Should I stay or should I go?

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practice expansion
When a vet practice has rapidly expanded, is it better to renovate the existing premises or relocate to a larger property? Kerryn Ramsey investigates.

Running out of room is a common complaint for growing vet practices—it’s often so cramped, there’s hardly enough room to swing
a cat [Editor’s note: not that, as a vet, you would]. When the practitioner is ready to expand, there are two options—extending and revamping the property, or moving to a new building.

Often, the most cost-effective solution is refurbishing the premises, which may include an extension. The risk of closing during the renovation for a short time may be inevitable, although many fit-out companies have varied solutions to keep the practice running efficiently.

Renovate

A refurbishment was on the cards for Boronia Veterinary Clinic & Hospital in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, as well as an extension. First opened in the 1940s, it had grown exponentially and needed a full makeover in 2000. The owner/vet at the time, Dr Keith Lowry, knew the timing was right for two reasons—he already owned a property next door, and his daughter Natasha Lowry had just completed her architecture degree.

“Getting the extra block was a godsend,” recalls Dr Lowry, who sold the vet hospital a few years later. “The practice is close to a main shopping centre with plenty of parking. It’s been part of the community for decades.”

The redesign and addition was a challenge for Natasha Lowry, who’s now a partner at Matt Williams Architects in Hobart. The brief included four new consulting rooms, an extra theatre, dispensary, larger waiting area, laboratory and on-site parking. “The brief also included an additional wing where the staff would retreat and escape the clinicals,” says Lowry. “Over time, that wing turned into a sleeping area where a vet or nurse could stay overnight.”

The plans took six months for design and documentation, while the construction took another six months. Dr Lowry was determined not to make the practice look clinical, so his architect daughter selected an earthy palette topped off with timber elements. “Apparently, its unique look now generates plenty of word-of-mouth recommendations,” she says. Now run by owner and veterinarian Matt Costa, the practice has 19 veterinarians on staff with round-the-clock care.

When it comes to relocating, there’s a risk that a practice may lose clients as some patients don’t like change or travel. Also, finding a new property can be a difficult and time-consuming task. If you are repurposing an existing business, you will feel the full brunt of council regulations. On a happier note, you will be able to design a practice that fits your needs and your clients’ expectations. You will also have access to a whole new client base in a new area.

Relocate

Fiona Wallace had been running her practice for 12 years and it took a lot of soul-searching and financial commitment to make the move. “We had outgrown our small premises, and the council zoning that applied to our old building would not allow us to renovate in that location,” explains Dr Wallace, who moved New Lambton Veterinary Clinic in NSW to nearby Broadmeadow last year.

“We were lucky because we weren’t in a rush to leave our old premises. We had enough time to carefully interview a number of builders, as well as others who had recently completed renovations. We settled on a local builder with whom we were comfortable talking, and we have been delighted with the results.”

The major hurdle for the build was getting the phone line up and running. “Due to a comedy—actually a tragedy!—of errors, it was over three weeks before we had a working phone line,” says Dr Wallace. “This was despite the fact that we had given our phone provider plenty of notice of the move. The lack of a phone line was quite crippling.”

Apart from this unexpected glitch, the veterinarian has found that her new clinic is a dream come true, with two consult rooms and high-tech equipment. “We’d been stocking up on new equipment over the past three years, upgrading pathology and dental equipment and going digital with our radiology as well as purchasing a Mylab5 ultrasound machine.”

When planning to relocate a practice, it’s important to look at the long-term vision. Dr Wallace made sure the clinic could add an extra consult room if necessary. “There is also the possibility of adding a mezzanine floor to house additional office space, staff rooms and storage down the track,” she says.

Relocate and renovate

Andrew Litchfield, owner/vet of Orange Veterinary Hospital in the Central West region of NSW, also understands the importance of future-proofing a surgery—after all, his practice has gone through both a relocation and renovation.

After opening in the 1940s, it eventually moved 500 metres away to a purpose-built practice with off-street parking. Designed by highly acclaimed architect John Andrews, the practice had real style and substance—but, as the hospital continued to grow a three-stage renovation began in 2010, starting with an extension of the car-parking space and reception counter.

“Our reception area was decorated with plenty of colour and local artist paintings. We also added a TV that acts as a multimedia platform for advertising our services and upcoming events. The feedback from clients has been wonderful,” says Dr Litchfield.

The practice extended the area to allow for a purpose-built stock display, separate dog and cat waiting areas and discharge area. “The separate waiting areas has reduced the stress and noise in the waiting area,” he says. “Our discharge room has freed up the consult rooms and is another option for consulting or speaking with clients in a quiet location.”

Another feature in the renovation was putting in an exit door in the third consult room. “This is our ‘say goodbye’ room, where clients can leave the practice without having to come back through reception after a highly emotional experience. They can stay with their pets as long as they want,
then leave when ready,” he says.

The second stage was a renovation and addition to the equine area. This included adding a surgery knockdown room for horses, isolation area for extremely sick patients, and new storage facilities. “Lastly, we have just installed a 10kw solar system to run our energy requirements and reduce our energy footprint,” says Dr Litchfield.

Looking back, he’s found that when deciding between renovating or relocating, it’s important to look at how the current facility will cope with expected growth. “Also, decor needs to be updated continually and it’s a good idea to bring in some fresh eyes and audit the practice.”

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