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What not to do: Lessons learned from your colleagues' building mishaps


These doctors learned the hard way what they should have done during the construction of their hospitals. Now that they're enjoying their award-winning facilities, they're ready to share their stories—and help you avoid the same problems.

Most people look to their colleagues' success stories for inspiration when thinking about building. But don't stop there. Looking at the mistakes your colleagues made may provide just as much insight—and help you avoid the pitfalls that plagued their experience. To get you started, these former Hospital Design winners agreed to share the lessons they learned the hard way.

Five ways to avoid building horror stories

Lesson 1: You get what you pay for

"Money isn't everything," says Dr. Jeff Werber, owner of Century Veterinary Group in Los Angeles and a

Veterinary Economics

Editorial Advisory Board member. Dr. Werber learned the hard way that skimping on high-quality builders and contractors is a bad idea. In fact, doing so cost him much more in the long run.

Dr. Werber's architect had recommended an experienced builder, but Dr. Werber admits he was more concerned about cost. "I should have listened," he says. "I based too much of my decision on price, and I'm still paying for the mistake."

The contractor Dr. Werber chose quoted him a fee hundreds of thousands of dollars less than the bid his architect's contractor submitted. In addition, the contractor had recently built a colleague's hospital and earned a glowing reference. So it seemed like a no-brainer to opt for the less-expensive worker, he says. But the savings weren't worth it; the project came in over budget, later than expected, and resulted in ongoing legal issues about work the contractors should have completed but didn't.

A good point to keep in mind: Dr. Werber charges clients what he thinks his services are worth, and they get high-quality care in return. It works the same way in construction—you get what you pay for. "Don't choose on price, or you'll regret it in the end," Dr. Werber says. "I know I do."

Lesson 2: Expect delays

Delays are inevitable. The key here: Build extra time into your schedule, so you can be flexible when delays occur. Dr. Miguel Cordova, owner of Animal Health Center at Weston, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., found himself crunched for time at the end of his project.

"We expected to be open for business by the beginning of November, but we found ourselves interviewing staff candidates in the middle of a chaotic construction site," says Dr. Cordova. And the installation of cabinets and countertops had to be rushed the day before the nine-station computer network was installed. At the same time, the air-conditioning units weren't even up and running—a necessity during this heated, stressful time.

"Even with the best planning, you're likely to run into time and budget overruns," Dr. Cordova says. "It's up to you to make the most of these difficulties in exchange for the hospital you've always wanted."

Lesson 3: Keep tabs throughout the construction process

The doctors at West Park Animal Hospital and Rehabilitation Center in Cleveland experienced painful delays, too. In early January, biting-cold weather prevented the construction crew from laying the block for the exterior walls, despite the protective tarps and space heaters surrounding the area. It took two months before the weather lifted, and the bricks were laid. But the troubles didn't end there.

The tarps and space heaters used to heat the construction site nearly caused a catastrophe of another sort. The tarps kept the site warm but also kept construction out of sight of the doctors, who were working in an interim facility nearby. During a random visit to the site, they discovered that workers started the first section of a wall using the wrong color brick.

The block manufacturers had changed the formula for the brick color after the doctors submitted their order. The hospital ended up with deliveries containing both shades. The brick company paid for the mistake and located the right hue, so no harm was done—except for another lengthy delay.

Lessons learned: "Pay attention, on a daily basis, to what's going on with your project," says co-owner Dr. Borys Pakush. "Had I visited the site before starting work that morning, I'd likely have noticed the color before the construction crew had done any work."

To help the building process unroll smoothly, Dr. Pakush did a lot of planning before construction began. "I visualized each room, down to every piece of equipment and furniture, and wrote down what we'd need to accomplish each goal," says Dr. Pakush. "Then during my daily walk-throughs, I'd compare the rooms with my drawings. If something looked off, I'd get out my tape measure and double check. Because I understood the project well, I could make sure things were done correctly. That's my best piece of advice: Know your own project, then be relentless in watching over it."

Lesson 4: It's not over—even when you think it's over

Dr. Katherine Knutson, co-owner of Pet Crossing Animal Hospital and Dental Clinic in Bloomington, Minn., thought her building process went well. No big mishaps, everything happened on time. Then they moved into the new building, and that's when the trouble began. "Our phone systems worked intermittently at best for the first two weeks, and we still have problems with them," she says. "Calls were routed into mysterious mailboxes that we didn't know were set up. We wouldn't get messages; sometimes the phones wouldn't ring. My client service staff literally picked up the phones every few seconds just to see whether a client was on the line!"

Luckily, staff cell phones worked in a pinch. And Dr. Knutson hounded the phone company until the issue was more or less resolved. "We did a lot of due diligence in interviewing potential phone companies," she says. "This company stood out far and above all others in terms of service. Then, the systems person in charge of our phones left for another job, along with several others. It turned out the people we interviewed were the ones with the follow through, not the company itself. When those key employees left, we no longer had the commitment for which we'd originally chosen the company."

The lessons learned? "Interview all the people you'll be working with. Expect frustrations in the beginning, especially if you're increasing the size of your systems. And hound the company if something's wrong," she says. "Then have patience. That's about the best you can do!"

It's also critical to develop good relationships with the people you're working with, says Dr. Pakush. "If you start off combative when the least little problem occurs, your architect, builder, contractor, or supplier won't be in a position to help you later," he says. "Keep that in mind—be civil, and you'll be able to solve any problem that comes your way."

The bottom line

To ensure your building project doesn't become a construction horror story, rememberthese three tips:

  • You get what you pay for, so choose your building team wisely.

  • Expect delays.

  • Keep a careful eye on the construction process.

Sarah A. Moser is a freelance writer in Olathe, Kan. Please send questions or comments to ve@advanstar.com.

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