can walk out of our front porch, look down the sidewalk, and see the construction of the HGTV Urban Oasis. —As told to Steve Cimino

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Image credits

Sara and Sean Martin, Open Door Architecture

Denise Retallack Photography

Sara Martin, AIA - Colonial revival renovation

Denise Retallack Photography

Sara Martin, AIA - Dining room

Denise Retallack Photography