Walking the line between art and engineering

April 11, 2011
Text Size:
At 37, David Maxam is relatively young to be a full-fledged architect, with all the education and the "pay-your-dues" apprenticeship work the industry requires. His youthful age becomes even more relevant knowing that he has owned his own firm for the past three years and is the newly elected president of the American Institute of Architects Grand Valley Chapter.

"Thirty-seven is considered really young for architecture. In architecture, you can still be considered an emerging professional until age 40," he said. "It takes a long time to become an architect, with interning and all that. I think we generally skew a little older as to when we arrive."

Maxam got an early jump on his career, having started working in the profession long before he earned his architectural degree. As a student at East Grand Rapids High School, he wrote a software program that landed him a job at an architectural firm owned by Dennis Reckley and Jim Gray. Maxam said he started there about the time Gray left the firm to join Grand Action as its representative for the construction of Van Andel Arena.

"It was a rare technology at the time," he said of his program. "And that got me in the door. I trained under Dennis Reckley for years. He is a really good friend."

Maxam also identified Greg Metz and Ted Lott, who are partners in Lott3Metz Architecture, as mentors and friends.

"As an architect, David has created a series of house designs that are very creative and contextual in our modern urban world. Even though we are in somewhat of a recession, I think it is only a matter of time before people discover his keen eye and begin to see his creative designs," said Metz.

Maxam, who is nationally registered and LEED certified, earned his undergraduate degree from Aquinas College and attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, for his master's in architecture. At Aquinas, he said he cobbled together a pre-architecture degree as best he could by taking math, physics, art and art history courses.

"That was sort of an interesting way to go," he said.

He then chose Miami University because it offered a 3.5-year program for those interested in architecture but who hadn't attended a school with a pre-architecture program. After completing his master's, he rejoined Reckley Associates.

Maxam went out on his own in spring 2008 — or as he likes to date it, "about eight months before the big economic crash, really not the greatest time to start an architecture firm. But, then again, maybe it's the best time in the long run."

He said he enjoyed working with Reckley and at another local firm; both gave him key insights and lots of experience in all the aspects of a demanding industry. "It was great across-the-board training," he said. "But the highest you can climb is to second on the totem pole — below the guy whose name is on the door."

Maxam's name has been on the door for three years now. Was it a wise decision?

David Maxam
Maxam Architecture
Title: Principal
Age: 37
Birthplace: East Grand Rapids
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Single
Business/Community Involvement: American Institute of Architects, Grand Valley Chapter, Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Commission; Construction Code Board of Appeals
Biggest career break: Maxam said his biggest break is “still to come.”

"I don't regret it at all. It's been really difficult struggling through the down economy and it's been hard for architects across the board. Architecture was listed at the worst-hit profession in the downturn of 2009," he said. "But the challenge of it has been incredible. It has stretched me in ways that I never imagined and sort of forced me to grow in ways that you just can't do when you're sitting in a cubicle working for someone else."

Although Maxam Architecture is gaining a reputation for creative residential design — he designed the Macatawa Home in Holland while at Reckley, among others — he also designs industrial buildings, such as Clark Manufacturing in Traverse City, and commercial structures, such as the Northpointe Bank building on East Beltline.

"In addition to his aesthetic prowess, (Maxam) also displays that rare talent of being able to listen and translate what he hears into beautiful buildings," said Metz.

What interests Maxam most about architecture is that he sees the field as a combination of practical and creative. Not coincidently, those are the same traits he discovered in himself as a student after he took a career counseling test. The result of that exam showed he was both creative and practical, possessing a nice balance between the right and left brain. "I sort of walk that world between art and engineer," he said.

But long before Reckley Associates used his software program and his school counselor administered the test, Maxam admitted he was already drawn to architecture.

"I've always been. I was drawing plans when I was just a tyke," he said with a laugh. "I was an imaginative kid who was constantly playing with building blocks, erector sets, Lincoln logs and all that sort of thing. It was sort of a creative outlet."

His hometown of East Grand Rapids also played a role in his career path — albeit an unconscious one — on his short walk to school. "I would pass lots of really beautiful homes that I took for granted at the time. But looking back on it now, I think that was probably influential," he said.

Today, Maxam is civically active. He serves on the Grand Rapids Historical Preservation Commission, an appointment that should be right down his alley because of his appreciation for classic designs. He also is on the Construction Code Board of Appeals, which appeals to his interests.

"What I like personally about David is that he engages in the community," said Metz. "You are more than likely to see him at any event focused on creative types."

This year, he is leading the AIA/GV as president. His goal is to get the city's designers better known in the nation's architectural circle.

"We have a lot of undiscovered talent here. I know we have a few firms that do work nationally, but I'd like to see (Grand Rapids) get known as a place to go to to find talent. For me, I think Grand Rapids ought to be a town that exports design. We should be sort of a regional hub for all things creative," he said.

Metz, a past AIA/GV president, said Maxam might meet that goal because he is knowledgeable about technology and willing to demonstrate and share that information. "He uses this technology to his advantage, as he can design for anyone in the world and easily collaborate with them over the World Wide Web. He truly embraces a new way of working."

That becomes evident when visiting maxamarchitecture.com, which has an "Ask the Architect" feature where anyone can ask Maxam anything about design. "I put it up there to sort of communicate, to open myself up, because I do a lot of up-front work to help get projects ready by sharing knowledge."

When asked what he does in his spare time, Maxam chuckled and said, "Is there such a thing as not working?" But he does love art and all things associated with it — like ArtPrize, which he plans to become more involved with this year.

As for what he likes best about his profession: "It demands that you live up to your best potential."

Recent Articles by David Czurak

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus