For Joe Church (left) and Joe Miller, designing for a specific typology hasn’t just kept the firm afloat during a recession, it’s led to growth: Earlier this year, their firm added two staff members because business is so good.
Jason Innes For Joe Church (left) and Joe Miller, designing for a specific typology hasn’t just kept the firm afloat during a recession, it’s led to growth: Earlier this year, their firm added two staff members because business is so good.

Dentistry might be seldom discussed in architectural circles, but it’s proved to be a lucrative primary business for the Denver-based firm Joe Architect. Earlier this year the four-year-old, five-person firm expanded to seven—adding another licensed architect and an architectural intern to the staff—because of its specialization in designing offices for dentists and orthodontists.

The firm’s genesis began in the mid-1990s, when Joe Miller (a Long Island native) and Joe Church (from Indiana) met while working at Elizabeth Wright Ingraham’s office in Colorado Springs, Colo. Miller was a project architect with almost a decade’s worth of experience after graduating from Tulane University, while Church was on an internship from Ball State University. Church returned to Ball State to complete his degree, and then worked for firms in Denver and Boston, but the pair kept in touch, with a mind toward eventually teaming up. Miller (the elder Joe) established his own firm first, in Denver. Although he worked under the conventional moniker of Joseph Miller Architect, he acquired the domain name several years before the two became business partners.

The dental specialty began with a single project 10 years ago. A well-known Denver pediatric dentist was moving from an 800-square-foot office to a 10,000-square-foot space, and although the new building had a tenant architect, that firm didn’t want to provide the level of hand-holding the client desired. Enter Miller, who admits he did the work without any knowledge of the specific demands of dental office design. Learning on the fly, he realized the typology offered opportunities: The work was interesting, the budget was reasonable, and the client was looking for something special.

That project led to two more with the same client—and a reputation that spread within the close-knit dental community. Eventually, the Joes teamed up with what they saw as complementary business skills: Miller leads the marketing and networking efforts, and Church deals with business and organizational issues. They adopted the “Joe Architect” name to bring levity to the enterprise, but not without some dispute. “Our attorney was disgusted at the idea that we’d call ourselves anything other than Miller & Church Architects,” says Church. Miller adds, “He’s no longer our attorney.”

Church says of dental offices, “It’s technically a very dense program.” Intricate plumbing provides one challenge—it’s needed not just for water, but piped gases as well, including nitrous oxide and oxygen—and separate dental equipment drawings form part of each project’s contract document set. While the waiting room would seem to be the primary aesthetic opportunity, Church says it’s really the minute differences in how doctors work that affect each design.

Beyond systems, millwork forms a large part of any dental office, and the Joe Architect team’s knowledge of the various cabinet requirements helps it solve these technical requirements while also providing a consistent aesthetic experience and saving money. Dental equipment vendors typically provide a single specialty cabinet for $8,000 to $10,000, but Joe Architect can design a custom unit for $3,500 to $4,000. “We don’t assume that any part of the office should fall outside the realm of design,” says Church.

Last year, 80 percent of the firm’s projects and 90 percent of its revenue were dentistry related; the remainder came mostly from residential and boutique hospitality. Two new project types build on the Joes’ dental experience: a veterinary hospital and a mortuary. Like a dental office, these types combine specific technical requirements with a marketing need for some aesthetic differentiation. And despite the current economy, banks are still lending to these businesses, which seldom default on loans. “The money is still flowing,” notes Miller.

Another benefit is better dental hygiene. Both Joes see former clients for their checkups. Church claims to always have been diligent in caring for his teeth, but Miller admits that these days, “I’m way better at flossing.” ?