Dream hospitals carry construction nightmares

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Architect hands down hard lessons in building veterinary practices from the ground up

Las Vegas, Nev.-Days after investing in the perfect site to construct a practice, the phone rings.

The local building inspector has nixed your sewer easements, cuttingyour lot size in half. Later, you read about a highway proposal steeringtraffic-and potential clients-across town. And, by the way, your land'szoned historical. Here's a doorstop copy of the city's hundred-or-so buildingcodes.

This might sound like some bumbling comedy starring Chevy Chase, butthe fact is pitfalls in practice ventures are real, says architect DanielChapel, "and they're everywhere."

"There probably can't be a more devastating situation than buildingyour $700,000 building on a $300,000 lot in the wrong location," Chapel,head of a firm in Little Rock, Ark., tells an audience in February at theWestern Veterinary Conference here. "A lot of horror stories I seeare doctor-inflicted. Set bad goals and you'll assure yourself a bad outcome."

Do your homework

Before signing off on any piece of property, thoroughly research thearea. It's important to inquire about zoning and available utilities aswell as any applicable environmental laws, he says.

"You can get into crazy environmental issues you never dreamed werethere," Chapel says. "It can be things like water runoff and retentionpools or wetland issues. You want to know about this stuff before it createsa headache."

Also, be sure to get everything in writing, he says. "Not askingquestions can get you in a lot of trouble. You don't like surprises andyour banker doesn't like them any more than you do."

Location, location, location

Growth, traffic patterns and customer volume also must be considered.

For example, if severe traffic congestion impedes a client's path toyour office, they're not likely to return. The same is true for out-of-the-waysites.

The answer is to determine the area's clientele and from where they'llbe coming. Make sure any plans to build nearby highways or roads won't discourageyour client base.

"Traffic patterns can monkey with your clients," Chapel says."Get to know the city building planner. Find out what the future constructionplans are going to be."

Also, clear enough room on the site for accessible parking and serviceaccess.

"These can be a practice killers," he says. "And theycan erode your client base."

Don't go it alone

Chapel recommends starting with the experts. "You're not an expertin designing a practice and choosing a site. It's a huge expenditure ofmoney, a huge amount of time and a huge risk to your career, so ask thosewho know."

Hire a consultant and visit other practices in the area. Consider practicegrowth in accordance with location, facilities and image.

"Image can be a nightmare if you don't think about it ahead of time,"he says. "Know your clientele because they won't relate to your practiceif you underbuild or overbuild."

Consider how you want your facility to perform and leave room to addon additional services. "You can tie your hands by the design of yourbuilding," Chapel says. "Put a little flexibility in your floorplan."

Most important, determine an exit strategy. Selling your practice likelywill be important one day, so build accordingly, he adds.

Naïve construction expectations

Once building gets off the ground, don't expect construction to run smoothlyor be completed overnight. Here are some tips on how to get through thestressful process:

* Avoid the ostrich principle. Know what you are getting yourselfinto and plan accordingly.

* Allow cushion in your schedule for delays, especially wherezoning and permitting is concerned.

* Perfect drawings don't exist. Expect blueprints to change fromtime-to-time and leave room for corrections.

* Don't look over your builders' shoulder. You'll only aggravatethem.

Finally, don't be overly optimistic. Know that problems will arise, andexpect that there will be glitches. More than likely they're just adjustments,not gross errors.

"Construction is not a science, it's like preparing a meal,"he says. "A lot of times things happened in the process that don'tlook too appetizing. It's your building. Let the experts make sure it'sa good one."

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