DIY dental office design . . . at your own risk

6 questions you must ask yourself before designing a new dental office

6 questions you must ask yourself before designing a new dental office

Jacqueline Russo, DDS, RN

Stephanie Morgan, RID, LEED AP

People today love to do it themselves. With all the YouTube videos and DIY Network shows demonstrating how everyday people design on a dime, many dentists think they can design their own office to save money. You practice all day in the facility, so you must be skilled enough to design the space, right? In this risky and all-too-common scenario, not knowing key information can lead to costly and painful results that could easily be avoided.

When it comes to designing a successful dental office, guidance from dental design experts (while you focus on your practice) may be a more sensible option. If you haven't decided which path to choose, hopefully these six questions will help clarify your decision.

1. What is the total investment going to be and how would you best finance it?

With interest rates as low as they have been in years, now is a great time to build your dream office. It's important to interview different lenders to ensure they have a product to satisfy your needs. You'll likely need more than one type of loan to finance the project: one long-term mortgage, another for equipment and furnishings, and potentially a third loan for the lending gap.

Knowing the anticipated debt service is a must at the start of any dental office design project, and an experienced design firm can compile a comprehensive list of expenses and potential surprises you should anticipate at the start of your project. Being unprepared may lead to unforeseen expenses for items not included in the construction budget (e.g., computer/data cabling; signage fabrication and installation; equipment; moving expenses; accounting and legal fees; furnishings, artwork, and window treatments). Remember that the patient's lasting impression comes from the first experience in your office. After making a huge investment on the construction, don't cut corners on the finishes, furniture, and artwork-they are the icing on the cake.

2. How long are you planning on being in the new space?

If you're planning on being in the location for less than five years, you may want to consider a smaller investment and lease. If you're staying longer than five years, building or buying a space may be a better option. If this will be your final office, think about your practice's future by planning room for an associate. Also, consider investing in commercial-grade furniture and finishes, as they will last longer.

3. Are you prepared for the lending gap?

The design complexity and mechanical and plumbing requirements of a dental office cost more than they do in other buildings. It is difficult for appraisers to show higher values for dental offices. For instance, your office could be compared to an auto parts store during the appraisal stage of financing. This could lower your loan amount, causing you to be responsible for the difference between the actual cost to build and the appraised value. Prevent this potential dream-killer by adding at least one specialty dental lender, such as Live Oak Bank, to your list of financial institutions. They understand the value of the modern-day dental office, and can structure the loan accordingly.

4. Are you thinking, "But I can do it myself with a free dental equipment supplier floor plan"?

Yes, the plan is free. However, it will still cost you to hire a local architect to create a buildable set of drawings. Some suppliers won't help you with interior design, material selections, or furniture and artwork. Remember, their specialty is selling dental equipment, and if they give you a "free plan," you will likely pay for it in the end with an increased amount of equipment. Additionally, you may not have an advocate during the construction process, which is what a designer is. When all of the costs associated with moving into a new space are calculated, the design fee is usually only 1% to 3% of the total. Yet it is the one item with the greatest return on investment.

5. How many hours do you need to practice while your office is being designed and built?

Properly designing a dental office from ground-up construction takes roughly 300 architectural and design hours. If you add a learning curve factor of just five to that, you're looking at 1,500 hours. Now multiply that by your productivity fee. Can you afford to build this on your own and still meet the needs for your practice? Who will take responsibility for quality control?

6. Are you considering doing the interior design yourself because your spouse decorated your house?

The plethora of do-it-yourself design shows makes it seem like one or two individuals can create and build a beautiful space in a matter of weeks and for little money. What you don't see are dozens of behind-the-scenes extras performing the design research, choosing the materials, and lining up installation subcontractors. Providing decoration for your home is significantly different than doing interior design for a commercial setting. That wonderfully inexpensive chair from IKEA will buckle from being used dozens of times a day by patients of varying sizes and needs. Keep in mind that high-quality surroundings reflect high-quality dentistry.

Building a new office is likely the most expensive investment a dentist will make in his or her career. It may also make one of the biggest impacts on your practice's marketing. There might be some instances where it might make sense to go it alone, but more often than not, referring to a specialist and investing in an experienced professional will make up for any additional costs.

Jacqueline Russo, DDS, RN, and Stephanie Morgan, RID, LEED AP, are principals at EnviroMed Design Group, a full-service firm specializing in beautiful, ergonomic, and functional dental office design. Trained at T.H.E. Design, they have extensive experience in this field and know the key components every dental office needs to facilitate a successful practice. Their clients truly love where they work! For your complimentary consultation, they can be contacted at, (512)707-7400, or by visiting

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