Technology, economy reshape dental, medical, legal offices

January 3, 2014

Though the term “underwater” may have a negative connotation in today’s economy, there’s no place Ashburn-based dentist Haress Rahim would rather be. ¶ Rahim, who has a penchant for scuba diving and the color blue, chose an oceanic theme when he opened a practice in 2010. The theme extends from the decor (“sea pod” wall panels, curved blue millwork that mimics a wave and amoeba-like light fixtures) to the design of his logo, Web site and marketing material — even the name of the practice: Bloo Dental.

“We went to the dictionary and chose the phonetic spelling of blue, which is ‘bloo’ with a bar over the o’s,” says Andreas Charalambous of Forma Design, the firm that suggested the theme.

Patient Elissa Steele, 22, of Ashburn compares an hour in the chair to a day in Santorini, Greece. “Everything is a piece of art — bright blue and white,” she says. “Even their panoramic X-ray machine looks like a museum piece. The iPods during treatment are great, and patients get hot towels and smoothies afterward.” ¶ Rahim’s goal was partly to counter the dental fear factor, he says. “When people walk into our space, it doesn’t seem at all like they’ve come to a dental office. I’ve been told by patients it looks more like a spa — massage-back chairs, TV in the ceiling and all, which helps us to work more effectively.” ¶If you haven’t visited a dental, medical or law office lately, you’re in for a surprise, and not just that some practitioners are eager for their offices to reflect their personalities. Increasing competition for clients and staff, evolving technology and tighter budgets are driving office spaces in new directions. Today’s offices are strategic business tools, rather than just utilitarian spaces. And an industry is springing up to cater to that mind-set: Office design is the most common specialty among members of the American Society of Interior Designers.

Here’s a rundown of changes and local offices that exemplify them.


Girish Banaji and Heidi Vatanka speak with parent Kirsti Garlock, alongside dental concierge Angela Morales and her streamlined desk at Banaji Pediatric Dental Specialists . (Mike Morgan/For The Washington Post)

Dental offices

More personality, less paper

In addition to the switch to paperless records, the dental industry has experienced technological advances that allow it to provide treatment more quickly, less painfully and in smaller spaces. The advent of flatscreens not only makes computers less bulky but also allows for ceiling-mounted screens to distract patients.

Instead of a cumbersome reception desk flanked by file cabinets, a dental concierge greets patients at Banaji Pediatric Dental Specialists in Merrifield. Incoming phone calls are routed to the suite’s business office.

“We started out wanting to design a paperless office around the technology to support it,” Girish Banaji says, “but realized there was so much more to designing for patients.”

His practice, also designed by Charalambous, features a waiting area that includes a cafe space with video games, and color-coded treatment zones that cater to subsets of pediatric patients. The green area, for babies to 5-year-olds, has room to park strollers and glass doors that close to compartmentalize crying.

Each treatment bay has age-appropriate entertainment on the ceiling-mounted screen, and room for two computers: one for business and one for treatment. To make things even more convenient, the business computers are outfitted with credit card processors, which allow parents to swiftly usher out their possibly unhappy children.


The soothing design elements at the Katzen Cancer Research Center are part of patient care. (Mike Morgan/For The Washington Post)

Medical offices

Think networks

In medicine, the trend is away from individual practices. With the exception of specialists such as cosmetic surgeons and fertility doctors, who are not dependent on insurance reimbursements, many physicians are finding that joining a large health system or network, such as Inova, Adventist HealthCare or Medstar Health, is more economical. Consolidation makes it less necessary for each practice to have its own reception area, lab, nurse’s office and medical records room. Plus, such “one-stop shopping” offers greater convenience for patients.

Consider GW Medical Faculty Associates, a 31-building network housing almost 1,000 physicians practicing 51 specialties across the Washington region that has more than tripled its physicians since 2000. At the main campus, in 10 buildings within blocks of George Washington University, patients can seek treatment in all 51 areas of medical care, including ophthalmology, oncology, dermatology and gastroenterology. Plus, patients can have their blood drawn, get their prescriptions filled and pay their bills.

This reshaping of the doctor’s office is not all about convenience and economics. Aesthetics and amenities are also important components in patient health, says Barbara Huelat, whose firm, Huelat Parimucha, designed GWU’s Katzen Cancer Research Center. The infusion room features individual heated chemotherapy chairs with Internet connections and DVDs. Private infusion bays are also available for more sensitive patients, and soothing music is piped to headphones. A food pantry allows accompanying family members and friends to cater to the patient.

Tanya Keys, the network’s director of operations, recalls that the original treatment center was drab and cold. “It looked just like a typical hospital cancer center,” she says, “but this one is inviting and refreshing.” Abundant natural light and “organic” design — or patterns that replicate nature on walls and in flooring — are intended to provide stress relief and distraction from lengthy and painful procedures.

Allen Dyer, a staff psychiatrist since 2012 and a former cancer patient himself, calls the treatment center an asset. “It’s a beautiful space with rocks, water [a fountain], photographs of nature, soft colors and lighting. All of that contributes to a sense of calm and well-being,” he says, adding that the design is important not only for patients but for its effect on staff as well.

“Staff becomes very much a part of the environment in their interaction with patients,” he says. “The environment here makes sure everyone is calm and focused on what they need to be. It’s an important part of treatment.”


The in-house cafe at Rothwell, Figg, Ernst, & Manbeck PC is also a collaborative space. (Mike Morgan/For The Washington Post)

Legal offices

Less space, more sharing

Law offices, too, are dealing with difficult economic realities. Rather than sharing spaces with other firms, however, they are sharing space, and less of it, within. Forget the days of spacious corner offices with secretaries stationed outside, and massive libraries lined with ponderous volumes. Today’s law office is a smaller yet often more congenial space.

Whereas law offices 20 years ago provided 1,000 to 1,400 square feet of office space per lawyer, the current standard is about 600 to 650 square feet, according to Jim Allegro of Fox Architects, which redesigned the offices of Rothwell Figg Ernst & Manbeck PC, an intellectual property firm on 14th Street NW.

Instead of dividing space by seniority, some offices have gone for a more egalitarian approach. At the office of 50-lawyer Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice — designed by OPX Global — both partner and associate offices are about 165 square feet.

Womble Carlyle has 14 business law offices in the country, and each one has its own culture. But the D.C. office, at 19th and M streets NW, was ready for a redesign to mirror the current industry-wide evaluation of how the legal field operates (for example, the tradition of exorbitant billable hours is in some cases being replaced by flat fees). In 2011, the D.C. office downsized from 55,000 square feet to 31,000 square feet, both reducing its overhead and bringing its real estate more in line with that of its clients. “Palatial offices were distasteful to them,” says Pam Rothenberg, managing partner of Womble Carlyle’s D.C. branch. The new design also features more collaborative spaces that can be repurposed in multiple ways, including as breakout areas and a coffee bar in which people congregate to work.

At Rothwell Figg, the redesign by Fox Architects includes a bright cafe along an outer wall, sacrificing some partner-pleasing window offices “for the message it sends to staff,” Allegro says. In other projects, Fox has combined cafes with library spaces, which technology has allowed to shrink from thousands of square feet to 400 square feet or less. Such a combination offers employees the opportunity to have a snack or beverage while reading reference items or researching on a laptop, not exactly your stereotypical image of alawyer at work.

Although there has been concern from older members of Womble Carlyle about whether the firm’s smaller, less traditional space will affect the recruiting and retention of partners, Rothenberg sees the design as the legal field’s new reality. “The only way to deal with change is to embrace it and to live it,” she says. “We need to be a part of the future, not the past.

Beth Herman is a freelance writer living in Lewiston, Maine.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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