For the last 10 summers, people in the Appalachian mountain region of Southwest Virginia have traveled great distances to seek dental care.

To meet a growing need for care in the area, Wise County conducted a legislatively mandated feasibility study. The study led to the 2008 General Assembly funding for construction of the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Dental Clinic.

Project leaders from VCU and Wise County sought and selected a suitable site for the clinic, solicited and reviewed proposals from architectural firms, and selected HKS Architects and Thompson & Litton to design the new facility.

The 7,575-square-foot clinic is designed to house 18 patient rooms with a separate housing facility made up of six, two-bedroom apartments located directly behind the clinic.

An important goal of the project was to approach the design and construction with a mindset toward sustainability. 

VCU president Eugene P. Trani signed a national compact among college presidents in 2008 to address global warming by working to neutralize greenhouse gas emissions on campuses. Trani also signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, an initiative to reduce global emission of greenhouse gases by 80% by midcentury to avert the worst impacts of global warming.

“VCU has committed to ensuring that the highest level of sustainability is met for all facilities,” said Dr. Ron Hunt, dean of VCU’s School of Dentistry. “When developing the building, we investigated features such as geothermal heating and cooling, solar electrical power generation and advanced water recycling, and wastewater treatment systems.”

Just recently, the university unveiled the Walter L. Rice Education Building, housing lecture and laboratory rooms for classes. The building is designed with a goal of a LEED platinum rating, the highest national certification level.

The VCU Dental Clinic is seeking a LEED Silver certification by the United States Green Building Council (USBG), earning credits toward certification by utilizing principles of design and construction means and methods that will create a healthy workplace, maximize energy efficiency, and minimize negative effects on the environment.

These initiatives, combined with a fundamental understanding of the site’s access, topography, and view sheds, inform the development of site, stormwater design, and heat island effect. A natural bio-swale running parallel to the clinic’s long axis will not only capture at-grade stormwater runoff, it will also receive rain water captured by a low-maintenance green roof. This green roof will provide seasonal color and enhance the visual connection between building and landscape.

Patients are drawn into the site from the main road by a naturally landscaped and terraced garden, prominently featuring the sustainable water collection systems of the site. As visitors walk from parking areas along tree-lined walkways to the building entrance and into an open sunlit reception/waiting room, patients are introduced to the clinic’s style and the idea of patient-focused service.

The building’s inviting spaces include an open plan operatory area, featuring exposed wooden structural members supporting the gentle slope of the green roof above, natural daylighting, and views to the landscape beyond. The careful selection of natural materials familiar to the region, and attention to detail, are intended to further convey VCU’s mission to provide this much needed service to this underserved region of the state.

“Educating dental students in a live/work environment will provide a long-term clinical experience in an off-campus setting, while meeting the dental needs of patients in this highly underserved area,” said Hunt. 

VCU intends to implement and establish its high-quality brand and identity, while being sensitive to the region’s culture, traditions, and architectural aesthetic. “The clinic’s design concept draws inspiration from the region’s rural setting, industrial fabric, and undulating terrain,” said Fred Ortiz, senior designer with HKS Architects. “Elements include the intermittently present and conventionally framed wood-veneered structures with sloped metal roofs; the long and linear formal qualities of the prominently used prefabricated mobile homes; and old stone walls with crenellated tops and beaded mortar joints which create edges, thresholds, and changes in ground elevation.”

Proposed materials consist of exposed natural wood framing, low-profile roofs, slatted wood veneer, galvalume metal roofing and selective use of aluminum framed glazing. “The emphasis is placed on the project’s image from the main road to the north, as well as the patient’s experience when approaching the clinic’s reception area—leading to the open operatory room plan,” he continued.

The residential complex consists of two-bedroom, two-story apartments and one handicap-accessible, single-story, two-bedroom apartment.

“Fully detached from the clinic and located at the southeast corner of the site, residents will have a sense of privacy and access to secluded outdoor rooms,” said Ortiz. “A visual and direct connection to the clinic is provided via a tree-lined path. Staff entry at the clinic’s south end also provides for delivery access and is bounded by a fully screened and gated zone.”

Thompson & Litton Principal, Bill Thompson adds, “The sustainable construction of VCU Dental Clinic in Wise County is a win-win opportunity for everyone involved. The significance of the economic impact resulting from the presence of VCU and the new dental clinic cannot be overstated.”

The project is now in the design phase, with plans to hit the construction bid market in early 2010, and break ground in the spring of the same year. The estimated completion is spring 2011.