By Portia Stewart, Managing Editor
Not many people find the opportunity to purchase an area landmark. But when a restaurant went on the market in Salem, Ore., Dr. Tom Van Meter snatched it up; the 1-acre lot featured a 40-foot fir known locally as the holiday tree. "I fell in love with the site," says Dr. Van Meter. "The location offered lots of parking, space to expand, and 30 mature trees, which give the area a park-like feel." In a little more than a year, Dr. Van Meter turned Chelsea's Restaurant into a high-tech veterinary facility that won a merit award in the 2002 Veterinary Economics Hospital Design Competition.
The land and the design
Land in Salem is hard to come by, especially on such a large thoroughfare as Commercial Street. But a high-visibility location was important to Dr. Van Meter, because his former facility was hard to find. "We were next to a beer joint that got rowdy on Friday nights," he says.
Dr. Van Meter says that when he saw Chelsea's Restaurant was up for grabs, he knew it was the right location to build his high-tech hospital. Over the course of several months, he negotiated with the owner, who eventually agreed to sell the site for $850,000-$150,000 less than the original asking price.
After Dr. Van Meter nailed down his site, he started work on the floor plan. After practicing for eight years in a 3,000-square-foot facility with only three exam rooms, Dr. Van Meter knew he wanted medical traffic separated from grooming and boarding traffic. He also wanted a centrally located treatment area to accommodate medical procedures and surgical preparation and wards and exam rooms that opened onto the treatment hall.
To get started, he bought design software and drew up a floor plan. He spent about three months and many hours drafting a plan he thought would work. When he was satisfied, he hired Mark Hafen, AIA, of Gates Hafen Cochrane Architects in Boulder, Colo., to review the floor plan. "He suggested some great changes, including moving a few rooms around to improve our traffic flow," Dr. Van Meter says.
Hafen says working with the existing structure proved challenging. "Dr. Van Meter started with a neat building, but the elements that made the building appealing-the windows, a sun room, and level changes-were difficult to work around architecturally," says Hafen. "The final layout features exam rooms that stair step through the practice to accommodate the building's unique layout."
Dr. Van Meter says the floor plan was a perfect fit for his practice. "The best money I spent was having Gates Hafen Cochrane review the design," says Dr. Van Meter. "They figured out how to achieve our wonderful traffic flow."
With the revised plan in hand, Dr. Van Meter went a mile and a half down the street to Jerry Green of J.C. Green and Associates, who agreed to take on the job of converting the old restaurant into a state-of-the-art facility. "The biggest challenge was that the structure wasn't in great condition," says Green. "When we opened the walls we found a lot of dry rot."
In the end, structural problems contributed to about $450,000 in cost overruns. "When we started we didn't know the building had been added onto several times, and bearing walls had to be replaced," Dr. Van Meter says.
As a tribute to his new location and high-tech approach, Dr. Van Meter changed the practice's name from South Salem Animal Clinic to Pet Medical Center. "Our name needed to reflect that we're more than a clinic," says Dr. Van Meter. "We're a hospital, a surgical facility, and a boarding and grooming service."
Dr. Van Meter's wish list
Before Dr. Van Meter started the building process he developed a wish list for his new facility. "I wanted visible kitty condos so clients would know we offer boarding. More parking, more exam rooms, a larger treatment area, and more boarding were all on the list," says Dr. Van Meter. "I also wanted a dramatic entryway."
Creating a dramatic entryway was easy to accomplish. The restaurant had featured wood beams and a natural wood ceiling, and Dr. Van Meter added a glass brick window and recessed lighting to emphasize these unusual building features. "My interior designer worried that the tall beamed ceiling would leave a large blank area of wall where the brick stopped, so we added glass bricks to let in natural light and placed plants on the mezzanine," he says.
The new site also featured a large parking lot, upping Dr. Van Meter's parking capacity for clients from six spaces to 17. And he incorporated five exam rooms into the floor plan-two canine, two feline, and a consultation room-to accommodate the practice's growing client base.
I spy gear
If clients feel like they're being watched when they walk into Pet Medical Center, there's a good reason. Dr. Van Meter installed 17 cameras throughout the practice. Each camera has its own channel, and almost every room in the practice boasts a monitor so clients can watch their pets in surgery or treatment and check up on their children in the children's play area. When staff members take a patient to the treatment area for a procedure, they offer to let the client watch the pet's procedure on a TV monitor in the room. And many clients accept.
Dr. Van Meter also extends this offer when pets undergo surgeries. "I've always allowed pet owners to watch their pets' surgeries," he says. "But as the practice has grown busier, it's been harder to let them stand in the door and watch. At our new practice, if clients want to watch, we take them to the consultation room, where they can see their pet's surgery take place on television."
Four cameras in the canine executive suites and four more in the feline boarding area allow pet owners to visit the practice's Web site and check in on their pets. "A lot of pet owners tell me it means so much to them that they can check up on their pets while they're on vacation," Dr. Van Meter says.
The cameras offer security benefits, too. Every 10 seconds each camera takes a picture that's stored on a computer hard drive. The hard drive keeps photos for up to 10 days. "You can go back and look at what happened in the last week in the clinic," Dr. Van Meter says.
Dr. Van Meter also installed 30 computers with flat panels, which he says improves efficiency. For example, he digitized all the radiographs and stored them with the client files, and doctors or team members can use flat screen computers in the exam rooms to access the files and images. "It used to take as long as 15 minutes to find a client file," says Dr. Van Meter. "Now we can retrieve client files and images almost instantly."
Dr. Van Meter says one of the bonuses of his state-of-the-art clinic is that it looks like a veterinary facility that offers the best possible care for patients-a goal his practice is committed to achieving. And his growing client base bears out his theory that a new, high-visibility location would stimulate growth-the practice has experienced 30 percent growth since the move. "We now see 150 new clients a month," Dr. Van Meter says.