With over thirty years experience in landscape architecture, structural design and land planning, Sandy Urquhart is based in Grand Cayman. Having led the design team for one of the Caribbean’s most significant mixed-use developments and having founded the region’s largest tropical nursery, Sandy is an expert in property development, horticulture and sustainable design. But a short resume of his professional achievements can provide only a glimpse of the man behind Urquhart.
Sandy Urquhart is ensconced in Urquhart’s offices in George Town, Grand Cayman. He has architectural plans, note pads, horticultural reference books splayed around him, 3-4 glasses of unfinished water and is intermittently laughing and hollering into his phone. The workspace is reflective of him: sketch books, pencils, family photos, keepsakes and books, books, books. He is on the phone with members of his team who are on site. Behind him is a pair of work boots, dripping mud and marl. One wants to move them from the work space, but one suspects this may cause more ruckus in an already loud space. He is of the earth, yet not earthly, if that makes sense.
He is working on a new ocean front residential project, a collection of sprawling, bungalow-style homes in the Cayman Islands. This particular development will fuse indigenous Caribbean beach living with modern comfort and a sense of ease in space. What comes to mind is homes that blend luxury and refinement with perfectly-imperfect blurred edges that capture their native surroundings. A bit like Sandy himself.
On the day of our interview, we are tucked into a run of the mill coffee shop in a strip mall. In person, Sandy is as unassuming as this coffee shop. Pen and paper is out to write this official bio. There is only one problem and it’s standing unapologetically in front of us in the parking lot.
"You see? This is what I am talking about. Look at that light pole. What does it tell you?" he asks, with a sort of clip in his voice.
Blank stare and an elaborately made up response ensue.
"No! It says: I am old. I am of no use. I have one purpose and that is to light this parking lot. Otherwise, I am useless. I am like an aged Geisha, face caked with makeup, good for nothing anymore. I am sad."
Meet Alexander Urquhart
With a successful and sprawling career in sustainable design and horticulture far, far in his future, Sandy was born in Kampala, Uganda on January 17th, 1956. His parents, Henry and Margaret Urquhart, are transplants from Glasgow, Scotland. Mom paints. Father writes children’s stories. In the wilds of Uganda until age 3, Sandy can remember his first sensual experiences as a “boy of the bush.”
"I just remember how tropical it was; this feeling that we were of that climate. The land, hot, tropical, broad and wild, was our mainstay."
Sandy’s father, a war veteran, had settled into a life of writing children’s books; books which are still used in the schools of East Africa. Privately, Sandy writes as well as designs, he sketches; expressing himself in whatever way is relevant to the time and place. To this day, Sandy’s father is the only person who has seen these early musings.
From the wild plains of Africa to the lush, open ocean the family went. At the age of 3, the family moved to Kiribati, an island nation in the central tropical Pacific Ocean. At only 310 square miles, Kiribati is made up of many diminutive islands, placed atop a 29 foot subterranean mountain only 3 feet above sea level. The island was accessible, at the time Sandy resided there, only by ship. Incoming islanders and visitors off boarded by ladder to shore.
Sandy explains the move from this primitive lifestyle to the brave new world of Glasgow University and draws a parallel to his work ethic.
"I was a young immigrant living on adopted lands. And that taught me a sense of acceptance. Even before I knew my future would be dedicated to preserving natural lands in my design, I had a sense of bringing history with me as I grew. I respected my past, the lands I’d lived on, the lessons I learned. I find I carry an island mentality of oneness, everywhere I go."
After a brief tryst as a stockbroker in Scotland circa 1976, Sandy took to work to put himself through college with a job at the Barnett Parks Department in Glasgow. This became a major turning point for Sandy, as he discovered a passion for researching the land he was responsible for caretaking. While his co workers napped under trees while on shift, Sandy dedicated himself to learning his craft, spending off hours in the library voraciously researching horticulture and how he could make a career out of this freshly discovered passion.
Reading up on famed Florentine gardens, famous lands of the Renaissance era, a plan began to take shape for the young park’s keeper. He enrolled in Merrist Wood College. An apprenticeship with a local gardening company kept him busy as he learned the tools of his trade.
The next few years went by in a bit of a blur. Surrounded by like-minded people, Sandy thrived. Soon, he was being recommended by fellow students to their wealthy neighbors for landscaping, leading to jobs designing and keeping the gardens of famed television stars and other community leaders in the area. Sandy was keeping gardens equitable to those in modern Beverly Hills. He incorporated Surrey Landscapes and was officially in business for himself, at the ripe old age of 23.
By the early 80s, Sandy’s work had already been featured in many prestigious publications including Home & Garden Magazine. He had 40 employees. He branched out into the wide selection of works he now manages; lighting, water features, walkways, signs, indigenous gardens.
At this time, another important juncture in Sandy’s life approached. His entrepreneurial instinct has struck again, whilst making the acquaintance of well-known master builder Colin Port. After a whirlwind and already thriving career in horticultural design, Sandy decided to close down his company to learn how to build.
"I already had what I thought I wanted: a successful business working and doing what I loved. In Colin, I sort of saw an opportunity to expand my mind again. I was already asked by my clients to be involved in the design process as it pertains to their actual structures – residential and commercial. What I lacked, however was technical knowledge. Colin offered me that."
Soon into his stint with Colin came a project Sandy couldn’t have dreamed up: to master plan a 400-person capacity office campus for an international feed company, creating office and common areas including all interior work, a restaurant and landscaping. Gardens had now led to building, a fusion that would carry from then into the rest of Sandy’s career.
By 1985, Sandy was getting independent contracts to rebuild historical monuments, 13th century bridges, undertaking projects for the English National Trust of great historical importance and renovating spaces in a newly trendy area of London, Covent Garden.
"It was a funky time in London", Sandy muses. "People were moving away from the traditional design aesthetic and London was leading the pack. I was getting hired by other designers in my field to design with them, for them, to consult alongside them. I was working with some of the most legendary designers in the UK."
Whilst moving and shaking in the trendy design districts of the UK and rubbing shoulders with dignitaries in the historical arena, Sandy still cultivated a love for native land. He had created his first nursery, a labor of love, raised like a child from the ground and consisting of temperate flowers and plants, utilising historical features and structures grown around with flora that blended the new and traditional in a modern way. It was in this space that Sandy realized his beloved aesthetic.
"In the 70s and 80s, it was pioneering to take hereditary architecture and landscaping to create a modern space. We were also exploring the idea of indoor/outdoor living, another entirely new concept in that time. It was an experimental time, but resulted in work that still greatly influences my design process now."
This work let to the rebuild and restoration of one of England’s most historical towers, one in a series that dated back to Queen Elizabeth I and the Spanish War, designed to light up as Sir Francis Drake made voyage to plunder in the battle against Spain.
With a solid career already behind him, Sandy’s company (now called Surrey Landscapes and Construction) had diversified by the mid-80s to include landscape design, sustainable design, road, water, and lighting design, property consulting and development. He was receiving sub-contracts from massive contractors including McAlpine, where details like windows on a 13th century mansion were to be preserved and other features of historical significance were to be preserved.
"One of my defining characteristics is I have a real appreciation and reverence for details; small things that give a space character. Something made in ancient stone, something that shows age and wisdom in a space. It allows you, in some small way, to dedicate a space to where it stands, to help it mean more than just what’s happening there everyday."
It was in 1997 that a project came along that perfectly captured where Sandy was in his career trajectory – creatively and practically. He was head-hunted by manufacturing mogul Ken Dart, who along with his brother Bob Dart, were planning a 500 acre mixed use, master planned community in Cayman that was to be planned in phases over several decades.
"Ken Dart was to become an enduring influence in my life. A man of such vision and philanthropy, I still strive to echo these characteristics in my everyday work and life.
Sandy remarks on his first moments and weeks in Cayman.
"I stepped off the plane and felt instantly connected. There was something so reminiscent of my childhood – the sights and the smells. The company didn’t know, but I knew right at that moment, I was going to take the position with Dart and make a home here."
"I got to work right away, I immersed myself in the island. There was nowhere I didn’t go, looking for soil, life in its natural habitat. I studied everything, trying to relearn horticultural from a Caribbean standpoint. I had grown up in the Pacific, but the Caribbean was very different. I travelled the world, tracing back origins and strains. It was an absolute dream for someone in field. I was right where I was supposed to be."
While re-gaining his island legs and reveling in his work with Dart, Sandy called upon another important influence in his life. Margaret Barwick, a stalwart and authority in the Caribbean horticulture industry as well as a published author, was a childhood family friend of the Urquharts. Sandy played as a child with Margaret’s son Simon in Kiribati, a friendship that remains strong today. She resided in Cayman and was a major influence as Sandy worked to develop the landscape for this project.
"The project demanded an intrinsic knowledge of the land. And while I was relearning my craft in this new terrain, Margaret was by my side, a second mother really, guiding my hand and assisting greatly in what now stands today on that property and many others I have worked on since."
By 2004, the Dart project had a name – Camana Bay – and acres of matured nurseries growing the plants and flowers that now grace the lands of the property. Sandy ran a staff of 40, calling upon some of the world’s biggest names in design to lend their craftsmanship to the project, among them master lighting designer Herve Descottes of L’Observatoire, who has also been active in the world of theme parks in Florida and Italy, as well as lighting extravaganzas at The Mirage, Treasure Island Hotel and Casino, and Bellagio hotels in Las Vegas. Other collaborators included signage design by Sam Fidler, who had design of signage at Disneyland and Walt Disney World under his belt, as well as Las Vegas’ East Village and the Los Angeles Central Library.
As Camana Bay welcomed its first visitors in 2008, Sandy had firmly planted roots in Cayman. He owned a home. He had stayed through Hurricane Ivan, which devastated the island, and was a part of the National Recovery effort.
"Ivan was a particularly profound experience for me in the Cayman Islands. I am a first generation immigrant here, yet I could not bring myself to leave the people and these lands in a state of such emergency. Fifteen members of my team had been denied US work permits to work temporarily overseas and I just could not leave them. So I stayed here and stood shoulder to shoulder with others rebuilding the island. It was a hectic time, and sometimes frightening, but definitely a defining moment for me as a Caymanian."
Following on the back of Ivan, Sandy continued on his journey to fine tune his work at Dart with Camana Bay. He also married his soul mate Natalie Coleman, who is Director of the National Gallery. It was indeed a happy time in his life, however, soon, he felt his near-20 year career with Dart start to plateau and he envisioned the next step in his work life.
"I suppose I felt it was time to move on for very organic reasons. Camana Bay and Dart had been such a special time in my life. I will never forget the incredible mentorship of Ken Dart, how humbling it was to work with a leader of such caliber. I owe so much of my career in my adopted homeland to him and I carry his quiet leadership sensibilities with me wherever I go. The Dart project had come to fruition for me and it was a coming of age in ways. I was ready to move back into the entrepreneurial space."
Today, Sandy enjoys a varied portfolio of work at Urquhart, where he consults on the full gamut of property development, sustainable horticultural design and land planning. He has amassed a network of like-minded professionals in his industry and together, they continue the journey towards capturing the worlds of traditional and modern design in an ever-evolving aesthetic.
He concludes with words that perfectly encapsulate this life, so richly lived.
"Everyone – and everything – has a voice at my table. Whether it’s a team of people on a project or a lone seed that wishes to grow in a space – I believe in listening. Collaboration is the nature of human evolution – things working together, fusing and combining – to create newness. I am accepting of that change and rather than force my work, I’d rather stand back any day and let the process shape itself, guiding its course along the way."