Urban Architect with Country Roots
By Brian McCullough
Ottawa architect Sarah Murray has worked on many interesting projects during her 30 years in the business, but the one she said was the most fun was a small cottage that she and her husband, architect Nicholas Caragianis, and their three children built on their property in the Thousand Islands during the 2006 March Break.
“It’s really tiny,” Murray laughed. “It’s only about 14 feet wide by about 20 feet long. We worked with a couple of carpenters, built it in pieces on the barn floor, loaded everything up onto a hay wagon, drove it out to the middle of the field and popped up a cottage. It’s a tiny, tiny little cottage, but my kids were swinging the hammer. That was fun.”
For an industry professional known for her expertise in planning creative and livable urban structures, the unbridled joy in Murray’s voice as she tells the story of building their Little House on the Island points to her rural roots in what used to be the Ottawa area countryside down Woodroffe south on the Jock River. She said she grew up riding ponies and going camping with her friends, and that the change to city life when she transferred to Elmwood for Grade 7 was something of a shock, especially after her family moved to Rockcliffe a year or two later.
“It was a big change to suddenly be plucked out of that rural milieu, but in the end, it was a great decision, there’s no doubt about it. Otherwise, I think I might have followed a different career path. I went through most of high school thinking I’d like to be a veterinarian, and even worked with some local vets during my high school breaks. At Elmwood, though, we never felt that there was anything we couldn’t do so long as we put in the work, the time, and the commitment. We had teachers who were amazing women who shared their life experiences as fascinating teaching moments.”
Murray left Elmwood shortly before the end of her last year to accept early admission at the University of Guelph, and came away with a B.Sc. degree. She travelled after that, working various jobs before landing a job selling chemicals to the oil and gas industry in Calgary. For Murray, however, working in a cube farm was more than this country girl could stand.
“Living in Calgary was fabulous,” she said. “It was young and booming, and things were happening—but I was going to work every day in a grey cubicle inside a grey glass building, and I thought, I don’t think I can survive this, so I decided I would go back to school.”
Murray considered programs in police forensics and pharmacology at uOttawa, before taking her parents’ advice to follow a career path dedicated to the “more optimistic” side of society by applying to Carleton University’s architecture program. Her father and two uncles were architects, so she was already familiar with the landscape. She graduated with a B.Arch. in 1987, and settled into her career.
In 1993 Murray and her husband established their own firm, Nicholas Caragianis Architect Inc., and have had a practice in Little Italy for the past two decades. If she thought her family tree was full of architects before she got married, her husband is a third-generation architect whose 92-year-old architect/town planner mother Eva Caragianis still works for them five days a week. Murray and her husband have two daughters who attended Elmwood School (former head girl Juliet ’11, and senior prefect Sophia ’15), and a son Anthony who graduated from Ashbury College in 2009. With the brood having interests in law, financial management and medicine, respectively, it’s probably a good thing they at least got to “swing the hammer” when they built their little cottage.
Murray, a keen industry observer, said that the practice of architecture is evolving with new technologies, references and values. Construction, she said, is moving toward a more sustainable, systems controlled, integrated process of producing our built environment.
“When I started working in architecture in the eighties we were on drafting boards, and using T-squares with ink and fine pens on beautiful Strathmore paper for our presentation drawings. Today, everyone is using computer-aided drafting programs. We work with teams across Canada using live, web-based meetings where we discuss projects in 3D with participants doing coordination and mark-ups in real time.”
Murray is also a strong advocate for the social justice and environmental sustainability aspects of her profession, and adds her voice through the Ontario Association of Architects for a national policy that would provide basic benchmarks for good, responsible architecture. For her, it’s about giving all members of a community what they need in the way of healthy, livable shelter, and public spaces where they can feel safe and included, as well as inspired. Everything should be in harmony with nature.
“Architecture affects everyone’s well-being,” she said. “Good architecture articulates a society’s values, and an architect’s essential job is to provide an enhanced way of living.”
Sarah Murray still keeps in touch with her classmates from 40 years ago, and says that Elmwood gave her a good education in perseverance, and in how to think for herself. It seems to be serving her well.
“Being an architect is a great career with wonderful opportunities,” she said. “Everything is part of architecture—math, sciences, history, philosophy, art. There is room in this profession for many types of people to make a big difference in our world.”