Once upon a leasehold


A husband and wife team took a leasehold space in Simi Valley, Calif., and worked on it until they built a happy ending for Simi Valley Animal Hospital-one with satisfied clients and lots of growth.

The early stages of simi valley animal hospital's existence were no fairy tale. Dr. Jennifer Stirewalt and her husband, Brandon, chose a leasehold space because it was their last option. At first, they were wary of leaseholds. "You're putting so much money and effort into a place you don't own, which you'll walk away from someday," says Brandon. "But owning a building has other headaches."

The couple's advice? If you're picking a leasehold, push your budget to the limits. "Go as big as you can afford because you'll definitely run out of space," Brandon says. The husband and wife team is already looking to expand. In November they're taking over another 1,500 square feet next door and then they'll have the option of annexing even more.

In the beginning

The two began their quest by looking for existing practices for sale—but they couldn't find anything that suited their needs. So they decided to look for a piece of property on which they could build a freestanding facility. That also proved to be a difficult search. The couple just couldn't find the perfect piece of land. Some plots the Stirewalts looked at were polluted, and the couple didn't want to spend the money to decontaminate the land before building on it. Another downside of shopping for land in Simi Valley: There's not a lot of it at an affordable price. So the couple turned their eyes to leaseholds—and eventually found their happy ending.

A look at the numbers

The Stirewalts chose a prime location in an existing shopping center. Simi Valley Animal Hospital sits along Los Angeles Boulevard—a main thoroughfare in the city. The shopping center they chose also lies in the heart of Simi Valley's commercial shopping district. To top it off, the location offered a prime spot to show off the facility's beautiful storefront.

Exam room: The three exam rooms sit directly off the lobby for easy client access. The countertops are ergonomically designed in a peninsula shape with two heights. One of the exam rooms is oversized and functions as both a specialty consultation and ultrasound room.

They removed the standard painted aluminum mullion and glass storefront and installed a floor-to-ceiling, butt-glazed frameless structural glass wall instead. This feature lets natural light pour into the hospital—something leaseholds sometimes lack—and showcases the lobby's high-end design, snagging the interest of passersby. But it wasn't all sunshine and roses at first.

Cat ward: Drawers below and cabinets above the stainless steel cages provide extra storage for odds and ends.

There was some intense negotiating between the Stirewalts and the landlord when they were working out the details of the lease. A good attorney helped the couple out and, for the most part, took on the stressful job of negotiating for them. "I told him what we were looking for and he did the back-and-forth for us," Brandon says. "He made sure we got what we wanted in the lease."

They did run into a couple of hard-and-fast rules with the landlord. For example, there was no negotiating about restrictions on the hospital's exterior signage. So the Stirewalts were careful to give the landlord's criteria to the sign creators.

Dog ward: The modular dog runs feature glass doors and built-in trench drains for easy cleanup. Extra storage space in the drawers below and cabinets above the cages store equipment.

Another non-negotiable item: parking. The couple tried unsuccessfully to wrangle designated spots for their hospital, something Dr. Stirewalt recommends checking into before you sign on the dotted line. "We've been OK so far, but a huge gym just went into the shopping center and we're worried about our clients finding parking," she says.

They also needed to address new disabled-access requirements when they updated the leasehold space. So they added new disabled parking spaces and a path of travel. Brandon says the additions were a surprise at first, but they didn't hold up the construction process.

Pharmacy and radiology: The pharmacy's location behind the exam rooms and its linear countertop design provide both effective visual screening and sound attenuation from the treatment area.

A happy ending

Early bumps aside, let's flash back to the present day and look at the lobby through the front glass wall. The large saltwater aquarium and integrated seating subtly separate the waiting area into two defined groupings, a more comfortable arrangement for sometimes uneasy pets. Recessed lighting in a high, wood-slotted ceiling provides even levels of light. There's just one thing the Stirewalts would change in the lobby. "I don't recommend a tile floor," Brandon says. "It's hard to keep clean and the dogs slip on it." Overall, the Stirewalts say, they're 98 percent happy with their hospital.

Specialty consultation room: This space doubles as an exam room and features a flat-screen computer for access to paperless records. Ample drawers and cabinets offer plenty of storage.

The treatment area ranks as a point of particular pride; no surprise, as a seamless design for this area was on their must-have list. Dr. Stirewalt had previously worked in a cramped environment with a large team. So in her own hospital, she wanted an open treatment area that provided a calm space for pets and also a space where three or four doctors could work. She says the finished product is a functional environment where multiple team members can tackle all kinds of tasks at once.

And that's how the design process worked for them, the Stirewalts say. Dr. Stirewalt explained to architect Rich Rauh what she wanted in her workspace: three exam rooms, an easy-to-access lab, and a private but open treatment area. Then Rauh figured out the details.

Let your team shine

"It pays to include people on your design team that will help you develop workable concepts," Brandon says. "Veterinarians know what they're looking for in a facility, but they don't know how to put that on paper. That's what we hired our architect for, and he made it happen."

How do clients feel about the new hospital? "They say it looks like a day spa," Dr. Stirewalt says. "And I think the whole project turned out great."

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