Photography by Brian Pearse Photography
As an architect, Leah Watters isn’t on the front line of any war, and rarely will someone in her line of work be called a hero.
In fact, she knows her services are a luxury for most people — but they matter greatly to those who hire her. She’s creating the backdrops for celebrations and family dinners, for serious talks and lighthearted laughter.
“Years from now, the home will have the smells and the memories of more than one lifetime,” Watters says. “It’s an honor that we’re invited to have such an intimate hand in crafting something so precious as a home.”
Long before she earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Virginia Tech, interned in Germany and Northern Virginia and founded her own firm, Watters had picked her career path — declaring in a fourth-grade gifted class that she would become an architect. Her father told her she could be anything she wanted, and in hindsight, she would tweak his words slightly: “You can do anything you are willing to sink your all into.”
“My passion for what I do is truly ridiculous,” she says. “My husband (retired Seabee Tyler Watters) often jokes that I would do it without pay – and this is probably why our business runs better with him managing it.”
ROOTED IN THE PASS
Watters has never lost her love for drawing and dreaming — for crafting spaces that help others live more beautifully. Her fondness for the Coast is ingrained, too — dating back to 2007 when she and her parents moved here to be part of the post-Katrina recovery effort.
“Volunteer trips from northern Virginia to Pass Christian led (us) to fall in love with the people, the pace, the food and the beauty of south Mississippi…,” she says. “By the time volunteer and recovery needs waned in 2009, roots were too deep to think of calling home anywhere but Pass Christian.”
Watters met her husband through The Gulf Coast Running Club, and they married in 2011 at Trinity Episcopal Church. Her dad and brother rebuilt the church, which sustained severe damage from Katrina’s storm surge, and Watters served as architect on the project.
“The rebuilding of Trinity Church was far beyond the scope of what would be recommended for one’s first independent project, and big lessons were learned,” she says. “God gave me grace where my experience lacked.”
As she’s grown into her profession, Watters’ family has expanded, too. She and Tyler now have two boys, 6-year-old Jude and 4-year-old James, as well as a thriving business, Watters Architecture, located in Sazerac Square.
PROCEEDING WITH PASSION
When the firm was founded in 2010, Watters expected the business to just be her, working from home on a project here and there, but the team now includes three architects, a business manager and a four-legged greeter named Tobias. During the years she managed the business alone, she was proud to be both an architect and a businessperson — two roles she considers “separate entities.”
“One entity requires that I stay on top of the latest construction materials and design techniques,” she explains. “The other requires that our relationships in the community are broad and that we do not become stagnant in our presence or lazy in our model.”
To stay on the cutting edge, the firm invested three years ago in software that allows for 3D rendering, meaning clients can walk through their home from the convenience of their tablet and projects can be designed in greater detail. Technology may be crucial, but to Watters and her team, nothing is more important than listening.
“Our greatest successes are on the projects when someone entrusts their full vision into our hands and partners with us in crafting a project that suits their needs,” she says. “We respect that there will be craftsmen and materials experts throughout the construction process that can improve even the best ideas.”
Commercial projects like Friendship Oak Dormitory and the revamped façade of Pharmacy at the Bay reflect Watters’ modern, crisp and intentional aesthetic. The architect took a leap of faith with a commission for Cat Island Coffee House — basing her design on the clients’ words rather than the images of Victorian-style cafes they’d shown her.
“Thankfully they were willing to trust me in the early stages,” Watters says, “because what resulted is just a gem.”
For one of her favorite residential projects, the Brady home in Pass Christian, Watters had to strike a balance between Coastal styling and industrial-modern design. The clients’ engineering background ensured each detail was revisited until the right fit was achieved.
“Not only is (Leah) an extremely talented architect, but she worked closely with us and addressed all our design ideas and concerns along the way,” says Dawn Brady, who owns the property with husband, Scott. “Her character is beyond compare, and it shows through in how she manages her firm.”
Watters deems balance essential not only in her work, but life in general. She’s faithful first to her roles as a wife and a mother, then to the needs of her employees and clients. She’s also hugely competitive and likes winning, both with projects and in athletics, but doesn’t claim to be perfect.
“I’m utterly incapable of keeping a clean desk,” she admits. “I burn pancakes more often than not. I have a sweet tooth — only slightly outweighed by my love of running.”
As hard as she trains to be fast, Watters takes a patient approach to her craft.
“Often when something is done with slowness,” she says, “something truly incredible emerges.”
By the time construction starts, Watters has walked through the finished project countless times in her mind. But no model can show how sunlight will fill a room, or how a client’s face will glow when she steps inside for the first time. The architect delights in seeing her homeowners live well — whether they’re sitting on their porches in the morning as she runs by or posting photos of joyful gatherings on social media.
“While others may see a frosting-filled child’s face, I beam inside thinking of every trim and framing detail, every moment with a contractor of finding the best solution and all the little details that a homeowner may not even realize we cared so much about,” she says. “And it’s all a success knowing the house is working for them.”