Veterinary Clinic Construction in a Changing World

A vet office building
Vet office building construction is a possibility in 2023
It can be difficult to get construction done in our changing world, but there are exciting building opportunities nonetheless. Courtesy Animal Arts

If you have done any home repairs in the last year or two, you know the frustrations of getting work accomplished in our fractured and changing world. As if inflation, slow supply chains and availability of labor were not enough to worry about, the economists are now throwing around the “r” word—recession—as our collective economic reality for 2023. If you’re planning veterinary clinic construction or renovation, does that mean you should stop and reconsider?

No, you should not. Our architectural firm has been around since 1979. Therefore, we have been through many cycles of the market. Moments in time have challenges, but there are also hidden opportunities.  

In this article, I will outline the best ways to get work done, how to protect your budget, and opportunities to find in today’s construction economy. 

Consider Renovation

Many of our veterinary clients are considering renovation instead of new construction. Why? With the lack of available materials and labor, it can sometimes be more economical to renovate a structure than build a new one.  

If your current facility is old and not worthy of a remodel, you can still consider remodeling another existing structure, such as an arena or former manufacturing or agricultural building. We have worked on many projects utilizing existing structures such as these. If you do decide to go the remodel route, be aware of this essential information: 

Metal Structures are Far More Useful than Wood Structures

If you find an old wood barn, particularly a pole building, it is not going to be easy to use as an equine hospital (surgery and medical facility). However, it might be useful to you as outpatient housing or as a work-up area.  

Equine hospitals are Business Occupancies in the building code. Therefore, in most locations, you must be able to meet code for a business. A pole barn is generally not sturdy enough from a structural perspective, nor will it meet the code for fire safety. Consider using larger wood structures only for outpatient housing rather than overnight housing, as they are more likely to become death traps in the event of a fire.  

Tragedies have happened so often that a fire prevention code (NFPA 150) applies specifically to animal care facilities and limits the size of wood structures for housing animals such as horses. If you’re in doubt about an existing wood structure and its usefulness, talk with an architect for a code interpretation before investing in renovations. 

Considerations for Existing Metal Structures

For existing metal structures, keep in mind that they also pose some challenges if they were used previously for manufacturing or agriculture and not for business. Here are some considerations: 

  • Is it sturdy enough from a building code perspective to hold up to a major wind or snowstorm (or whatever weather event is likely in your area)? If not, does it have to be strengthened before it can be used? A local structural engineer can answer this question. 
  • Has it been used previously for anything that has caused it to become contaminated? For example, if it was used for repairing machinery, are there gasoline spills that would prevent its use as a commercial building? You might need to get a Phase 1 Environmental Assessment to answer this question.  
  • Is it high enough? Low-slung metal buildings are not sufficient for equine practice. You need height for patient safety. You also need height for supports for sling stalls and surgery hoists, and for adding ventilation, lighting and potentially fire sprinklers to the building. Look for buildings whose outside walls are 16 feet tall at the bare minimum.  

If you can find a useable existing building (preferably metal, sturdy enough, high enough, and not contaminated), then you can save a lot of money compared to building a new one. The inside can be outfitted for your needs. Even a surgical facility can fit in an existing building. The building structure will not be able to support a hoist beam, but you can construct concrete or concrete block walls within the shell of the building to support the beam. 

surgery room

Understand the Impact of Timeline

It can be very stressful for an equine veterinarian to be up against a time deadline in today’s construction market. Some of the supply chain issues cannot be helped. For example, it takes an incredibly long time to get electrical infrastructure such as electrical switchgear, generators and transformers. The availability of these items sometimes sets the entire construction schedule.  

If you understand that some timelines are out of your control, here are some of the ways you can avoid being surprised or negatively affected: 

  • Get a contractor on board early, even if your plans are not finished. The contractor can order and secure long lead-time items such as electrical switchgear. 
  • A contractor’s early advice might help your architect and engineering team. For example, many projects have been unable to procure open web steel joists, which are the ubiquitous structural items used for roof construction. As a result, it has been necessary to use wide flange beams instead (or wood joists if allowed by code). Another example pertains to the types of mechanical rooftop units that are available. Some brands have longer lead times than others. It is essential for your design team to have this information so they do not design for items that cannot be procured.  
  • If you do not have a time deadline, continue to hold your construction team accountable for doing their work in a timely fashion and to a schedule. Expect that there probably will be an uncontrolled slip here and there from having to explore alternative materials and systems. This might be frustrating at the time, but rushing a veterinary construction project almost always has worse impacts than taking a deep breath and figuring out the best path forward.  

From my perspective as an architect, we hate to see our clients rushing. In those cases, even a small decision—such as the type of flooring to use—can have a long-term, negative effect on the practice if the available (but poorly researched) solution is not durable or non-slip enough for use in equine practice. 

Find the Unique Opportunities for Veterinary Construction

If constructing veterinary buildings during these times sounds difficult, trust that there are unique opportunities as well. These are the opportunities we are excited for in 2023: 

  • The “r” word makes for a more competitive bidding climate. As soon as economists start talking about recession, we construction professionals start contemplating not taking home a paycheck. We work so much harder when times are lean. You are very likely to get more competitive bids for your veterinary construction project from subcontractors next year than you would have in the past two years. 
  • Cost escalations are normalizing. We will see far fewer escalations in pricing in the next two years than we have in the past two, barring any more unforeseen global calamities. 
  • U.S.-made is the way to go. With the instability of China, U.S. manufacturing is getting a boost. You might be able to support more U.S. jobs with your construction project than you did in the past. 
  • Building in uncertain times gives your practice the leg up on your competitors. Having a physical facility is—and will always be—the differentiator for an equine practice. Having a better one allows you to attract and retain staff and associates, and we all know that this is the biggest challenge with running a veterinary business these days.  

It still pays to find a way to improve your existing facility and grow your business. That growth will make your business more valuable to you when you choose to retire or sell. Be competitive. It’s the best way to be in any business. 

outside stalls at a vet clinic

Themes for 2023

As you move forward to design or construct in 2023, some themes repeat themselves and some are new. Labor shortages will persist, but the experts predict—as investors pull back from development projects—that labor shortages will eventually ease. That means more companies will be eager to bid on your work.  

Global instabilities, such as the war in Ukraine, have impacted the availability of materials. For example, the war in Ukraine affects copper and aluminum. Nevertheless, contractors are far savvier about supply chain difficulties, and they will help you mitigate them for your own project. This can happen by ordering supplies in advance and by helping you seek quality alternatives when they exist. 

Extreme weather events, such as the devastation of Hurricane Ian, can temporarily affect local markets. However, the South, where more of the extreme weather events have occurred, is also strong and fast growing. That means there is enough economic vitality to overcome setbacks. 

Take-Home Message

Your practice needs your investment. Veterinary construction is difficult, but it is not impossible. Armed with the right mindset and the right information, you can make your project, and your practice, a standout success.

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