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DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS

Sept. 1, 2004
In a state where bigger is better, this San Antonio dentist wants to make sure his office is more comfortable than palatial.

By Kevin Henry, Managing Editor

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Contrary to popular belief, not everything is bigger in Texas. Dr. Clarence Feller's office in San Antonio proves the saying doesn't apply to all things in the Lone Star State.

In a time when, as Dr. Feller puts it, dentists are gravitating toward office building projects that resemble the Taj Mahal or Buckingham Palace, Dr. Feller made sure that his new office in the northern sections of the Alamo City was functional and nice, but not nicer than his home.

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"I think of a dental office as a barn," Dr. Feller said. "This isn't a castle. It's a barn. I didn't want to put all of my dollars in here. The barn is supposed to make the dentist money so he or she can go home and enjoy being with the family. This is a place where we work, not where we live. The dental office is supposed to help your family, not become your family. Trust me, I enjoy being at my work, but I can certainly leave it and go home and enjoy being with my wife and sons."

After practicing in a building for 15 years, Dr. Feller decided it was time for a change. When he found a site just two blocks north of his old location, he knew it was time to change scenery. But before the move could even start, Dr. Feller had plenty of research to do.

"I had an idea what I wanted, but I didn't want to build a new office without seeing what worked and what didn't work in other offices," Dr. Feller said. "I visited five other practices in the area and learned a lot from them. I didn't want to reinvent the wheel. Walter Hailey (the late founder of the Dental Boot Kamp concept) once said that it's best to stand on the shoulders of the people who have already been where you're going. That's what I did."

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But it wasn't only dental offices that Dr. Feller visited to learn the intricacies of building his ideal practice. He also spent a great deal of time walking the aisles of Home Depot and attending local home and garden shows to see the new trends in construction. During one of his visits to a home show, Dr. Feller discovered the RASTRA® Building System — the only stay in place insulated concrete form system (ICF) of its kind. RASTRA (pictured at left) is a sustainable, energy-efficient, environmentally correct construction system. RASTRA is produced out of recycled, post consumer plastics — such as expanded polystyrene — and mixed with cement. RASTRA offers the structural strength of concrete paired with high thermal insulation, sound attenuation, and fire resistance. The people who had used the material had reported tremendous savings on their energy bills. When he heard some new homes in San Antonio had been built using RASTRA, he made an appointment to tour them.

"The first home I visited looked like an Italian villa. It was a beautiful design that no one could tell was made from this material," Dr. Feller recalled. "The day I visited this house, it was 98 degrees outside. I walked into this home and it was so cool and refreshing inside. I asked the owner what the thermometer was set on, and she told me it was locked on 78 degrees. I knew right then this was the building material for me."

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The use of RASTRA fit into Dr. Feller's staunch beliefs that he would not build a new practice that would end up costing him money as he neared retirement. The new material was so new in San Antonio that Dr. Feller's practice became the first commercial building in the city to use the compound in its construction. While it may have been an experiment in the eyes of some, it was one that Dr. Feller was convinced his office needed for a number of reasons.

"The walls can withstand winds up to 180 miles per hour (an important fact in a city where hurricanes and tornadoes pass through) and mold will not grow on this material (an important fact in humid south Texas)," said Dr. Feller, who is a fellow in the Academy of General Dentistry and the American Academy of Implant Dentistry. "We've been in our office 11 months and we've always been comfortable."

With the outside material selected, Dr. Feller's thoughts moved to the inside of his practice. He interviewed several general contractors before selecting Hal Wallers.

"He was a guy who would work with me on the project rather than tell me the way it was going to be done," Dr. Feller explained. "I had rebuilt our house before we started this move, and I knew a lot of the situations that might come up during construction. It was important for me to find people who would listen to me and work with me."

Part of that listening included Dr. Feller sticking to his original budget. That included some changes in the original plans, but the result was a success – the project took just eight months to complete and ran only $4,000 over budget.

"We have a rounded wall in this office that was originally scheduled to be made of glass blocks, but it's now made of sheet rock. I looked at the cost of the wall and decided it just wasn't going to fit into our budget and wasn't as important as some of the other things we wanted to put in the office," Dr. Feller explained.

Whatever the material, rounded corners and walls are a theme throughout the office.

"When you round a corner, you make it more soft and inviting," Dr. Feller reasoned. "When your primary market is women, it makes sense to make your office as inviting as possible, and the rounded corners are an important part of that philosophy here."

From the moment a patient steps into Dr. Feller's office, there is a feeling of comfort. Patients pass through a 250-year-old antique door as they enter the facility. The reception area is marked with soft, comfortable furniture, warm colors, and a fireplace framed with an antique mantle.

"My wife and I found the door and the mantle in an architectural antique shop," Dr. Feller said. "We were looking for those two items to be conversation pieces for our patients, and they have certainly met those expectations."

The fireplace has also provided another benefit for Dr. Feller's office.

"We've found that people love to come in here and turn on the fireplace (using a switch on the wall)," Dr. Feller laughed. "No matter what season it is, people love to turn on our fireplace while they're waiting. I guess when you think about it, how many dental offices in San Antonio have a fireplace?"

And how many dental offices in San Antonio (or anywhere else throughout the country for that matter) have a staff member standing to greet patients when they arrive? Dr. Feller's front desk area was built with a small alcove area where the staff steps forward to meet and greet the patient when he or she arrives. It is also the area Dr. Feller is standing in on the front cover of this issue.

From left to right, Samantha Bessmer (assistant), Tammy Thiele (receptionist), Jannie Maldonado (treatment coordinator), Angie Farr (business assistant), Brandy Reynold (hygienist), and Dr. Clarence Feller. The group is standing in front of the 250-year-old door found by Dr. and Mrs. Feller at an architectural antique shop.
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"I walked into one of the offices I visited and the front-desk worker was just sitting there. I didn't want my patients greeted like that," Dr. Feller said. "I think it shows the patient respect when you are standing up to greet him or her. We also built all of our countertops 42 inches high. That's the same height you will find them at a bank because the bank industry's research has shown that 42 inches is the optimal height for writing a check comfortably."

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Comfort and staff are two very important parts of the equation for success in Dr. Feller's practice. The dentist and his staff of five try to keep the atmosphere in the office light and fun.

"Most days, I know I don't appreciate the staff as much as I should. They're all very good at what they do. I've worked hard to learn how to utilize the people we have and use their God-given gifts in the best possible way," Dr. Feller said. "We try to have fun all day long. We tell jokes and kid each other. Most of our patient base knows us all very well. If they know we're having fun, they're going to be more relaxed."

Dr. Feller's office is comprised of three operatories plus the hygiene operatory. There is room for expansion for both the dentist and the hygienist, but it is not scheduled any time soon. He feels the 2,700-square-foot office with its cohesive layout is quite adequate for his needs and his patient base.

"I made a point to have all of my operatories identically designed," Dr. Feller said. "When we go into one of the bays, I want the X-ray to be in the same area every time. The only way to tell one operatory from the other is the color of the south wall."

And what advice does Dr. Feller have for fellow dentists who are looking to build a new office? He offers these tidbits of knowledge.

• "Put in more electrical plugs than you think you will need. You'll be surprised how many you'll use. When you think have enough, add four more.
• "Put vents in your office that will get rid of the 'dental smells.' There's no reason that a patient should have to be surrounded by those smells. The vents can be very small, quiet, and out of sight and do wonders for your operatory's environment."
• "Too many dentists get talked into putting something in their office without trying it our first or knowing if it will really work for them in their office. Do the research before you buy something."

But above all, Feller said, "This is the Golden Age of Dentistry. Enjoy what you do, but don't make it your whole life."

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