The Effects of Careful Observation

PROFILE Sam Van Dam – MARCH 2008

By Joshua Bodwell

Photography Darren Setlow


Architect with an artist’s heart

The odd angles of the abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse cast strange shadows in the summer sun. A breeze riffled the tangles of long, uncut grass and blew them against the fractured granite foundation. The ramshackle walls were curved, the roof was bowed, and the basement looked as though it was devouring the structure’s failing timbers.

At the edge of the front lawn, warmed by the sun’s heat, a celebrated doctor and his ten-year-old son observed and rendered the scene before them in delicate watercolors.

“I’d been painting with my father since I was five,” remembers architect Sam Van Dam. “But on that day, for the first time I think, I was really observing the farmhouse not just to paint it; I was observing the place—how it was put together and what qualities made it wonderful.”

While few of us are lucky enough to remember in such crystalline detail those rarified moments that came to define who we are, Van Dam—now the principal of Van Dam Architecture and Design in Portland—believes he can trace his love of architecture back to that summer day he spent painting beside his father.

For the architect, art and home are inextricably interwoven. While painting remains a passion, Van Dam has spent most of the past 30 years refining his architectural vision across Maine and New England, and his work has come to be known for its masterful blending of modern and traditional design, seamless integration into surrounding landscapes, and shrewd attention to thoughtful detail.

the Architect as a Young Man


Born on the cusp of the 1950s, Van Dam grew up in metropolitan Boston where his father was anesthesiologist-in-chief at Brigham Hospital. Dr. Leroy Vandam [sic] was one of the country’s pioneering anesthesiologists, and in 1954 he was part of the surgical team that performed the first successful transplant of a human kidney.

Sam Vam Dam attended Harvard College, where he fell under the tutelage of Toshi Katayama and Seymour Slive, the chairman of the art history department at the Fogg Art Museum. After graduating in 1971 with a concentration in the history of art and architecture, Van Dam spent a year at Sasaki Associates working on site-planning and landscape-architecture assignments.

During his year at Sasaki, Van Dam solidified his passion for the built environment before enrolling in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s architecture program. In 1976, he earned a master’s degree in architecture and, after spending two weeks at Pemaquid Point in late September, decided to settle in Maine with his wife Jane. Eschewing their initial romantic idea of living in a rural home, the couple ended up in Portland, where Van Dam took work at Terrien Architects.

“What I didn’t even realize then,” Van Dam admits today, “is what a tremendous place Maine would be to practice architecture.”

A Maine Architect


After four years at Terrien, Van Dam struck out on his own and spent eight years working on a variety of commercial, institutional, and residential projects in the greater Portland area. Through the late 1980s and 1990s, Van Dam partnered with Richard Renner and Bradford Woodworth, and worked on several high-profile projects, including the Maine Audubon’s Environmental Education Center in Falmouth and the transformation of the 150,000-square-foot Porteous, Mitchell & Braun building into the Maine College of Art. The firm’s work was cited for design excellence by the Boston Society of Architects and the Maine Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

In 2003, Van Dam opened Van Dam Architecture and Design on Portland’s historic West End, bringing along his colleagues Paul Attardo and Stephen Pondelis as senior project architects. “I feel fortunate to have worked with two such superb partners for so many years,” he says. The new firm has also allowed Van Dam to give more attention to his passion for residential design.

The Architect as Sociologist


vandam1.jpgLike his father, Sam Van Dam has an empathetic bedside manner that he considers indispensable to his work. “The key to everything we do starts with our willingness to engage and listen,” says Van Dam. While his firm has gained a reputation for its ability to work in a variety of styles and continually execute innovative designs, Van Dam believes that the true source of their success is an ability to listen.

“If you listen carefully enough, everyone has good ideas to share in the design process,” says Van Dam, noting that every observation counts, no matter how small. He says good design can and does include compromise. “In our firm, we talk about the value of listening to all ideas and responding with careful consideration.”

Van Dam strives to understand how people relate and interact, and what motivates and inspires them. “I love my exchanges with clients—finding out what makes life great for them,” he says. If a client loves to peel carrots from their garden more than anything else, then Van Dam will design a home with a wonderful porch that faces the garden and catches the afternoon sun. “All good design begins with use,” he insists. “That sounds so basic, but it’s often forgotten. Good design is about combining the practical with the sublime.”

Luckily for the craftsmen who work with Van Dam, the fact that someone will eventually have to execute his thoughtful designs never strays far from his mind as he draws and dreams. He gained this appreciation for the practical application of design during his time in the Built Form architecture group at MIT. “As a Built Form student,” Van Dam explains, “I learned that good design begins with a full understanding of how a space is to be used, and how the materials used to design it are assembled.”

The Community Architect


With several residential and institutional projects on the boards, including a new community center for Islesboro, Van Dam finds that his involvement with Portland’s Cambodian Arts & Scholarship Foundation brings a needed balance to his life. Founded in 2000, the group supports educational opportunities for 135 poor and at-risk Cambodian girls.

On a recent trip to Cambodia to advise the Foundation on housing and medical issues, Van Dam noticed that a small, thatched-roof hut in which a student and her entire family lived was precariously leaning 12 degrees out of alignment. After a few inquires, Van Dam discovered that it would cost just $62 to right and repair the house. He immediately paid for the work out of his own pocket—a small gesture, perhaps, but one that had a life-changing impact on the young girl and her family.

Van Dam says he is perpetually heartened by observing and being with people who have almost no material wealth, and yet have found a way to be happy. “It makes me ask myself: ‘How much do we need? What is important?’”

The Architect at 58


With more than three decades of experience behind him, the process of editing out the unnecessary has become a central tenet in Van Dam’s work. In his personal lexicon, “edit” does not mean stripping down a design to antiseptic starkness, but it refers to the gradual process of questioning and revising that draws out the aesthetic and utilitarian details that truly matter. And he revels in the details: Will the sun blanket the kitchen in light and warmth as the homeowners sip their morning coffee? How will the rain look from the living room sofa as it runs off the gently pitched roof?

And perhaps Van Dam even wonders: How will a father and son see this house when they show up 100 years from now to render it in delicate watercolors?

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