Feasibility Studies: Why You Need One
Special to the WSDA News: Stuart Silk Architects
Every dental practice, probably several times throughout its life span, needs to progress and grow in ways that its facilities and surroundings may resist accommodating. Sometimes the growth is physical: You need to acquire more space or maximize existing space for more patients, more staff, or new equipment. Other times the needs are qualitative and perhaps more subtle: The neighborhood demographics are changing the practice.
Or perhaps the building is invisible from the street, or difficult to get into. Evolving technology has resulted in a floor plan that is inefficient and confusing. Or there’s simply a need to infuse the existing office with enough daylight and design friendliness to give it the good feeling that patients increasingly expect.
The first step in assessing your needs and creating a plan for improvements is a feasibility study conducted by a design professional. It’s straightforward, relatively uncomplicated, doesn’t take long, and painless. But it is a critically important part of the process to understand the direction and scope of the project. This early understanding is the key to averting mistakes that are difficult, costly, or even impossible to erase.
We had one client, for example, who had fallen in love with a long, narrow, boxcar-shaped building in Bellevue because its window area would allow a row of operatories with generous daylight. That’s a laudable feature, and we as architects fully appreciate the emotional response to sunlight (especially here in the Pacific Northwest). But after we analyzed the potential of the space, we had to tell the client that the envelope was just too narrow to comfortably accommodate the operatories and the hallways that would have to serve them. The client needed to find a building that would serve both the practical and emotional sides.What is involved in a feasibility study? Let’s look at the process.
The assessment: What are the practice’s needs?
The feasibility study begins with a meeting with the architect. There is a lot of ground to cover, but because the architect knows this geography well, it can be done efficiently. Some examples of questions might be: What mix of functions take place in this office, and how many on the busiest days? What is the five- or ten-year plan for expansion and equipment acquisition? What are the perceived limitations of the existing location?—for example, poor building management or inadequate parking. Some issues can be remedied, and some can’t.
The architect will then spend some time looking at the existing conditions and talking with the doctors and staff. How do people—staff and patients—move through and around the existing space? Where are the choke points and wasted movements? What is the quality of light and the character of the different spaces within the office, and how do they make people feel? Are there unrealized opportunities for views or more daylight? Listening to the users of the space and understanding the concerns and goals will be critical to the success of any space.
There are larger-radius issues, then, for the architect and dentist to consider together. What kind of presence does the practice have on the street, and what image, if any, does the building project for it? What is the character of the geographic area served by the practice, and how is it changing, for better or worse? Are there issues with zoning or utilities? What are the terms of the existing lease, and what does its future look like?
When shopping for a new space it is best to have considered the spaces which would go into the new office. This is an outline of all the required spaces with their rough configuration and square footage. Owners often have a good idea of what these needs are in their mind, but it is good practice to write the outline down. The architect can help with ideas for including circulation, infrastructure, features and amenities.
The program is a valuable document for a client to have in hand when embarking on a search for a new space. Using this outlined program, it is a straight forward process to evaluate a potential space with a “test fit” of all the equipment and operations in the practice, present and in the future, to learn whether spaces can accommodate them—without or with modifications. Every possibility can be quickly measured against the program with no wasted time in unproductive daydreams
The decision matrix
The point of the feasibility study, of course, is to lead up to a decision to keep the status quo, improve the practice’s existing space, or move to a place with better potential. And if a move appears to be the best option, will it be a modification of an existing building or an entirely new building, designed as a dental facility from the ground up. And what will it cost?
A move isn’t the best option for everyone, but there may be significant advantages in it to consider. For example, we designed a new building for a dental practice in Centralia that is a definitive repudiation of the confusing labyrinth-like character of so many traditional dental and medical offices. This building is designed around a courtyard so that patients circulate from the lobby through hallways to their operatories, with floor-to-ceiling windows throughout the whole sequence. Patients will never feel lost or trapped in a room staring at blank walls while waiting for their dentist. For a three-story medical-dental building in West Seattle, we were able to provide a signature presence on the street that people would remember, along with unusually open interior spaces and a “pocket patio” on the third floor overlooking a park. Those are examples of specific needs and a new space or new building may afford the option to include features and functions not possible in existing spaces. If a feasibility study is about a renovated or new building, it may include a conceptual design that shows how the required spaces might fit together, along with the parking, siting, and all the other critical components of the building. This is the first step in making the process real and possible to visualize.
Although it is not possible to provide an exact cost in a feasibility study, it is possible to develop an estimate that will prove invaluable in the client’s decision matrix. The architect has relationships with contractors, financial professionals, and real estate brokers that will help in building some real-world numbers. The true costs of a project fall into several different buckets. In addition to the sticks and mortar costs the estimate should also include the new up-to- date dental equipment as well as the costs of finishes such as tile, cabinets and flooring, furniture, permitting costs, and consultant fees. Though a complete plan specifying all the materials, finishes and fixtures still doesn’t exist at this point, an architect can draw on experience with similar projects to interpolate.
This is a very useful exercise because you can take these numbers to a banker to discuss financing options very early on in the process. The architect can recommend bankers who specialize in traditional commercial loans as well as Small Business Administration (SBA) loans. The banker will be able to look at your financials and the estimated costs of your project and let you know what kind of a loan you will likely qualify for before you have committed to the project
The architect also has, obviously, experience in managing building projects from beginning to end, and will be able to lay out a realistic schedule for a renovation or new construction. Most projects will take longer than clients typically imagine, but pain is avoided through good planning. When you know what to expect, and can manage your practice around the usual obstacles and delays, the impacts can be minimized and the process more enjoyable.
The value of feasibility
A dysfunctional office environment is uncomfortable for anyone, but it’s worse than uncomfortable in the dental profession: It’s frustrating and inordinately expensive.
A dental or medical office typically costs twice as much as “normal” commercial office space, and equipment is expensive to move. The success and growth of a dental practice is also profoundly affected by the totality of the patient experience, and an environment that is calming, pleasing, and comfortable is important to have as an objective—if you aren’t already there.
A feasibility study isn’t a long, drawn-out process. It can typically be completed in a matter of weeks. At the very least, it will clarify the needs and goals of your practice and keep you off the shoals of a disastrous mistake. At best, it can be the first step in creating an environment that is superbly functional, humane, and beautiful.
Stuart Silk Architects is pleased to offer discounted preliminary land use or tenant space code analysis services exclusively to members of the WSDA. We offer a $1500 credit towards a new construction analysis or a free consultation for renovations to existing spaces ($500 value). For more information about this special offer, please contact Andrew Patterson at 206-728-9500.