A practical guide to veterinary hospital design

Designing animal hospitals is a pretty specific architectural niche.

“There are a few firms around the country that do it [but] it’s extremely specialized,” says Sean McMurray.

McMurray, AIA, NCARB, is a principal architect and partner at Animal Arts, a Boulder, Colorado-based architecture firm that specializes in designing veterinary hospitals and animal shelters from the ground up. And while a few firms around the country may do it, Animal Arts is arguably the best-known.

Animal Arts started out in the late 1970s as a general architecture firm called Gates, Hafen, Cochrane. Then they designed their first animal hospital. “It was very successful, and word of mouth led to the next one, which led to the next one,” McMurray says. Soon the firm was speaking at veterinary conferences and publishing articles on animal hospital design. “It just sort of got to be known that Gates Hafen Cochrane was the firm to go to for veterinary hospitals. And it kind of just snowballed from there.”

The firm changed its name to Animal Arts in the early 2000s.

Now Animal Arts has gathered those nuggets of expertise they’ve been doling out in bits and pieces and put them all in one place: a 384-page book called Practical Guide to veterinary Hospital Design: From Renovations to New Builds, new from AAHA Press.

The book’s a little too new to help Yvonne Stemwedel, DVM, DAVBP—Animal Arts designed her hospital before the book was published. But because AA had the extensive experience designing veterinary hospitals that informed the book, the experience was relatively painless.

Stemwedel, owner of AAHA-accredited Adobe Animal Hospital in Petaluma, California, bought her first hospital in 2011—located in an historic, 900-square-foot bungalow built in 1920. By the time she moved in she’d already outgrown it. “It was tiny,” she says. “I wanted to be a busy, multidoctor practice, and I knew 900 square feet wasn’t going to do it.”

So she hired Animal Arts to build her a new one from the ground up. Stemwedel may not have had access to their book, but she knew their reputation, and their work: They built VCA Pet Care East, a 24-hour referral hospital in nearby Santa Rosa, California. “That was an amazing building,” she says. “Aesthetically, it was beautiful. But it also fit really nicely with the community. It looks perfect there.”

With McMurray acting as the primary architect, Stemwedel and Animal Arts spent a couple of years hammering out ideas over the phone. She estimates that the design process and pulling permits  took the better part of a year.

McMurray says that’s not unusual, especially in the Golden State. “Things are always a little more belabored in California. Real estate prices are high and construction costs are high. There are more hoops to jump through.” But he says that, generally speaking, a ground-up build takes anywhere from a year and a half to two years from the time the client tells Animal Arts “Let’s do this.”

Stemwedel broke ground in December of 2015, with McMurray switching hats to act as her general contractor. Construction went smoothly and she opened for business in her new 4,200 square foot building in July of 2016.

McMurray says it helped that Stemwedel had a pretty good notion of what she wanted and needed out of her new space, but he’s has come to expect that when working with veterinarians.

McMurray says that because they work all over the United States, Animal Arts doesn’t have a specific house style. “We tend to focus more on the functionality of the hospital itself. The circulation, the durability of finishes, and the things that allow for proper animal health care. The aesthetics usually take a backseat to that.”

But that said, McMurray adds that construction is expensive, so Animal Arts wants people to be happy with how things look and what that says about their business. And it can take a while to figure out a client’s style. “We’ve designed things that look log cabins, we’ve designed things that sort of look like brick warehouses, and things that look like vintage bungalows. It depends on the context of the location of the hospital, and what the doctor wants.”

Stemwedel already had a vintage bungalow. But she wasn’t sure what kind of look she wanted next. Not to worry:  Animal Arts had a few ideas.

McMurray says that Petaluma is a very agrarian community, and there’s still plenty of evidence of the utilitarian building style associated with working the land: “The downtown is cute and commercial, but most of the older historic outlying buildings are grain silos, mills, train depots, and things like that.” Stemwedel’s building site was in the middle of that historic industrial area, near one of the largest mills in California. “It’s enormous and it’s right behind her hospital. It’s one of those landmarks that [helps] you pick out Petaluma from the highway. It’s probably 20 stories tall.”

Keeping in mind that one of the things Stemwedel wanted was a building that looked like it was part of the landscape, Animal Arts took its inspiration from the neighborhood’s industrial/agrarian look.

“There are a number of old granaries in Petaluma as well, and we sort of designed the exterior to look like one of those historic granaries,” McMurray says. “It has a very similar form. And one thing you notice about these kinds of buildings is that they tend to grow very organically. So they have little shed additions that were built twenty years after the initial building [and with different materials].” And the roof could have a completely different slope.

The finished building is gorgeous. And it really does look like it could have been there back when the big mill behind it was still running three shifts.

“My experience is that doctors tend to educate themselves no matter what,” McMurray says. “So they usually come to you with a wealth of knowledge already.”

Flattening that learning curve is what the new book is all about. “Our hope is that the book helps to refine that knowledge and frame it in a way that’s . . . going to help the project move forward [more quickly] and more efficiently from the get-go.”

McMurray says that most veterinarians find as many resources as they can on their own, then come to Animal Arts armed with floorplans, photos, and all kinds of knowledge they’ve gleaned from articles authored by Animal Arts. “So in a lot of ways the book was . . . a convenient way to compile all these things in one place, so that when [veterinarians] say that I read this and I read this and I read this, [it won’t be] from all these disparate sources, [it’ll be] from this one big thing.”

McMurry adds that whiles veterinarians do their homework, “we also talk to a lot of people who are in the very, very beginning stages of things as well. So [the book] can help them frame the project and set [realistic goals] early.” McMurry says building a hospital is complicated, and it’s best to start the process with at least a passing understanding of everything involved. “The book is a good way to do that.”

Even without benefit of the new book, Stemwedel is delighted with how her hospital turned out. She now has three doctors on staff and she’s looking to hire one more.

And while she says that a “detailed comprehensive book on hospital design would have been very helpful,” she’s unlikely to buy a copy at this point: She calls the new place her lifetime hospital and has no plans to move. “This is our home.”

Practical Guide to Veterinary Hospital Design: From Renovations to New Builds
by Vicki J. Pollard, AIA, CVT, and Ashley M. Shoults, AIA

Order your copy here.

Photo credit: © Tim Murphy/Murphy Foto Imagery