Sara Martin, AIA
Photography: Gabriella Marks

Sara Martin, AIA, is a co-founder of Open Door Architecture in Knoxville, Tenn. 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 brought that mindset to a recent opportunity with HGTV. Open Door Architecture was chosen to renovate the home for the HGTV Urban Oasis 2017, an honor that illustrates just how far Martin’s firm has come in four short years.

I spent roughly 10 years at Knoxville-based Ross/Fowler PC 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 expressive, and it’s led to a lot of great clients.

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. Friends became clients, and we grew from there.

Working on the HGTV Urban Oasis 2017 has been so much fun. We’ve had conversations with other production companies about a series on architect couples, but we thought that sort of commitment would monopolize our practice. 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. We sat down with the project manager at the house and talked 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, and it’s a house we’ve admired for a long time. It felt like a dream come true. Now we can walk out of our front porch, look down the sidewalk, and see the construction of the HGTV Urban Oasis 2017. —As told to Steve Cimino