Affordable remodeling strategies


First, which areas of your practice offer the greatest opportunities without breaking the bank?

Your hospital's physique needs to reflect your practice philosophy. So if you're providing buff care—and your practice looks a little flabby—it's time to invest in some improvements. The good news: Polishing up the practice's appearance may be cheaper and easier than you think. Best of all, this is your opportunity to create an environment that better supports your medical goals and provides greater comfort to humans and animals.

"But I can't afford much," I hear you thinking. Of course, every practice will have a different definition of "affordable." But regardless of your budget, you'll want to focus on the elements that offer the best return on your investment. Here are key areas where simple improvements yield dramatic results:

  • Entry and reception. Just as an unkempt restaurant makes customers worry about what's happening in the kitchen, an outdated reception area makes clients less confident about the care their pets receive. First impressions count—new furniture; updated fixtures; and modern, professional signage send the proper message.

If you're short on space and long on clutter, you also might want to switch to electronic record keeping. Besides cutting back on stacks of paper, moving to electronic records opens the option of checking clients in and out in the exam rooms, freeing your reception team to focus more on greeting clients and creating a quiet, uncluttered environment.

If you have a smaller budget, consider limiting your reception remodel to finishes only. Repaint with a cheery, coordinated paint scheme, reface your cabinets with laminates to compliment the look you establish, replace your flooring, and add new task lighting over the reception desk. Your contractor can give you an idea of what it will cost to update your finishes. If your reception area needs a more dramatic fix that involves re-configuring walls, you'll need help from an architect to develop an approach that's in line with your budget.

  • Exam rooms. Your clients develop lasting impressions of your team and the services you offer based on their experiences in the exam room. So it's worth designing exam rooms that comfort clients and patients, compliment your medical practice, and function efficiently.

If your budget will allow, look at ways to add one or two additional exam rooms. Adding exam rooms may allow you to see more clients or take on another veterinarian in your practice. If you must limit your remodel to your current space, look for ways to make your exam rooms more appealing to clients. Of course, you can replace worn finishes. Also consider converting one of your traditional exam rooms into a consultation room, and furnish it with comfortable seating and softer lighting.

  • Treatment area. You want changes in your treatment area to increase efficiency and allow you to offer more and better medical services. After all, cutting wait times and offering a wider range of care could attract new clients. One idea: If you don't currently provide dental services, rework your treatment area to include a dental alcove. Or rework your space so you can have an ultrasound room.

You can also increase efficiency in treatment areas by reconfiguring the space. Let's pretend you're planning a kitchen remodel: How many steps do you want to take to the refrigerator? Now come back to your treatment area. Could you be saving steps anywhere? Is the space organized well? Think of each workstation as an ergonomic environment and design tool storage, adjacent shelves, and floor space for maximum efficiency. Often, practitioners find that re-configuring the treatment space to make it more efficient frees up room for an additional treatment station. And clearly, achieving greater efficiency and capacity can help to justify the expense of remodeling a medical area.

  • Animal housing. Pet owner trends show increased demand for high-quality boarding and daycare services. If your clients are looking for boarding services, you may want to upgrade your boarding facility. Boarding can be a moneymaker that reinforces clients' loyalty.

Develop a low-cost strategy

As you plan your remodel, use these strategies to keep costs down:

1. Identify critical structural elements and avoid changing them. If you don't have a full set of reasonably accurate construction drawings for your building, invest in an as-built survey that includes measurement and structural analysis. With this survey in hand, you won't need to guess about your building's structural design and configuration, which should help you make smart, cost-effective design decisions.

2. Develop a phased plan. Confining each phase of your renovation to a specific area of your hospital makes it easier for your team to keep working during the construction. And tackling one small project at a time helps cut your immediate costs.

3. Consider using the same space differently. You can sometimes improve your building's layout and efficiency simply by moving room functions. For example, if your office is adjacent to the treatment area—and the surgery suite's across the building—think about switching them. One caution: Make sure you can update the mechanical and electrical systems easily; moving plumbing-intensive rooms is difficult and expensive.

4. Think through your use of color and light. Think beyond strictly structural issues to build an environment that sends a warm welcoming message. The colors, light, and materials you use dramatically affect the appearance of your practice, and these types of changes can be relatively inexpensive.

  • Color. If you plan to paint any area, I'd tackle the entire practice and choose a well-coordinated color scheme. You can also add color with professional wall murals, sculptures, and other forms of art.

  • Light. Add skylights to brighten interior rooms with natural light, and invest in more modern, higher-output lights in poorly lit areas. Include task or accent lighting in your reception area, and install dimmer switches in animal holding areas to allow gradual lighting transitions. Finally, consult with a lighting expert to choose fixtures that produce light that's in the same color range as sunlight, which will improve the disposition of staff members and the animals in your care.

  • Materials. Open up spaces with interior view windows or glass partitions. If you're installing new doors, use glass or partial glass doors. If you want a space to feel larger but also want to control views into other spaces, replace solid partitions with frosted glass or glass block. Well-placed interior glass openings make your hospital feel larger and send a subtle message that you're proud of the medicine you practice and have nothing to hide.

5. Plan for the unexpected. No matter how carefully you plan, remodeling brings some surprises. So when you plan your project, build in a generous financial cushion and include extra time in the construction schedule.

I know it feels daunting to take on a remodeling project. And it's true that even small projects take both time and money. But the changes you make may be the springboard you need to grow your practice. And I think I can guarantee that both staff members and clients will get a new jolt of enthusiasm when you invest in a brighter, updated look for your practice.

Heather E. Lewis is a principal with the veterinary architectural firm Animal Arts/Gates Hafen Cochrane in Boulder, Colo. Please send questions or comments to

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