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Convert a residential home into a family practiceTransforming a residential home into a family practice can be very profitable but be prepared for unexpected costs during the early stages, explains Kerryn Ramsey.

Dental practitioners are well aware of the financial value of running a practice in a residential zone. Patients in the area visit twice a year, tend to keep appointments and refer friends and family. With a strong commitment to the community, and with many of the staff members having grown up in the area, the practice can quickly build a healthy client base.While purchasing a family practice in a suburban or regional area is hard to resist, they can be as rare as hen’s teeth. 

However, before signing on the dotted line, be aware that this type of refurbishment is fraught with danger-the process requires patience, doggedness and determination, particularly when dealing with neighbours, councils and other government bodies. According to three practitioners who have gone down this path, there were plenty of speed bumps along the way but, in the long term, it’s been a financially and emotionally rewarding experience.

A high-tech home

For Dr Lan Tran, who runs Dream Dental, the expansion of her business and the frustration of leasing her practices convinced her that buying property was the best option. When she spotted a ‘for sale’ sign outside a run-down, two-storey home in the Brisbane suburb of Holland Park, she immediately saw the possibility for a high-tech, first-floor practice with ground-floor media presentation rooms.

In her previous practices, Dr Tran had hired Dentec for the fit-outs. So once again, she turned to its director Daniel Taylor. He soon compiled all the required documents, including the design and drafting service, to apply for a development application [DA]. Unexpectedly, the local council requested various alterations.

“The parking requirements were one car park per 30 square metres of floor area-but the council raised an objection as it was within a certain radius of a major shopping centre,” recalls Taylor.

He had assumed that having a dental surgery near a shopping centre was a positive for locals, but it didn’t fit with the council’s traffic-management plan. “The ruling states that the council has to protect large community shopping centres from having individual shops dotted among suburbia.”

After various meetings this situation was resolved, but another stumbling block occurred when the building codes changed. “In the timeframe of going from DA to BA [business application], the visibility code had changed-which meant that we needed to change access requirements to the building.”

These challenges meant that Dr Tran’s new practice was postponed longer than a standard fit-out would take. The new Dream Dental practice opened its doors in 2012, with one consultation room, four operating rooms, an OPG room, laboratory, undercover garage for staff, a patient/recovery/meditation room and a media presentation room which can double as a training facility, making the longer wait worthwhile.

A weatherboard cottage

Dental practice design specialist Antony Poate agrees that transforming a residential property into a dental surgery can be expensive and time-consuming. “The room sizes aren’t always ideal so they often need modifications, and this can easily blow out the budget,” says the director of Antony Poate Design.

He was well aware of this issue when he took on a project for Dr William Zhang of Periodontics & Dental Implant Specialist Centre in Hawthorn East, Melbourne. The practitioner and his family had been living in a 1940s single-storey weatherboard cottage for years until he decided to convert it into his own practice, moving his family nearby.

“It was a stressful time for Dr Zhang but we soon actively engaged with neighbours and solved all their concerns, such as noise levels and waste-disposal issues.” – Antony Poate, dental practice design specialist.

Poate explains that while there were a few council issues, the design and planning process took just six months, and the building phase was completed in eight weeks. “There were a few objections from neighbours due to the lack of understanding regarding the involvement of dental specialist clinic development. It was a stressful time for Dr Zhang but we soon actively engaged with neighbours and solved all their concerns, such as noise levels and waste-disposal issues.”

While development application issues, such as parking and disability access, can be nerve-wracking, Poate points out that it’s just part of the process. “Dentists shouldn’t be intimidated,” he says. “A lot of councils get a bad rap but most are actually very pro-development, particularly when you’re delivering dental services to a community. Most councils just need to tick their boxes and be able to cover themselves.”

A tale of two houses

When a practitioner buys a residential property in a busy suburb, there’s often little room to add an extension. Dr Lloyd Saville, who had been running 818 Dental in Melbourne’s suburb of Armadale for six years, was keen to expand, so he realised that the best solution was to buy the property next door.

He turned to Sam Koranis of Medifit Design & Construct, to seamlessly merge the two buildings. “We decided to introduce a contemporary glass atrium between the properties,” explains Koranis. Dr Saville knew the process would take a while due to the heritage overlays of the 1920s dwelling. “Our team helped to navigate these obstacles with relative ease, especially the strict specifications laid down by the heritage overlay and council requirements.”

The finished product was able to blend the two parts seamlessly-a nod to the past outside and the fresh, modern approach inside. Dr Saville was “thrilled with the result, as were the patients”.

The council planning was “long and arduous”, says Koranis, particularly when it came to parking requirements. “To ensure we achieved the desired outcome, a traffic engineer was engaged followed by a visit to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to obtain a legal decision on parking.The whole process should have taken 12 months, but took much longer,” he recalls. 818 Dental now has four surgeries, two hygienist’s rooms, a sterilisation room, lab, disabled toilet, staff toilet, an OPG room, a reception and waiting area, a practice manager’s office, doctors’ office, internal plant room and a staff room. Wow. That’s a lot of rooms, and remember they are all full of specialist equipment; from the dentists’ chairs, to the printers in the office’s, to the Autoclave Steriliser. It takes time to not only build these rooms, but also fill them.

“It’s important to understand all the codes and guidelines before buying a residential home,” says Koranis. “After that, you have to be tenacious and persistent when dealing with council.”

All three design companies-and the dentists-agree that planning and refurbishing an old home is a complex process, so hiring an architect, interior designer or fit-out company will usually save time, money and heartache.

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