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    In the Spotlight

    Architectural Designer Sara Xu Discusses Her Career, Hobbies, & Travel

    A native of Chengdu, China, Sara Xu travelled a long way to arrive at her current position as Architectural Designer with PMA Architecture. Her hometown, the capital of the Sichuan province, is famously home to the endangered giant panda and is known for its “delicious, spicy foods,” says Sara. One of the three largest cities in western China, Chengdu is “very crowded, with high rises everywhere. But it’s pretty and warm there, it almost never snows.” Sara recalls spending many hours as a child with her mother, an artist, painting outside. The subject was usually plants or animals painted in a traditional Chinese style, watercolor, or oil paints.

    Sara in traditional Chinese dress, taken in Utah. 

    As a young student, Sara was encouraged to visit the U.S. by her father. Her first trip was through a high school exchange program. She spent a summer outside of Phoenix with about 35 other Chinese students. The group studied the English language and American History and visited New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. When asked about the impression she had of the United States on that first visit, she answered in one word, “Freedom.” What she experienced drew her back to study in the states for college.

    “In China, my parents and teachers had rigid expectations for what I should do and learn. The social framework limited creativity and while it emphasized rigorous study, it didn’t take into account what I wanted to do. Most of my peers, about 90%, were all trained the same way and doing the same things. I wanted to leverage my natural abilities and talents. I was able to do that in the United States.” Sara chose to pursue her dream of studying architecture, an interest that grew from her skill in math and her love of sketching. “I was looking for something that combined the two,” she says. She also picked up new hobbies - hiking and photography. “Here, I can hike wherever I want. It’s open and so much less crowded. There are so many places I can go to explore and photograph the natural world.”

    Sara earned a degree in Architectural Studies from the University of Utah in 2016 and a Master of Architecture from Illinois Institute of Technology in 2018. Her first internship in the field was disappointing as it lacked mentorship and she was limited to the repetitive copying of architectural details. She later had the opportunity to intern at PMA Architecture and it was a refreshing change. One of her first projects as a PMA intern was to work with principal Katie Stodghill on the design of a custom reception desk for Newport News’ Work/Place Oyster Point lobby. “I was satisfied with my work. I got something out of it. My project was built and it’s used every day.”

    Sara standing in front of the desk she designed at Work/Place. 
    Photo credit: Pam Scruggs

    After graduation, PMA welcomed Sara back full-time. “At PMA, I’m more integrated into the projects. I worked on Virginia state park guest cabin renovations and got to visit some of the cabins when they were done. When I saw them in real life it felt so different,” Sara said. “It looked different than I imagined because when I design on a screen, I see it in black and white. I saw the materials and how everything came together in color – not just lines on a computer. I was so satisfied. Those outcomes are so good. Now I’m working on renovation designs for lodging at two more parks, and we are applying what we learned and fine-tuning our coordination with the contractors.”

    Sara is also working as an Architectural Designer for the renovation of the Chowning‘s Tavern kitchen in Colonial Williamsburg. The kitchen is “really, really old and narrow. It’s tiny. The ceiling is only 6’ tall and even the contractors have a hard time moving around in there. We’re working with kitchen specialists to make the layout work better.” When renovations are done, the kitchen staff will enjoy a more functional layout, wider doorways and better materials on the walls and floors.

    At PMA, Sara was trained to process data collected with the firm’s high speed Leica laser scanner. She ensures that the resulting 3D models are accurate within 1/8 of an inch. “Laser scanning is really a very powerful tool. It works very well,” she says. “We can quickly measure a space, create a 3D model, and see existing materials in the scans without having to go back to the building.”

    In her free time, Sara enjoys making pieces out of polymer and air dry clay. Her colorful creations include jewelry, beads, trinket boxes and other items including many pieces celebrating 2023 as the Chinese year of the rabbit - a symbol of longevity, peace, and prosperity in China.

    Reflecting back on her four years with PMA Architecture, Sara is grateful. “I love my work. They’ve mentored me and given me instruction. They have helped me to improve myself and my work.”