Show Those Pearly Whites: Go Orthodontistes

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

Located in the heart of Montréal and occupying the base of a new condo building, this clinic boasts 13-ft. ceilings and extensive glazing offering light and views of a landscaped streetscape. According to Natasha Thorpe, principal of Natasha Thorpe Design, the practice centres on alignment technology using clear “trays” rather than braces. Many clients are young or mature adults rather than teenagers and this patient base, along with a less invasive treatment process, a raw spatial canvas, and a design-oriented client permitted a not-your-average dental clinic.

An open reception/waiting area is linked by a “channel” defined by an undulating wall of bright white corrugated steel connecting into the treatment area. The latter space stretches along a grid of widows facing the street with individual window shades controlling for light and privacy. By contrast, treatment chairs are separated by semi-transparent gold mesh curtains with only an illusion of privacy. making it feel more like a hair salon, says Thorpe.

A challenge in building Go Orthodontistes was to bring warmth to a cold, stark concrete-defined space. (Photography by Maxime Brouillet)

The full ceiling height is exploited. Carefully tucked-in ducts and the raw concrete ceiling are visible behind gold-coloured metal ceiling screens, providing easy access to ceiling mechanics but also combining with the vertically installed corrugated metal panels and the similar vertical treatment of the clinic’s slim, richly coloured Italian wall tiles to maximize a sense of height. “In fact,” she adds, “these materials are continued past the [mesh] ceiling tiles to really give the impression of an infinite [extension].”

Perhaps most unique is the waiting area. A gold-coloured platform raised above a reflecting pool and overlooking the landscaped street offers a comfortable lounge or funky bean bag seating. Bleacher-cum-steps facing the reception desk augment this seating. Powder coating the platform reflects Thorpe’s underlying goal of material durability. The reception desk, therefore, is limestone, the transaction counter Corian and a technique called “edge band fusing” was used for laminated cupboards. This, along with an aesthetic durability, like mid-century Scandinavian modern, means “you don’t need to keep renovating, you don’t need to keep changing the space [and] this is sustainability in a different way.”

Photography by Maxime Brouillet

Q&A: Natasha Thorpe, principal, Natasha Thorpe Design

What were the key components of the project brief that was provided to you by the client for the centre?

The previous space the client had occupied was one they had been using for over 20 years.  Material durability was very important as it is a high traffic area as they are seeing over 100 patients a day. So that was very important. In addition, creating a pleasant space for the patient, a welcoming environment that would be conducive to a positive experience for their clients was central. The last thing was the need to take into consideration the flow of people through the space as well as ensuring the layout was configured to be conducive to the workflow of the staff.

There is a lot of expressed design in this new space, particularly for a dental facility. Was this the case in their previous clinic or was it more a generic dental office.

At the time, of course, there was a certain design from the ’80s and ’90s that followed the trends of that time period but it had become quite dated. The space that they were in before didn’t age very well, but they always did a design centric approach. So it was very, very important for them to have a really standout space that would be beautiful for their clients.

It is an orthodontist practice; so, are their clients primarily teenagers and braces or with adults?

They don’t use braces but exclusively a different, newer kind of alignment technology that uses clear “trays.” And because of their location downtown, they actually have a lot of young adults and even mature patients that are either wanting to correct something that wasn’t well done when they were younger or just wanting to have a beautiful smile later in life. So their clientele is very diverse. I would say the majority of patients are not teenagers.

The space is unusual in the sense of its height and its materials. Could you describe the core raw space with which you had to work and how this influenced your approach?

The raw space before we did any design intervention was really just cinder block walls. There was a concrete ceiling and a raw concrete slab on the ground. When I design a space, I don’t like to mask everything completely. I like to keep some sort of reference to the materials that are on site and if possible reflect the general area and setting of the spaces. In this case it was a new downtown luxury condo.

So the ceiling height of 13ft was very high and it was without any ventilation, without any kind of ductwork. I would say one of the biggest challenges of the project was trying to create a functional ventilation system that would provide adequate aeration to all of the spaces while not losing the ceiling height. Some of the [required ducts] are coming down six feet from the ceiling. It took months to configure the plan so that we could have most of the pipes side by side rather than overlapping and thus reducing ceiling height. The choice to use the customized gold metal mesh ceiling tiles provided flexibility to still access to the ceiling but not have that closed feeling but instead maximizes the sense of height.

When I look at how you use the white corrugated metal and tiles on the walls in a vertical direction, I take it you wanted to emphasize rather than mitigate this height. Is that correct?

Absolutely; and, in fact these materials are continued past the [mesh] ceiling tiles to really give the impression of sort of an infinite [extension]. The ceiling mesh is just a layer, it is not a limit.

Given the client’s brief for the clinic, what do you see as the key components of the design response that you have brought to realize that brief?

I would say first and foremost it was the durability of materials so all the work surfaces are constructed in solid surfaces such as Corian and quartz that are resistant to corrosion from things like acid or any kind of chemicals that they’re using as well as heat and cold. The actual reception desk, however, is built of limestone with the transaction counter in Corian. In sum, it will last a lot longer than having a laminate countertop, which could have edges that flip as had happened in the cabinets in the prior space. We used a technique called edge band fusing so the edges are actually fused to the facades of the cabinets in any cases where laminates were used.

In addition to that, there was the concern about the flow of the space in terms of both work and the many people coming in and out. There is a long central corridor that goes almost from one end of the space to the other that acts as a central canal from which people will cross on its long end and from there either go into the clinic or the waiting area. There are no closed off areas; there is no feeling of claustrophobia. Everything is quite open, but also private where it needs to be in the case of the two private consultations rooms and the doctors’ offices.

You state in you design description: “the layout and materiality of the space impacts visitors creating a positive experience with none of the anxiety-inducing connotation of a medical space.” What are the key design elements in the waiting area and treatment rooms that produce or support this outcome?

I would say there are two main things, the first applies to the waiting room. There is always a sense of anxiety created when you are in a waiting room and your back is to whatever is happening. You are not facing what’s happening and hence can’t see what’s going on. In this case, all of the seating space faces the reception. You can see what’s going on and not get a sense that you’re going to get some sort of surprise coming from behind you.

When it comes to a clinical area, you will see that the only dividers in the open clinic area are gold mesh currents. They are not doing any invasive work, not doing dental work like repairing cavities or cleaning teeth using any kind of drilling equipment. So there is no need to section off the space into surgical chambers. That [[sectioning off] is another thing that can make people quite anxious, give them a sense of not really being part of what’s going on. Having this more communal space feels almost like going to a hairdresser. You are not worried. There’s nothing intensive happening and the space reflects that because of the level of transparency.

In your write up, you put a lot of emphasis on colour, materiality and warmth, so maybe you could talk a little bit about that.

In general there is an overarching colour scheme to the space. But there are also many different nuances in the tone or in the materials. The limestone tiles, which are actually on the reception desk and the wall behind the desk, these are all subtlety different tones. When you [first] go into a space you have an impression of unity and harmony [but] the little variations create visual interest and make it such that you don’t get tired of it over time because there’s always these interesting details.

I like to work with noble materials. By that, I mean, things that we’ve had for a long time or that resemble things that we’ve had for a long time. These are the things that endure. You can go to a temple, a Greek temple and the limestone is beautiful but it is a material that doesn’t age, that is inherently noble and beautiful. I don’t really like to design according to trends, rather I like, as much as possible, to design spaces that can be timeless.

Does the centre’s design reflect any of the emerging green/sustainability priorities now in focus?

We tend to think: can this be recycled; can this be built with materials that are environmentally responsible practices.  But there is another way to think about it. If you think about classic modern design from the 50s or 60s, about Scandinavian design and its collectible chairs, these are things that people will pass down if you create design that is timeless. Create something that doesn’t need to be redone. If you don’t need to keep renovating, you don’t need to keep changing the space, this is sustainability in a different way.

You created a kind of bleacher and deck waiting area versus a standard couch and armchair approach. How do you see this fitting into what you wanted to achieve?

The shape of the office space is a long narrow rectangle. There is always an interest in maximizing space whenever possible. I was thinking this is an area with nice natural light. How can we elevate the waiting experience a bit? It’s appropriate I am using the word “elevate” because it really is literally elevated. How can we make this experience a little bit more special and exciting and a bit less anxious inducing having to go to your orthodontist?

By combining the water basin [underneath], which picks up light and reflections, with a [platform] area over the top that adds additional seating to the steps that people ca sit on, you create more of a fun experience. You can look down into the reception section or look out the windows. It just makes things a little bit more special for the people waiting there.

[In addition to the bleachers], there are bean bags, ottomans and a comfortable lounge rather than stiff chairs lined up all around a wall with everyone nervously sitting around a coffee table with magazines. This is kind of a more fun experience. But on the ground level there is a couple of ottomans for those who can’t or don’t want to go up onto the platform.

So the platform itself is steel and then it’s painted with a gold-coloured finish.

It’s actually powder coated so that [the colour and metal] are fused together. Thus, there is no problem with people scraping at it or will it be affected by water. It is a very durable, outdoor treatment.

How did the medical staff respond to this high level of transparency?

In the old office they had an open plan, something they pioneered for a long time. So they were very open to our design. They used to have the chairs all together in a space and I added the mesh curtain that provides more of a perception of privacy than actual privacy. And in addition to that, I think the windows provide bearing along to the street. There are, however, a lot of passer-by traffic so I installed digital blinds that cab block out any of the individual window panes as needed. You can see a large grid of windows with many different smaller segments rather than a large continues window. Each segment has its own remote controlled blind. With 75% light blocking, they are not complete black-out curtains. They are put down as needed while still keeping light coming in. Typically, where there is a patient, they close the appropriate sections.

 The brick, well-like wash station is a bit of reflection of their old building?

Yes, and most of the buildings in their old area were of this material. So it’s available as a little nod to that old setting in a broad context. The actual brick is demolition salvage from a [building] not too far from the new building.