'I don't want to build the Taj Mahal'

December 11, 2018
Dan Chapel, AIA, NCARB

Dan Chapel is president of Chapel Associates in Little Rock, Ark., a nationally recognized firm specializing in animal facility design. His firm has participated in the design of more than 500 veterinary hospitals, boarding kennels, and animal shelters. Past projects include two Veterinary Economics Hospitals of the Year and several Merit Award winners. Chapel is a nationally recognized expert in the field of veterinary architecture, and has served as a featured speaker on topics of animal facility design at all major veterinary conferences. He has spoken at every Veterinary Economics Hospital Design Conference since 1981 and has served on the Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board since 1985. For a list of articles and video by Chapel, click here.

Beautiful building, right? But we're not sure how profitable it was. Plus, the hygiene in that place is questionabletoo many visitors, not enough surgical suites. Oh, wait, we're talking the overbuilt veterinary hospital Taj Mahal. Don't worry. Here are four ways to avoid that.

This is not a veterinary hospital. But I bet you could fit a wicked big break room in there for staff. (Olga Garcia/stock.adobe.com)At most veterinary hospital design conferences that I attend-and I've been to many,-an attendee or presenter inevitably says, “We don't want to build the Taj Mahal of animal hospitals.” Many practice management and financial experts caution that a major contributor to a veterinary practice owner's failure is “building a Taj Mahal veterinary hospital.”

So, what does a 370-year-old building in Agra, India, have to do with defining the design of modern animal hospitals?

Not much, actually.

It's just a metaphor for an extravagant building, either in size, expense or both. Frankly, I've seen very few excessively designed or constructed animal hospitals and have met even fewer spendthrift veterinarians in my 42 years of architectural practice.

I couldn't agree more with the concept of not designing or constructing a wasteful, oversized hospital for your veterinary practice. I certainly would not have lasted long, working in the veterinary community, if my clients built or spent themselves out of business. Years ago, I even thought that it would be good marketing to the veterinary profession to include the word “Practical” in all my print and web ads. It worked.

All hospitals big and small …

We're convinced that was going to be James Herriot's next book, for sure, if he got into veterinary hospital design late in his career. The HospitalDesign360 conference celebrates renovations, leaseholds and, yes, big emergency-specialty facilities with room for everybody. And Dan Chapel speaks there. You'll get the guidelines for any size at fetchdvm360.com/hd.

Successful practitioners and savvy clients know that ostentatious hospital buildings don't necessarily guarantee quality veterinary medicine. The size, design, equipment and features of your hospital must all serve a purpose. Like your staff, each facet of your building must perform a task. The hospital's exterior must keep out the elements, be relatively maintenance-free and look attractive-all at the same time. The interior must serve client, pet and staff needs in a quiet, odor-free and comfortable way. Client greeting, administrative, medical and technical functions must work in harmony.

As you and your design team are planning, you'll need to be creative and frugal in your use of every square foot of building. To get you thinking, here are four strategies that could help. Obviously they aren't applicable to every practice's design. It's up to you and your designers to be creative and find space-saving solutions that work for your situation.

1. Single-door exam rooms

The idea that exam rooms must have two doors is a relatively new concept in the history of veterinary facility design. The idea of a separate “client/pet” door and a separate “doctor/staff” door for each exam room grew from the desire for a more efficient and segregated traffic flow for clients and staff. While more efficient and professional for circulation, this layout requires more hallway space and building area. Before the 1970s, most hospitals were smaller, with only one door, serving each exam room. I still prefer exam rooms with separate entrance doors when space constraints and tight budgets dictate.

2. Smaller wards

This current trend with the goal of discharging animals as soon as medically possible seems to mirror human medicine. In the rare case when extended hospitalization is required, the norm is now to refer the patient to a local specialty, referral or emergency clinic. For less critical cases, pet owners often want to be involved in the care of their animals and may be willing-and able-to nurse them at home. As such, today's hospitals shouldn't need as much ward space.

That doesn't mean you won't need a large bank of cages in the treatment area for animals treated that day, but I think numerous, large hospital wards are a thing of the past. Perform a careful analysis of how much hospitalization you actually do-and can reasonably plan to do after your remodel or new building is built-and dedicate the space saved to other areas of the hospital.

Free photo galleries

Click here for exam rooms.

Click here for boarding, wards and runs.

3. Multipurpose rooms

In October, I had the opportunity to tour veterinary clinics in Italy. Most of them were much, much smaller than the animal hospitals we're accustomed to in the United States. I would guess the largest hospital I saw was 1,000 square feet. Most had only two rooms. The front room was the waiting room, with an ordinary desk set to one side for the receptionist. The back room was for everything else: exam, office, treatment, surgery and radiography.

I don't believe this would work in the States, and I'm not advocating we adopt the Italian design. I do, however, suggest that you consider combining compatible, smaller functional spaces into a single larger room. As an example, in many veterinary hospitals, exam rooms are not used to full capacity during the middle hours of the day. By creating a folding or sliding wall in the back of the exam room, the room can function as an exam room in the morning and evening “rush hours” and also used as an additional treatment area “nook” during times when the exam rooms are idle. Additionally, an underused exam room, if correctly sized and equipped, could sometimes serve as a special procedures room or even a technician's office.

4. Quality-not quantity or trendiness

One way a hospital might be considered a candidate for “Taj Mahal” status is the overuse of trendy design features (think minarets). The same goes for voguish finish and building materials (don't consider gold plate or carved marble).

When designing your hospital, choose architectural elements and finish materials that actually contribute to the building's appearance and performance. Avoid items that are tacked on or added strictly for appearance. Obviously, selecting materials and finishes for your veterinary hospital is critical to the overall performance of your hospital building. Just always remember that your selection affects more than a material's color and appearance-it affects durability and long-term maintenance for the life of your facility  

Look, there are a lot of unwritten rules in veterinary design. (I try to break a few of them each day!) Remember, this is your time to decide how you want to practice veterinary medicine in the future, not a recounting of how you have practiced in the past or what you've seen your peers build. To paraphrase the patriarch of veterinary hospital design, Ross Clark, DVM, “Quit worrying about what others are doing, and get busy planning and building your dream hospital.”

Dan Chapel is president of Chapel Associates in Little Rock, Arkansas, a nationally recognized firm specializing in animal facility design. His firm has participated in the design of more than 500 veterinary hospitals, boarding kennels, and animal shelters, with past projects including two Hospitals of the Year and several Merit Award winners. He is a frequent speaker at the HospitalDesign360 conference.