Divide and conquer

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Clearly separating practice functions set the tone for VCA Arroyo Animal Hospital--and created a unique design feature. Then the design team added a superbly crafted 7,850 square-foot floor plan and thoughtfully chosen materials, securing the 2005 Veterinary Economics Hospital of the Year award.

One plum wall says it all: Hospital services are separate and distinct from boarding and grooming services—yet both are easily accessible to pet owners and team members. During a candid conversation with his architect, Dr. David Gordon, medical director of VCA Arroyo Animal Hospital (formerly Arroyo PetCare Center) in Lake Forest, Calif., mentioned he'd like to distinctly separate the hospital and medical functions and the boarding and grooming functions. Yet his idea of using a scalpel handle and blade on the outside of the building to depict that separation didn't quite seem appropriate.

Clerestory windows bathe the reception area in warm California sunshine, while dropped pendant lighting provides task illumination. For visual appeal, the area features Juparana granite transaction countertops and inset copper and aluminum finishes.

Laughing it off, Dr. Gordon thought that was the end of the conversation. But the imagery Dr. Gordon described sparked a key design solution for architect Rich Rauh of Rauhaus Architects in Lake Forest.

"Rich took my idea and ran with it, designing a beautiful, unique hospital with two distinct zones divided by a plum wall that physically and aesthetically defines the building," says Dr. Gordon. "That wall is now a fun design feature that attracts attention from clients and passersby."

Award-winning floor plan : VCA Arroyo Animal Hospital

The practice also attracted attention from Hospital Design Competition judges. In fact, the well-crafted separation of duties, superb floor plan, clean design, thoughtfully chosen materials, and strong execution won VCA Arroyo Animal Hospital bragging rights as the 2005 Hospital of the Year in Veterinary Economics Hospital Design Competition, the 40th practice to achieve this distinction.

Fielding frustrations, thinking creatively

Shortly before breaking ground, Dr. Gordon nearly called the project quits. He'd already endured a frustrating search for land, zoning issues, public hearings, unexpected fees, and physical constraints from the proximity of the adjacent hotel and the 15 degree descending slope for cars approaching the hospital. The newest wrinkle came when he was on vacation with his family and received a call from Rauh and his builder Gene Kraus, announcing even more problems.

inside look : Lessons learned from the 40th Hospital of the Year

The main sewer line outlined on the original plot plan couldn't be found. "We had to hire a special company to bore into the ground and attempt to find the sewer with an endoscope," says Dr. Gordon. "Talk about Mission Impossible! And $7,500 later, still no main sewer line." Dr. Gordon then called his architect to commission another plumbing plan. And the city required him to construct the new main sewer along another road, which added to the cost.

"We also needed permission to 'encroach' on the adjacent hotel's property to access their electricity," he says. "Since the hotel is part of a real estate investment trust, finding the right person and securing permission took about 30 days. I was at my lowest point, and we hadn't even broken ground yet!"

Team members use the exam room computers to access medical records, schedule rechecks and surgical procedures, and, occasionally, check out clients. For clients who prefer to wait in the exam room during short procedures, Dr. Gordon installed a TV set in each room.

Fortunately, the obstacles weren't insurmountable, and Dr. Gordon chose to continue the project. "We'd come too far to turn back at that point, though it was tempting," he says.

Overcoming the various hurdles forced the team to come up with some innovative design solutions. To ward off potential noise from animals, the architect placed the new facility away from the hotel. The lot is rectangular and quite narrow, with strict access constraints and a required setback and adjacent land-use conditions. The rear of the building faces the main parkway, requiring a creative design to catch drivers' attention.

The lab and pharmacy, which sit back to back, are strategically located between the exam rooms and treatment area for quick access. The linear counter design provides an open working space, and the location buffers noise from the treatment area. Dr. Gordon maximized available storage space by installing floor-to-ceiling cabinetry wherever possible.

"We designed the building to take advantage of the corner intersection, using raised, aluminum illuminated signage," says Dr. Gordon. "Luckily we didn't have to sacrifice any design features we wanted, even though we faced many constraints. If anything, it forced us to design a more appealing, better-thought-out facility."

Dr. Gordon also battled for financing. Shortly before undertaking the project, Dr. Gordon sold his practice, then Arroyo Pet Clinic, to National PetCare Centers Inc., which has since merged with VCA Antech Inc. So while Dr. Gordon was still in charge of the building project, he was no longer considered a practice owner—nor was his practice a small business.

Meet the winners : Hats off to the winners of the 40th annual design competition

That new reality made it impossible for him to obtain financing from the Small Business Administration and made it very difficult to get any other small business financing. "I was told I was no longer a small business owner but am considered a real-estate developer," he says. The father of one of his technicians suggested he call a small local bank. "Out of the 15 financiers I talked with, they were the only ones willing to work with me on a loan," Dr. Gordon says.

More bang for his buck

Dr. Gordon says the limited budget was ultimately the biggest challenge to building his ideal practice. "Most veterinary practice owners, faced with escalating costs on a project, can either leverage their practice equity to obtain additional funds or dedicate a percentage of their profits each month to generate additional revenue," he says. "As a salaried medical director, I didn't have that luxury."

Four workstations surround a central treatment island. The workspace is clearly defined by the floor pattern. The treatment room offers visual access to the ICU, surgery suite, special procedures room, and radiology area. A large skylight provides natural light.

Instead, Dr. Gordon says, he had to work harder to get the biggest possible bang for his buck. "I was lucky to have an architect and builder who worked well together and who worked with me to get the design and features I wanted for the money I had," says Dr. Gordon. "Rich designed a practice with no detail spared. I never could have afforded all of the elements in his original plan. But he and Kraus helped me get the elements I wanted at a more reasonable price."

The surgery suite offers a clear view of the treatment area. Eight-foot-tall storefront windows and oversized storefront doors featuring tempered safety glass give the suite an open feel.

For example, Dr. Gordon says he had to choose between tile flooring that cost $75,000 and would require little maintenance and last forever or vinyl flooring that cost $10,000 and would require more maintenance and last 10 years. "We played this value engineering game with every detail in the hospital," Dr. Gordon says.

Other examples of their value engineering included copper for plumbing or another material that would work nearly as well and top-quality lighting fixtures or some that looked the same at a fraction of the cost. "In some cases the more expensive fixture made the most sense, but in others, we settled for something nearly as good with acceptable results. I don't feel that we've sacrificed anything, and I got the hospital I wanted with what I had available."

Getting the look : Light and glass

One area where he wouldn't settle was in wall fortification. In the end, Dr. Gordon says, the builder told him, "If there's an earthquake, I'm coming to stand in your hospital." And, Dr. Gordon says that's a testament to the time, energy, research, and attention to detail the entire team invested at every stage of the process.

"In the old clinic, there was literally standing room only in the waiting area," says Dr. Gordon. "The reception desk was too small for our three receptionists to work in, and there was only one hallway leading back to treatment and boarding. Talk about a traffic jam!" The new reception area holds plenty of space for everyone. And its central location between treatment and boarding allows front office staff to keep an eye on the comings and goings down the ample hallways.

Enjoying the results

Dr. Gordon and his team finally have the hospital they've always dreamed of, with good traffic flow, and room to spread out, take breaks, and hold staff meetings. And the separation of duties makes for more efficient days, he says.

"We went from 2,500 square feet in the old facility to nearly 8,000 square feet," he says. "We have a nice facility, and I'm able to reward my team members with a break room, which they love. And we're more efficient with the hospital functions on one side and the boarding and grooming on the other. I couldn't be happier."

Be the 2006 Hospital of the Year!

Sarah A. Moser is a freelance writer and editor in Olathe, Kan. Please send questions or comments to ve@advanstar.com.

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