Reduce Complications with Your Veterinary Construction Project

Simplicity and planning can result in your veterinary construction project being a delight to you, your staff, your clients and your budget.
Simple barn structure
Rectangular building shapes cost less to build than more complicated shapes with more corners. | Arnd Bronkhorst Photography

Considering labor issues, damaged supply chains, inflation and regulatory challenges, building anything recently has been frustrating and complicated. We have been designing projects for veterinarians for 40 years. We understand that you do not need further complications in your busy lives. So, let’s all take a deep breath and brainstorm the ways you can vastly simplify your construction project, whether you are tackling a small remodel or a major new build. 

Plan Ahead with Site Work 

Your buildings are small compared to the land they sit on. Therefore, your biggest money pit lies outside of the buildings’ walls! Inadequate and poor site planning leads to large construction change orders and many complications with equine veterinary projects. We recommend these minimum tasks to ensure you do not get stuck in the mud: 

  • Investigate your current utility capacity (power, water, cable, gas, sewer, septic, etc.) and size required upgrades before you begin planning or budgeting a construction project. Your architect, engineers, and contractor can help you size and plan the necessary service capacity.  
  • Prioritize utility upgrades over everything else with your project. If you have to upgrade your services, particularly power, it is important to know that electrical equipment has the longest lead times on today’s job sites. For example, a transformer might take a year to get, so you cannot wait to size and order utility upgrades. 
  • Plan drainage across your project site. A civil engineer or experienced contractor will need to help design the grading and drainage improvements on your project site, as part of your project. So many difficulties with equine projects (examples include water getting into buildings, arenas that hold water, muddy roads and pastures, flooding in low areas) have to do with poor grading and drainage. If you’re putting a building where water has to flow, consider how water will get around the building, or relocate the building. Regrading after the fact can be far more expensive than executing grading correctly the first time. 
  • Plan the traffic flow patterns to separate horses, client traffic, staff traffic, pedestrians and trailers. This can be a low-tech exercise—simply draw out the paths of each type of traffic on your project site plan using different colors and try to eliminate areas where the different colored lines cross. Your clients cannot back trailers reliably, especially when they are under stress, so a circular traffic pattern is usually best for trailers. 

Use Simple, Buildable Shapes 

We use these methods to design less expensive and less complicated buildings: 

  • Design a regular building shape. Rectangles or L-shapes cost less to build than complicated shapes because there are fewer corners. Corners add money to projects. 
  • Make sure you can put a roof on it. When buildings get too wide, you cannot roof them very well, so maximize the proportions for efficiency. Examples: For prefabricated metal buildings, widths wider than 60-70 feet start to require more structural capacity for the wider span. So, a 100-foot-wide arena will cost much more than a 70-foot-wide arena to build. For reference, 70 feet is approximately 20 meters. For lameness workup, an arena of this width might be sufficient. 
  • Keep the equine areas with high clearance and the office areas with lower clearance. Equine areas need 12 feet of clear headroom. More space is needed for surgery rooms to accommodate a trolley and hoist. Design the equine areas to be high so you are not squeezing in ducting and lighting while trying to maintain clear headroom for horse safety. On the other hand, the offices can be far lower. You only need nine feet clear for office areas and other human-only areas such as the laboratory. 
  • For traditional buildings, designing them to be less than 50 feet wide allows for simple roof shapes (such as a gable) and allows roof trusses to be built such that a single shape will fit on a truck for hauling to the job site. Of course, it is not essential to use this rule of thumb, but if simplicity is your goal, it is useful to know.  

Work with the Climate 

Veterinary practice next to a lake. Consider drainage with veterinary construction projects.
Consider drainage around your equine facility. This consideration not only includes natural water features such as a pond or lake, but how water will get around—and not into—your buildings, arenas, driveways and property. | Courtesy Animal Arts

Equine buildings should be oriented to consider the climate, both for your comfort and for simplicity. For example, if you are in a northern latitude and your front door faces north, you will likely need robust gutters, an entry vestibule to keep out the cold air, and snow guards to keep snow from falling on clients. You will also buy more ice melt, and you might even need heated sidewalks. How about planning for that door to be on the south side instead, where you will get plenty of warm, low-angle winter sun for melting? That is far less complicated! 

Consider other aspects of climate, keeping in mind your geographic location. For hot climates, minimize using the west face of the building, where it will be scorching hot in the summer afternoons. For hot climates, open-air barns with fans can be practical (as long as the air moves). For cold climates, enclosed barns with a higher roof to keep in heat can be more comfortable (envision New England shapes versus low, Texas ranch shapes).  

Study the historical architecture of your area and think ahead about building orientation and the locations of doors, windows and openings. This will help you use the climate to your advantage for a simple, comfortable building.  

Use Local Materials 

Speaking of local influence, consider using the materials and building traditions that are most common to your area. If you’re in Boise, use wood framing because Idaho has a long tradition of wood construction.  If you’re in Denver, use concrete block walls, as Denver has a large number of block manufacturers. If you’re in California, masonry materials are going to be harder to use because of seismic considerations. If you’re in Central Texas, use limestone block because it is both beautiful and ubiquitous—it is easy to dig out of the soil in this region.  

It is best to get advice from your local architects and contractors to discover the materials that will be most readily available, affordable and will help keep your hospital project on track without complications from unavailable materials or the labor to install them.   

Use Some Prefabricated Structures 

One of the tricks in our bag is to use cheap structures for things that simply do not have to be expensive. A great example is a prefabricated building used for central supply and pharmacy. Why use hospital-level construction when you are simply containing storage? You can use a utility-style, prefabricated structure with a canopy tacked on one side for truck stocking and a covered connector to the more expensive hospital building.  

Another example would be using a tiny house somewhere on-site to house veterinary students instead of upstairs in the hospital. The latter seems to be a great idea until you consider that you have to “fire separate” residential areas from commercial uses and install two sets of stairs, as this is often required for exiting from second floors.  

Be smart about what can be done more cost-effectively. Use your architect as a resource to help you save money for expensive spaces such as surgical suites and imaging rooms. 

Gather a Trusted Team 

The less considered—but very important—aspect of any project is to hire the right building team. You and your staff need to run the hospital, which means you need to trust your design and construction team to get the job done without micromanagement. Check references and interview your building team members thoroughly prior to hiring them. Take them on a test drive by working with them on a small project to see how that goes before you delegate responsibility for a larger project.  

Communicate to your team the need to keep the project simple. You are required to meet building codes, and you should design a healthy building for you, your staff and the horses in your care. However, save your project embellishments for where they matter the most.  

For example, wouldn’t it be lovely to look out the window from your office? Wouldn’t it be nice to have great footing in your lameness work-up area? Many things that aren’t strictly necessary matter a lot to your everyday enjoyment of your facilities. These things are worth the investment. If you keep the design simple overall, you will be more able to afford them.  

Take-Home Message 

In today’s age of “everything takes twice the time, costs twice the money, and causes twice the headache,” simplicity, simplicity, simplicity is a mantra that is serving equine veterinary practices well as they consider any construction project.

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