Selecting the perfect site


There's more to a good site than the right location. Here's a look at the other factors you need to consider.

Site selection is the first major decision you'll make about your building project. And the location you choose can dramatically enhance your practice's success-or limit its potential. Undoubtedly, you need to think this critical decision through carefully.

Wayne Usiak, AIA

The first step: Visit potential sites and analyze the features they offer. But don't stop there. When you find a site that seems to make the cut, do more research to learn about hidden problems like zoning restrictions. Even if you've already purchased a site, take the time to evaluate it thoroughly. After all, it's better to change your mind now than to realize down the road you've made a mistake.

Several companies can provide demographic data about your site location. For example, you'll want to consider the number of households, average incomes, nearby clinics and number of doctors, and number of pet-owning families. Of course, there are lots of other considerations, too. Use this list of key issues and features to guide your search-and find the perfect new location for your practice.

Taking an analytical look

You want to consider every angle as you look at different sites so you can compare your options critically. Key features to consider include:

1. Site size. When evaluating a site for size suitability, examine the square footage, acreage, length-to-width ratio, frontage, and expansion capability.

2. Image. I'm sure you have a picture in your mind's eye of your finished hospital. Is the neighborhood consistent with this image? Will the surrounding area's current and future development hurt that image or enhance it?

3. Location. For start-up practices, location is especially important. Are there major physical impediments, such as an interstate highway, bridge, railroad, or rapid transit route, or is there a bad neighborhood between your site and a pool of potential clients? Is the site on a major street? For established practices, convenience is more important. Could you give simple driving directions? Could clients get in and out of the parking lot easily?

4. Zoning. The local zoning code will impact your site and its development at several levels. For example, zoning codes restrict site use, parking, landscaping, lot coverage, minimum lot size, signage, setbacks, and building height. Contact your municipal planning department for a map of your lot with zoning information.

5. Visibility. A good site will provide a view of the building and your practice sign from adjacent streets. Consider both daytime and evening visibility.

6. Access. Easy entry and exit from your parking lot will make life easier on you and your clients and provide added incentive to choose your practice. Check right- and left-turn access, curb-cut locations (existing and potential), traffic islands, turn lanes, medians, and other traffic impediments. Also visit the site during busy traffic times to see if nearby traffic control devices cause backups that would inconvenience clients.

7. Topography. Look at the overall lay of the land; check for extreme slopes or depressions that could make development difficult or more expensive. Remember, moving a lot of dirt around is costly. And even a flat site can be difficult if it has no natural drainage for storm water. An architect or civil engineer can provide you with an analysis.

8. Amenities. Existing improvements or natural features can enhance property value. For example, maybe the site has an existing fence, so you won't have to build one. Or maybe the site is landscaped, or the property borders a park system with bike paths, walking areas, or playgrounds. Any of these features enhance the value of the site.

Digging beneath the surface

You can't see every issue from the curb, and some site characteristics cause real headaches because they restrict your use of the site. So do some digging and check on these issues. Your diligence lets you go into the deal with the clearest possible understanding of the challenges and costs of developing a particular site.

1. Codes, covenants, and restrictions (CC&Rs). In addition to municipal regulations, the property may have development restrictions, often referred to as CC&Rs, placed on it by the developer and passed on to a neighborhood association. These restrictions can range from allowable uses and lot coverage to acceptable building styles. The realtor, seller, or neighborhood association can let you know whether the site has any CC&Rs.

2. Easements. Municipalities often grant public and private accesses to a property, and these easements could inhibit your construction improvements. A surveyor can research whether any easements exist on a specific property. Typical easements are at grade for driveways, underground for pipelines or wire ways, and aboveground for power lines.

3. Right of ways. The municipality governing the street where the property is located sometimes prohibits improvements within a certain number of feet from the street centerline for utilities, sidewalks, and future road expansion. These right of ways can easily extend up to 50 feet onto your property, so research the current right-of-way distance and any new development plans.

4. Topography. Contact a surveyor to prepare a topographical survey, which maps the contours of the ground. Topography affects the floor elevation and drainage of surface runoff from the slopes of drives, parking lots, and sidewalks.

5. Hydrology. Municipalities set exacting restrictions for management of storm water runoff. Your site must retain all storm water that falls on it until the water evaporates, percolates, or trickles off in a controlled release. A civil engineer can calculate and design hydrology requirements. Be sure you ask for all design options. The easiest design solution, which is the one you're likely to get, might not be the most cost-efficient choice.

6. Environmental assessment. Any evidence of environmental contamination is normally addressed in a Phase One Assessment. Typically, your lender will let you know whether you need an assessment. Should this physical and historical research indicate an environmental contamination possibility, a Phase Two Study must be commissioned to determine the level of contamination.

7. Utilities. Clearly, you need water, sanitary sewer, electricity, and phone services. And you likely want access to natural gas, a storm sewer, fire protection, and high-speed Internet. Find out what it will cost you to connect to these services, and ask about applicable impact fees.

8. Geotechnical investigation. Poor soil conditions can necessitate costly construction remedies. An engineer can provide a geotechnical report that assesses the suitability of soil conditions by analyzing data gathered through soil borings. The investigation's results will help determine foundation and paving types, drainage, and allowable excavations.

Picking the right one

Now that you have this information about each site you're considering, create a matrix and rate them from one (lowest) to five (highest) in each criteria. So if the site has easy access, you'd rate it as a five. If there's a major highway nearby, maybe that's a three. This analytical comparison will help you easily see which site is the perfect pick for your practice.

Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Wayne Usiak, AIA, is a senior partner with BDA Architecture in Albuquerque, N.M. He'll talk about project planning and overcoming regulatory hurdles at the Veterinary Economics Hospital Design Conference, August 24 to 26 in Kansas City, Mo., proceeding the Central Veterinary Conference.

The bottom line

Everything from site access to soil conditions will affect the cost and timetable of your building project. So before you buy, collaborate with engineers and municipality officials to make the most accurate site assessment possible.

Look online

Whether you choose the countryside or an urban center, your practice location affects your state of mind-and your pay. Find out more under "Location" at

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