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A successful building project starts with you

Know what you want in a veterinary hospital, understand what you can actually afford, do your research before you hire a builder, and then show disciplined involvement.

A successful building project starts with you
Dream defined, design completed. How do you find a builder? One word: research.
So, you’re ready to build the veterinary hospital of your dreams or make the upgrades you’ve been mulling for years. Congratulations! Now the big question: How do you get started? It all begins with an objective vision, a subjective dream, and a practical and viable plan. Any construction endeavor is a game of risk management. Many variables come into play; some are controllable, others are not. With the exception of tract housing, every building is a prototype — the first time the exact plan has been executed in your specific climate and setting. After almost 900 projects spanning 30 years, my employer has yet to duplicate a design. The perfect vision in your mind may be desired, but the manifestation of specific details may be unrealistic. How to balance the two?

Choose Your All-Stars

Begin by assembling a good team. It should include:
  • A real estate agent, if you are building from scratch.
  • Financial lenders.
  • Legal advisers who are up to date on zoning procedures.
  • An architect and engineers with whom you are able to clearly communicate your intentions and vision. They, in turn, must be able to translate your ideas, all while working within your budget and with locally available resources.
Get to know these people. This is your vision after all, and you want reassurance that these people have the experience to create what they say they can create and that they will be open and honest about what will and will not work. You will be married to this multifaceted group for a year or more, so it is essential that you respect and even like each other. Be ready for hard conversations. Be ready to collaborate and compromise so that the final product is as close to your dream as possible given the realities of a budget, zoning and all the intricacies that a project will engender. Of course, the biggest thing to consider as you begin is cost and risk management. Here’s what will be within your control:
  • The price of the land you buy.
  • The scope of the project, such as its size, the numbers and types of rooms, the level of finishes, the elaborateness of the architectural expressions.
  • Your equipment and furniture budget.
What will not be within your control are fluctuations in the price of materials, manpower availability in your city or area, the price of fuel, and bank interest rates. No other industry has as many cost variables. The same building in three different cities will have three different costs. This is unavoidable and should be planned for using contingency funds. Don’t forget to budget for things you can’t touch, such as insurance and legal, zoning and permit fees. An experienced team can advise you further.

Express Yourself

As the owner, you know your needs and desires best. Before the team can design, they need to know your vision. The better you define it, the better the results. Vague statements will lead not only to uninspired results but also to a potentially unhappy customer: you. This bears restating: You will be living with the results for years to come, so do the initial hard work to ensure the best results in the long run. Regarding needs and desires, understand the difference. Keep them on separate lists. After all the needs have been met, you can start adding in the wants. Have a realistic expectation of what you can afford and what that amount probably buys. It does not serve you or your team if you do not reconcile the scope of what you want with the actual budget before the design starts. Hoping for lower-than-average bids rarely works out well. You will just lose time and incur a redesign expense. Always leave a bit of cushion in the budget. Recognize that you, the owner, have the most control over the project’s success. You may think, “No! It’s the architect and builder.” Not true. Think of it this way: Who has the most control over a pet’s health? You, the medical professional, certainly have the most knowledge and expertise, but are you calling the shots? No, the owner is.

Choose the Right Contractor

Dream defined, design completed. How do you find a builder? One word: research. Ideally, you’re looking for a builder whose resume is full of successfully completed animal care projects. Experience, reputation and capabilities are key metrics. Building a veterinary facility is not like building a shopping center. A builder with experience in the field will be able to navigate the unique features required, will understand why following a plan is important and will not build “the way we always do it.” Your builder needs to understand that the project’s integrity hinges upon following the build design, not just making a change to make construction life easier. The plans were drafted with intention after countless hours of experts laboring to create a cohesive whole. From the general contractor to the subcontractors, a complete buy-in with an eye to the end project is crucial, and an experienced builder will respect and provide that. Next, check recommendations. Personal references from satisfied customers are invaluable. Most builders work within a limited region. If positive references are plentiful and come from locations that can be seen first-hand, this is a very good indication that the builder is the one you’re looking for. Remember to ask about capability. How many projects is the builder currently working on? Even a competent company that overextends itself can get into trouble.

Don’t Interfere

Done and done. Construction time! For many, this period is the most stressful. Is the builder doing it right? What if mistakes are made or the project won’t finish in time? First, use a well-vetted contract. Industry standards are published by the American Institute of Architects at www.aiacontracts.org. Used and updated over decades, they fairly protect the interests of all parties, take into account bank rules on payments, and address retainage, or the holding back of 5 to 10 percent in case of future problems. Make sure the design team is available during construction to answer questions about the plans and to review the work for compliance. Don’t be tempted to shortcut inspections. Government building departments cover only the basics and are not concerned with cosmetics or substitutions. Your design team knows the project best. Weekly inspections will cost more but in the long run are cheap insurance. Be involved personally but in a disciplined manner. Regularly scheduled visits are in your best interest. Try to control your involvement. Field personnel will drop what they are doing if you, the owner, are walking around, asking questions and giving directions. They won’t be doing their job because of you. What’s best is a regularly scheduled weekly tour with the general contractor’s project superintendent. This is the person with the most comprehensive understanding of onsite conditions. You’ll get the most complete answers and minimize the impact on the production schedule. Minor field changes always happen — you will see an opportunity or have a new thought. Be careful about instructing anyone in the field to make a change, and be cautious of scope creep. Once the program and budget are in sync, any additional “might as well” will kill your financial plan. Just like a personal health regimen, stick to it and stay with the plan. Seemingly minor items can quickly balloon costs. It’s best to discuss possible changes with the designer and general contractor so that you understand the ramifications. Whether your dream features a state-of-the-art facility, an art deco design with cutting-edge technology, or a snug and cozy remodel, you are responsible for your dream from start to finish. You want a great team behind you. Constructive Criticism columnist Paul Gladysz is the principal architect at BDA Architecture. The firm specializes in the planning, design and construction of animal care facilities.