Alternative Careers in Architecture One Alumna’s Story

Choosing to embark on an alternative career path can be daunting, but the choice to pursue an unique path is often rewarding in unexpected ways. Such is the case with Sara Bega ‘14, who decided to take a position as Town Architect in Las Catalinas, Costa Rica after completing her Bachelor of Architecture. Initially Bega struggled with the idea of accepting the position because it meant that she would postpone some career milestones she had imagined for herself such as working for a major firm and completing licensure. Now almost five years into her position in Las Catalinas, Bega is grateful she made the choice to forego convention and try something different.

School of Architecture (SOA): What are your responsibilities as Town Architect for Las Catalinas, Costa Rica?

Bega: The Town Architects’ Office is in charge of a variety of things all centering around the built environment. That includes master planning for new neighborhoods, urban design, plaza and street design, architecture, and construction troubleshooting. There are two Notre Dame graduates that work in the Town Architect’s office full time. It is fun because every day is different. When I first started in Las Catalinas my job was to finish some nearly complete neighborhood plans and now we are at the point where we are growing exponentially every year. At the moment, we are installing infrastructure on a neighborhood I began planning my first week on the job. When I first started as an intern there were only six built houses in Las Catalinas and now there are close to 80 buildings, 180 residences, and 30,000 square feet of construction. As of yet, I’ve designed 14 homes, 2 multi-family buildings, and 1 commercial building. During my time here, we’ve had design teams working on 4 new villages/neighborhoods.

SOA: How did Notre Dame prepare you for this position?

Bega: Above all, Notre Dame trains you to be excellent at problem solving. The process of researching precedent, analyzing context, and presenting proposed solutions in a convincing way is applicable in every aspect of my job. I draw by hand every day. Whether it’s a solution for a construction problem, a façade for a building I’m doing, or a concept for a potential client–it is the most useful tool I have. Also, I ventured out of Bond to the arts building. I minored in Art History and took welding classes. I fabricated a column design for my studio project in welding class, which tied everything together and linked the design and build processes for me. It ended up being a blast.

After studying in Rome, I had studios with Prof. Douglas Duany during the first semester, and then Prof. Lucien Steil, and then Prof. Samir Younes for the Cuba studio. I was in quite a few urban studios and even though these studios were based on the architectural studio requirements, the focus of the work was tied in to the context of design. These experiences hugely prepared me for my role in Las Catalinas.

In my current position I have never drawn a street and then attached buildings to the street. I always design the buildings and then form the streets and plazas.

Also before graduation, I realized I had never taken a course with Prof. Thomas Gordon Smith so I chose to take his elective seminar. His course provided a really nice balance between the whole range of traditional and classical architecture.

I am able to go to the construction site in a town like Las Catalinas, and because of Prof. Alan DeFree’s class, I am able to make sure that the systems work in every structure that I design. My experience at Notre Dame provided an integral and common sense design process that I use daily.
Las Catalinas is a very “Notre Dame town” as a majority of architects with active projects there are Notre Dame alumni. There have been various studios done in Las Catalinas and I think those roots are still here and you can trace them which is fascinating to me. There are traces of student work everywhere. Some projects may get built out differently but the shape of the building is still a direct tie to a student project. Many of the good ideas found in student work have been realized.

SOA: What helped you feel more comfortable with pursuing an alternative career path?

Bega: I was concerned that I would be out of the game by going to Costa Rica instead of working in a major firm in the US. But it ended up being the opposite because now I am working with all of these firms from the US, Panama, and Guatemala. I had a psychological barrier about not going the typical route of an architecture professional and not working towards licensure. I had to decide if that was okay or not for me. I was also intimidated by the position because most town architects are further into their careers than I and a major part of my job is to review the work of architects, many of whom were my professors or someone I studied in school. It felt like I was paralyzed. Yet Prof. Duany told me “anything approached with fear is not worth doing.” So I started taking everything task by task and that is when the Notre Dame training kicked in. The work became about problem solving and I realized that I was well-equipped and could do the job well. Even today I am tasked with things I don’t know how to do, but Notre Dame taught me how to use resources at my disposal and just figure it out. It is invigorating to be on such a learning curve.

I have been out of school for over four years now and though I am not licensed, I am the design architect on over fifteen buildings that have been built. That is something unique that I can say about my career. Although pursuing this path came with the fear of such great responsibility, it has paid off because my name is on those buildings. And not to mention that my experience of working with many of the major US firms allows me to experience and learn how those firms work and design. I get to have a wide array of experiences and I am contributing to something larger than myself.

SOA: What keeps you motivated to continue doing this work?

Bega: However unexpected, I have found in Las Catalinas a place where my skills and passion serve something that is doing good in the world. I believe that Charles Brewer’s vision for Las Catalinas is something worth building. He is the real treasure of a developer and those town founders are few and far between. He tells us to focus on the beauty and the humanity of the space and the numbers will follow. He allows a certain freedom in design that instills confidence in his team. I became an architect and urbanist because it was the most concrete way I could feel I was actually making a difference. When I started at Las Catalinas, we were aware of the potential of this great town we wanted to build. Now, even only four years later, the potential is reality and it is a place I am honored to be a part of, a place where I want to raise my children. And then knowing that there are still a couple decades of building still to go…I mean who wouldn’t be motivated by that?

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