[Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of monthly columns from veterinary architect Mark Hafen, AIA, co-owner of Animal Arts in Boulder, Colo.]
Dr. Dan was 58 years old when he checked out of this life. His departure was a shock to everybody. I imagine it was a shock to him as well.
Dr. Dan and I go back 26 years. We started out as two strangers trying to do something neither one of us had ever done: build a veterinary clinic. He was the client and I was the greenhorn architect. After 10 months of strife and struggle, we emerged triumphant. We were now fast friends and he had a building to practice medicine in. And to top it off we won a Veterinary Economics Hospital Design Competition Merit Award.
Measured against the megaclinics that are built today, his 3,300-square-foot clinic wasn’t much, but it was important to both of us. Dan was an independent sort, and the building gave him the opportunity to build and practice medicine in his own way. Building that first building was the beginning of a lesson plan I’ve used for 26 years:
Lesson one: People count
Clients are good; friends are better. If you hire an architect but can’t imagine that person as a friend, then you’ve hired the wrong person. The corollary to lesson one: Don’t hire friends or family members—you can’t fire them.
Also, instead of drafting a contract that rivals the World Book Encyclopedia in length and complexity, hire somebody that you can grow to respect and trust and in turn respects you. Frankly, I don’t know what my contract with Dan looked like, but I can’t imagine it was much more then a simple letter.
Lesson two: Building isn’t easy
Designing and building a veterinary facility, no matter what the size, is tough. Dr. Dan and I spent many nights huddled around his kitchen table trying to come up with a plan that worked. A simpler solution would be to hire people who know what they’re doing. This is true for accountants, architects, contractors, and others. But the trick is to hire somebody who will talk with you to explore ideas and options, and not talk at you.
Know also that that even the smart ones screw up sometimes. With Dr. Dan’s clinic, I put his office in a location you couldn’t get to without going through the waiting area. And while this turned out to be a great way to meet and greet clients, I sure as heck won’t do that again!
Lesson three: Instill your personality
Your clinic should reflect who you are—your values and priorities. We didn’t build Dr. Dan a grand palace because that wasn’t him. Instead, we built a clinic that was straightforward and direct. It was a good place to do an honest day’s work, but to also have fun. In the one-and-a-half-story-tall treatment room, he hung a manila climbing rope like you would find in a junior high school gym. On special occasions, Dr. Dan—an avid kayaker and occasional climber—vented his energy by climbing the rope.
Lesson four: Stuff happens
Even the best-laid plans can go astray. I usually tell my clients that during construction, the natural progression is for things to go from better to worse. The construction process goes back as far as half-naked natives living in mud huts. And frankly, the basics have remained the same. It’s a process of discovery, decision making, delay, compromise, insight, and hopefully euphoria (when you move in). But things don’t always happen in that order. During most jobs, problems grow until one day you wake up and say, “The hell with it.” But it will get better. Every job has a tight spot you have to go through to get to the other side.
One last story before I quit. About a year after Dr. Dan had moved in, I was having one of those days from hell. Everything I saw or touched went badly. In the midst of it, Dr. Dan called.
“Mark, this is Dan.”
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Not much, but we have a problem over here.” I held my breath, and after a dramatic pause he went on. “The roof … it fell in. The clinic is gone.”
Time stopped but my mind raced on. In a half-strangled voice I replied, “OK, we can deal with this. I’ll be right over—I’ve got an idea.”
Then it was Dan’s turn to pause—one-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand three. “Mark, I’m just kidding, everything is fine.” I could have exploded, but instead we fell into uncontrolled laughter. That night we met again for beers.
I had learned again that I can and will get through it.
This brings us back around to lesson one: People count. You have to have the right people in the right place at the right time. We’re all going to miss Dr. Dan, but he taught us a lot before he left. Now it’s our job to carry on.
Veterinary architect Mark Hafen, AIA, is a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member and co-owner of Animal Arts in Boulder, Colo.