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A tale of two practices

Article

Dr. Steven Dunbar merged a general practice and a 24-hour emergency center into one new building. And the consistent, attractive use of color; high-quality materials; impressive client-interaction areas; and more helped Yorba Regional Animal Hospital in Anaheim, Calif., rise to the top in Veterinary Economics annual design competition.

It seemed so simple Dr. Steven Dunbar's two practices, located in leasehold facilities, were bursting at the seams. After nearly 20 years in each facility, there wasn't enough room to keep growing and improving the way he wanted. So he decided to build anew. And that's where the story gets complicated.

Exterior: Yorba Regional Animal Hospital uses geometrically proportioned windows, horizontal layering of the façade, and vertical craftsman columns to make a bold statement. An overhang shades upper clerestory windows. Luxury suite pavilion: This area is the entry to 10 luxury boarding suites, each featuring its own theme, created by Dr. Dunbar to boost practice revenue and help pay for the new facility.

In Anaheim, Calif., land for sale was scarce. And the little available land was outrageously expensive. Still, Dr. Dunbar managed to find a house in a residential area that was zoned for use as a veterinary practice. He planned to move one of his leasehold clinics into this space and find another spot for the second practice. Just as he got the permits and plans lined up, a car wash came up for sale, smack dab between the two leasehold spaces, near a PetSmart and The Home Depot.

"We needed to move," says Dr. Dunbar. "And it would take both practices and some economies of scale to support the cost of such a large space. So combining the two practices seemed perfect."

And it was—though he traveled a tough road before he reaped the benefits. But today the hospital of his dreams is growing leaps and bounds every day. And to top it all off, he earned top honors in this year's Veterinary Economics Hospital Design Competition, as the 2006 Hospital of the Year.

Overcoming obstacles

The road to success was rife with problems, delays, and headaches. For one, Dr. Dunbar had difficulty securing financing. Because he planned to tear down the car wash structure and rebuild, he had to do an "as-built appraisal," meaning the banks wanted to know how much the entire project would cost, based on drawn-up plans. That meant Dr. Dunbar had to hire an architect and finalize plans before he had the green light to finance the loan. As the escrow period came to an end, without loan approval, Dr. Dunbar agreed to a lease option to purchase with a nonrefundable 10 percent down and payments of 7 percent interest on the balance until the financing was finished.

Reception: A curved desk serves as a central control and introduces a dramatic aesthetic feature. Receptionists can see the entry, exit, discharge, waiting, retail areas, and more from the front desk. Clients choose among several seating areas while waiting, including benches around a tree planter.

"This was a huge risk—one that made my mouth chalky, my stomach churn, and my consultant increase his liability insurance coverage," Dr. Dunbar says. Luckily, he was able to get the loan approved, attain permits and plans in six months, and complete the project nine months later.

Boarding suites: To boost practice revenue, Dr. Dunbar introduced 10 themed luxury boarding suites. Here, dogs enjoy the Doo Wop Diner and the Spaced Out suites. All the upscale suites feature Web cameras, televisions, and windows.

Other obstacles included designing the hospital around a 100-foot-wide utility easement that bisected the property. To compensate, Rich Rauh, AIA, came up with a plan that divides the practice into a two-story facility, making the best use of the land.

Boarding: The secret weapon

Combined, Dr. Dunbar's previous two facilities totaled 6,000 square feet. In one fell swoop, he increased his square footage to nearly 16,000 in the new facility. Common sense (not to mention studies of Dr. Dunbar's revenue) states that two small practices wouldn't be able to produce the revenue needed to support the mortgage and other payments incurred in such a large facility. But Dr. Dunbar had an ace up his sleeve.

Floor plan: Yorba Regional Animal Hospital

"I knew we'd need to increase our business to cover our increase in debt," he says. "The clientele in our area take a lot of vacations, and they want their pets well taken care of. So we decided to offer boarding, and to offer it in a way that's several steps above pet owners' other local boarding options."

Get this look: Examine this!

Dr. Dunbar and his design team came up with 10 luxury boarding suites, with such themes as "Spaced Out," "The Doo Wop Diner," "Hollywood Hideaway," "Cowboy Bunkhouse," and "Banana Cabana." The rest of the boarding area, while not as luxurious, still offers pets a comfortable stay with storefront glass windows, an enclosed walking area where pets are walked four times a day, Internet cameras, and other amenities to up the comfort factor.

Design insights: The 2006 winners-and trends in new practice designs

"We had hoped to eventually make $20,000 to $30,000 a month in boarding revenue to help offset the cost of such expensive land and the new facility," he says. "We were really shocked when we brought in $20,000 in the first week, which included Memorial Day weekend! The luxury suites aren't the real money maker; they're more of an advertiser to get clients interested. Our clients know we'll still offer high-quality care in the regular runs, and that keeps our business booming."

Merger shakes up staff members

While Dr. Dunbar was pleased with the instant success of his luxury boarding suites, he wasn't quite as happy with the strain the merger put on his team. "I naively thought everything would stay the same when we moved, just with more staff members in a larger facility," he says. "I never expected what hit us."

Exercise yard: Yorba Regional features two yards for boarded and hospitalized pets, as well as a second floor exercise patio. Synthetic turf makes clean up simple, and the areas are accessible from staff entrances so team members don't have to take pets through public areas of the practice.

Dr. Dunbar says that he pulled his team members out of their comfort zones and away from the well-oiled system teams had in place at the smaller facilities. "All of a sudden, receptionists didn't know how to take messages anymore, and kennel workers didn't know what they were supposed to be doing," he says. "I didn't realize how much stress this move would put on them, and how much more I should have prepared them for the changes."

Luxury boarding suites: The Cowboy Bunkhouse suite features a comfortable doggy bed, windows, cowboy décor, and a chair for visiting humans. The luxury suites advertise the practice, Dr. Dunbar says, and overall, boarding brings in at least $20,000 a month.

To compensate, Dr. Dunbar instituted a new system of hierarchy that included team leaders for each department. These leaders meet with Dr. Dunbar regularly, and then hold meetings with their teams to help answer questions, explain new systems, and get everyone on the same page. Dr. Dunbar's also in the process of writing a manual that addresses his expectations of team members.

With Dr. Dunbar's swift action, and the new management system in place, things are slowly getting back to normal, he says. And his next step is hiring a hospital administrator, he says, to give the practice more organization—and to let him get back to doing what he loves most, helping his patients and clients, building his practice with new services, and finding fulfillment in his work.

Lab and pharmacy: A linear counter design provides effective visual screening and sound attenuation from the treatment area. This area sits directly behind the exam rooms.

"These are qualified, experienced team members, some of whom have been with me for 10 or 15 years," he says. "I wish I had anticipated how drastic such a move is and better prepared the team by putting systems into place before we moved."

Cattery: This pavilion features a pyramidal vaulted ceiling with a painted sky; the clouds form the shapes of birds, rabbits, mice, and other creatures. A glass-enclosed play area offers cats a perching tree, toys, and a view outside. Storefront windows make it easy for team members to interact with cats.

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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