Show Those Pearly Whites: River Dental

Modern dental clinics shed anything and everything that might trigger those negative associations we may all still harbour.

A traditional storefront practice in a new residential condo, River Dental borders East Ottawa’s emerging Greystone urban village on land bracketed by the Rideau River and the UNESCO-designated Rideau Canal. Core elements on which Parallel 45 Design Group focused included a patient-friendly but modern environment that clearly reflected the client’s eco-friendly brand and provided a strong graphic presentation-of-place.

For River Dental, Parallel 45 Design Group used reclaimed wood from barn beams in Québec, bio-based polyurethane plank flooring, LED lighting mainly sourced locally from Montréal, and other products with top sustainable certifications.

River Dental already considered their practice an environmentally friendly clinic. They use, for example, only natural silk floss and distribute bamboo toothbrushes and other products to patients that reflect green standards. “They wanted the full interior to be a holistic type environment,” says Sarah Oakley, principle of Parallel 45, The wood used on walls was reclaimed from local barns, floors are bio-based polyurethane planks and lighting is all LED. Most products are sourced locally including quartz counters.

Embedded in the warm wood, a large flower-like logo dominates. Developed by Shine Creative’s Ali McComb, it is composed of 32 water droplets that signify the waterways, but also the 32 teeth in a complete set. “This is right in line with our concept,” says Oakley, “[so we] played off this vibe and this environmental location spin.” Extending the water image, strips of ceiling lighting cascade down the wall. In the waiting area, a chandelier of water-like droplet globes “are almost like a little rain shower,” she adds.

For the waiting room wall, Oakley worked with McComb to create a map of the area between the river and canal that was then installed like wallpaper. In a small alcove in the same wall a simple text-on-panel summarizes the space’s story and its design intent. Finally, two fixed iPads are for children’s amusement, replacing magazines and toys for sanitary reasons.

All these elements contribute to a warm, welcoming, and engaging space balanced with crisp clinical whiteness to signal its health function. “The psychology behind our design is that just because you go into [a clinic] doesn’t mean you have to endure a completely clinical feel,” says Oakley.

Q&A with Sarah Oakley, principal, Parallel 45 Design Group

What was the brief that the client came to you for the project?

When they came to us, they already knew what they wanted, it was to set their self apart from the competition with essentially a more eco-conscious, environmentally friendly clinic. That was at the forefront from the start even before we had developed a graphic concept. Already, for example, they were using silk floss and distributing bamboo toothbrushes to patients. [Their products] are all eco-conscious. Our brief was to take this to the next level. Like their product specs, they wanted the full interior to be a holistic type environment. That was the intent of the space. What we did then was picked up on their existing graphic designer’s work [on which more below] and from that developed the whole environmental storey behind it.

Did they have ideas beyond the eco-friendly, an aesthetic they were looking, values that they wanted to come through in the design?

They wanted something modern. They wanted their brand presented, which I outlined at the start, to be repeated throughout the space. Otherwise, they were really very open to our recommendations and ideas. As there was a lot of trust with what we were going to be able to provide, they gave us a lot of free reign.

Their distinctive River Dental logo, did you develop that or did that come from them?

[The logo] was being developed as we started. They were working with their graphic designer who is Shine Creative’s Ali McComb who we know well and thus we were confident they would get something pretty spectacular. When we saw it, we thought “wow,” this is right in line with what saw as our concept. What we then did was take the story behind the logo and played off it as well. Their concept of River Dental comes from being sandwiched between the Rideau River and the Rideau Canal. For them it was: “this is where we are, this is our concept” and from there we took it a bit further, played off this vibe and this environmental location spin.

Photography by: Justin Van Leeuwen

How then have you brought these key aspects or themes from the brief to your design?

The concept of water was part of the branding guide. In the logo there are 32 of these water droplets that signify the river and the canal as water bodies. But there are also 32 teeth in a full set of teeth within our mouths. So that was the concept for that flower-like [water] image that you see in the logo.

We designed a lot of the lighting in the space, for example, as waterfall-type features to it.  You will see that in the LED strip lighting in the ceiling [that “falls” down the wall] as well as the lighting integrated into the counter. These signify [Ottawa’s] Chaudière Falls. The waiting area has a chandelier [made up of] globes of water-like droplets that are almost like a little rain shower. We took the water element out of the logo and really played on that aspect.

Understanding that they have a very green, very eco-conscious dentistry practice, we took that to the next level with the selected materials. For example, we used wood reclaimed from old local barns. We used bio-based polyurethane plank flooring, which is not super common right now. The lighting is all LED and we’ve sourced most of it locally within a 500 kilometre radius. That was very, very important to us. We even specified the quartz counter surfaces to be sourced from a local Ontario quartz manufacturer. We carefully curated the space to try to keep in mind local sourcing as much as possible as well as products with top sustainable certifications.

The idea of using a lot of naturally finished wood in a natural form with its very warm affect, was this something you introduced? Is this common in dental office design now?

Yes, exactly. By juxtaposing a clean white feeling of the space against this warm, natural wood element along with little pops of colour throughout, creates a nice marriage of two different concepts.  When you do a dental offices, they are known to be clean, sterile environments. In my opinion it is important to keep a very clean undertone that is very reflective of the psychology of this space. But by adding in the warmth of the wood, etc., you are also continuing your green story about these reclaimed elements.

I see more of this search for a warm, comfortable feeling in the design [of such clinics]. Part of your questions was how over the past 25 years, dental office design has changed. What we are seeing a lot more is that no longer do spaces have to be completely sterile with a very clinical feel. So the psychology behind our design is that just because you go into [a dental clinic] space doesn’t mean you have to endure a completely clinical feel. You can have the things you require for that [functional] environment, however, there are products and materials available now that we can add to make it affect patient anxiety positively. It can help bring down their blood pressure.

The Rideau Canal Rideau River graphic on the waiting room wall, did you develop that or was it again with an independent graphic designer?

We worked with the graphic designer who did the branding and explained what we wanted to see and what she did was take that graphic and turn it into a map of the area between the river and the canal. We then had it custom printed and installed like a wallpaper on the wall. I envisioned it as a way to remind people exactly where they are situated, flanked by the river and the canal. It was a little about going back to a location and letting you know why we did what we did in designing the clinic.

Photography by: Justin Van Leeuwen

And what is the nook beside this map graphic with the inserted desk, text panel, two IPads and little stools?

I’m really big on telling a story of a space. What we did was “tell the story” to a copywriter – I’m no writer- and she pared it down to fit on the panel as a concise blue text that tells the story of the space and the whole design intent behind it.

[The desk] is a children’s area so they can play games on the two IPads while they wait for their appointment or while their parents are getting dental work done. We are seeing more and more of this type of space in dental offices while seeing less and less of magazines and toys because of health and sanitary reasons. We are seeing more iPads that can be easily wiped to ensure a very clean environment.

We talked about the project’s commitment to sustainability. Is this becoming a major part of your practice?

It is. It is now almost second nature that when we design a space it is usually one of the things that is always very prominent. If there is an option to have an eco-friendly model, whether it is flooring or paint or lighting, that is always the direction we will go. It is a very important part of the process for our firm so that we remain not only modern and up-to-date but equally on the forefront of eco-conscious specifications. I was supposed to go to Europe [this spring before Covid-19]. It is always interesting because we see so much advancement overseas, not only in Europe but also in Australia. I travel to Australia once a year and even over there they have a much higher level of eco-conscious products. And, it is heart-breaking sometimes to come home and not have access to the same range of products.

Anything else you would like to add?

One thing I would like to mention is that this project wasn’t a solo effort. My colleague Jessica Vagner (Intern Interior Designer (ARIDO) was also very instrumental in the design.