Equine veterinary facilities are used harder than most buildings. They must withstand heavy cleaning, and they must be strong enough to hold up to horses. If you’re considering building your own haul-in clinic or hospital, you will want to know how to select durable materials that can withstand the daily use and abuse intrinsic to these buildings. Unfortunately, durable materials are also very expensive, and equine veterinarians must design affordable buildings that can be paid for over a reasonable length of time.
As architects specializing in this work, we understand the opposing necessity to select both durable and affordable materials. The best approach is to tailor the specific materials to the specific use of a single space, which means that a clinic might require multiple construction types and materials to find the best balance of cost and performance.
Start with the Floor
Equine hospitals should almost without exception be constructed as a slab on grade, which means concrete resting on compacted soils or structural fill. There are a few places in the country, such as portions of the Dallas metropolitan area, where the soil is so expansive that it will not support a slab on grade. To determine whether you have any special requirements, you should have a geotechnical report (a soils report, colloquially) produced for the site where you intend to build.
In constructing a concrete slab, there are a few special requirements for equine veterinary clinics that you should be aware of. The first is that the slab should have a high-quality vapor barrier underneath. The purpose of this barrier is to prevent moisture from coming up from the soil below. This barrier is important because most clinics use seamless floors (rubber or polyurethane floors, for example), and these are very sensitive to under-slab moisture. The best vapor barrier is Class A, virgin polyolefin plastic, at least 15 mil in thickness. The traditional polyethylene barrier that your contractor will be more familiar with is known to degrade over time and can contribute to floor failures.
After the barrier, consider also the thickness of the slab. Many equine facilities have vehicular traffic through the treatment room. The slab might need to be thicker than a typical four inches to stand up to this type of load. To save money, you can use standard four-inch slabs in non-equine/vehicular areas and thicker slabs (six inches, for example) in equine areas.
Below is a summary of the most common options for veterinary construction flooring, emphasizing low cost and high durability.
Sealed Concrete in Human Areas: It is fine to use exposed, sealed concrete slabs for human-only spaces such as storage rooms, laundry rooms, central supply rooms and even in offices. Concrete is the least expensive solution because it only requires a good sealer, which can cost as little as $2-$3 per square foot.
Many people now are accustomed to the “industrial look” and accept the aesthetics of concrete. In areas where horses are not treading, concrete can be finished with a trowel, which yields a hard, smooth finish. If you intend to expose concrete slabs, it is best to have control joints installed to help prevent cracking. These are intentional saw cuts in the slab that allow the concrete to shrink without excessive cracking, although small, random cracks are generally inevitable.
Sealed Concrete in Equine Areas: Some sealed concrete is okay in equine areas, such as in dry walking paths. If the floor is going to be wet, consider using another floor finish, as concrete gets slippery when it is wet, especially when it is covered with cleaning agents. When you are using concrete in areas where horses will walk, use a light broom finish for some texture and slip resistance.
Rubber Mats: Rubber mats can be installed over concrete to provide an affordable and slip-resistant finish where you need it. This is typical in medical stalls or under a set of stocks. Mats can be installed selectively in certain areas, while leaving the sealed concrete in other areas to reduce costs.
Equine Flooring: These are specialized floors that are extremely expensive and a nuisance to install. Because of their expense, many people use them sparingly. If you choose to have a specialized floor installed, understand the cost of the floor is typically well over $20 per square foot. Obtain a list of references from the manufacturer and check them.
Flooring Upgrades for Human Areas: If you want to use something that looks dressier than bare concrete in the human areas (such as lobbies, offices and the lab), many of our clients are very happy with luxury vinyl tile products. This name is somewhat confusing, as most often this product is sold as a plank shape in a wood look. When installed, this product looks almost exactly like wood, but it is more durable and easier to clean. Choose commercial-quality products and not residential products to get the best performance and lifespan. This product is a lot less expensive than tile or commercial-grade sheet vinyl and performs well for the human areas of an equine clinic.
How Are Your Walls Constructed?
For areas that do not have “hose-down” requirements and do not have to hold horses, typical framed walls are acceptable. For example, you can use framed walls for office areas, storage rooms, utility rooms, etc. For rooms that have hose-down requirements or have to hold horses, concrete block is the most practical material. This material, known as CMU (concrete masonry units) in the construction industry, is ubiquitous and durable. However, there are two requirements to keep in mind:
• Use medium-weight block, as lightweight block is too porous and is not as structurally capable.
• Fully grout the walls in any areas where the horses might lean or fall against the walls, such as in an induction stall. This surprises many structural engineers and contractors if they do not have experience with horses. Horses are incredibly heavy and strong, and without full grouting, even a concrete block wall cannot withstand the forces that a horse can exert.
Painting Concrete Block: If you use concrete block in treatment, medical stalls or in a room (such as your surgery) where it will be washed, then it is best to paint it to at least seven feet in height to create a sanitary surface. CMU can be left bare and sealed with an inexpensive penetrating sealer above the cleaning height for cost savings.
Paint-on CMU is difficult because the material is porous. If done improperly, it will peel and cause maintenance problems. Our favorite high-performance coating is a cement-based block filler to fill the pin holes in the block, then use two coats of an industrial polysiloxane coating to finish. This coating has nasty odors on installation, but it lasts for many years.
Lower-Cost Options: If you are planning a haul-in clinic with no knockdown requirements and no severe wash-down requirements other than at the stocks, then it is likely okay to frame all of your walls and eliminate CMU to save money. Keep in mind, though, that no framed wall is very waterproof, so keep the heavy, hose-down cleaning away from the walls. Semi-water-resistant materials include exterior-grade plywood with a urethane finish, which creates a nice, warm look, and FRP (or fiberglass-reinforced plastic), which is the pebble-texture wall material you might recognize from an interstate restroom. FRP is not very attractive, but it is durable.
Prefabricated Buildings: In inexpensively constructed clinics, you might wish to use a prefabricated metal building or pole barn. (We prefer the former because it is more durable.) In this case, your interior walls are likely to be constructed of metal sheeting. This works for a practical, cleanable finish, but it is not hose-proof, nor is it durable enough to withstand direct contact from horses.
If you use a prefabricated building, construct concrete block enclosures for the heavy abuse areas—such as induction stalls—instead of relying on the exterior walls.
Prefabricated buildings are best used in milder climates. They tend to degrade more quickly in very moist climates, and they tend to have condensation issues in very cold climates.
Ceilings vary based on the use of each space to balance durability and cost. For human spaces, lay-in ceilings (aka ceiling tiles) are the least expensive. Equine or wet areas usually have either smooth, painted drywall ceilings (less expensive) or coated wood ceilings (more expensive but more attractive). You also might want to consider something a little nicer for your client lobby to create a welcoming impression.
Keep in mind that hard ceilings (drywall and wood) have zero ability to absorb any noise. If this is a concern, acoustical panels placed on the walls can help. These can be placed after the fact if you need to save money now.
Building an equine clinic is expensive because of the size and nature of your patients. If you limit the heavy-duty materials to where horses are treated and housed, then the other areas of the building can be built like an inexpensive office space. With this understanding, an equine practice can be constructed durably and economically.