By Carolyn Chapman, special assignments editor
Dr. Timothy J. Thompson wanted to own a practice so much, he says he would've bought a lemonade stand with a dog run attached. So he and his wife, Dr. Shannon A. Thompson, both 1994 Texas A&M University graduates, only spent a year as associates before buying Hope Animal Clinic in Marble Falls, Texas. They leased the 850-square-foot building and within a year bought land to build the mixed animal facility of their dreams.
The rustic hospital that resulted drew acclaim from the judges of Veterinary Economics' 2000 Hospital Design Competition. They admired the regional architecture and use of local stone. "This hospital has a striking exterior, and I particularly enjoy the detailed inlays," one judge said.
Nothing but cedar
The metal building that housed the old Hope Animal Clinic started as a boarding kennel. The Thompsons spent $20,000 remodeling to add radiology, a hospital ward, a treatment area, a surgery suite, and a pharmacy. A closet became the only exam room, and the waiting room was just 5-by-8. But the improvements were only a temporary fix.
So nine months later, the Thompsons bought 39 acres of cedar trees five miles outside town. The decision raised some eyebrows because large cattle ranchers formerly reigned in the area--but now the neighborhood sports subdivisions. "Our clients are just as likely to own dogs and cats as they are 'pasture ornaments,' " Dr. Timothy Thompson says.
The Thompsons bought the land with a conventional loan, then sold five acres to finance the building project. Being outside the city limits negated zoning rules, but they had to drill a well and install a septic system.
Three's the charm
When he was ready to develop a design, Dr. Timothy Thompson contacted Ralph A. Thibodeau, AIA, an architect in Austin who has designed 30 veterinary hospitals. "We didn't know a thing about construction, so we wanted to hire an expert from the beginning," Dr. Timothy Thompson says. "I figured he'd catch things we'd forget and a regular architect wouldn't even know about."
Thibodeau devised an unconventional plan to segregate large and small animals and overcome elevation problems in the Texas hill country. Three separate buildings on different levels connected with canopies house the small animal practice, large animal practice, and boarding kennel.
From the start, the Thompsons experienced construction problems. The contractor took a $52,000 draw but wouldn't pay subcontractors. After firing that contractor and paying his outstanding bills, the Thompsons were $72,000 in the hole and 60 days behind schedule. "We should have been more business savvy and kept control ourselves," Dr. Timothy Thompson says.
He hired a new contractor, who finished the project $29,000 over bid. And to keep their loan manageable, the Thompsons paid for the barn out of their pockets. "We included the shell in the project plan but paid for the panels, chutes, and working assembly out of our savings," Dr. Timothy Thompson says.
As if the building hassles weren't enough, disaster struck a week after moving in when faulty installation of a water heater sparked a fire. Damages totaled $74,000. Painters restored the building at night so the Thompsons could continue working during the day. The fire voided warranties on computers and one air conditioning unit and ruined the ultrasound machine.
An appealing design
Drawing on the local landscape helped the Thompsons build an inviting hospital. With native limestone and cedar and a live oak tree in front, the buildings look like an old Texas homestead. "We want the practice to seem like it has always been here," Dr. Timothy Thompson explains.
Intricate stone inlays on the porch welcome clients. Inside the small animal hospital, the wood theme continues with support columns that mirror the external pillars. The three exam rooms feature corner sinks and built-in TV/VCRs for client education.
A separate boarding building helps the Thompsons segregate sick and healthy animals. The boarding facility features separate areas for boarding dogs and cats as well as grooming, and an acoustic ceiling in the kennel ward helps control noise. "I remember performing an eyeball surgery while listening to a boarded dog yip," Dr. Timothy Thompson says of his old hospital. "Practice is heaven now."
In the old "tin can," he also recalls dragging a goat through the exam room and pharmacy so he could perform a cesarean section. Now a driveway separates the small and large animal practices to let ranchers bring trailers right to the door. "We invested a lot in the large animal facility so I wouldn't need to make farm calls," Dr. Timothy Thompson says.
With their new facility, the Thompsons see an average of 100 patients a day. "In an age of specialty practices, we're booming because we chose to go general," quips Dr. Timothy Thompson. "We're living our dream because we can treat virtually anything that comes through our doors."
Carolyn Chapman, a former Veterinary Economics associate editor, is a freelance writer in Liberty, Mo.
November 2000 Veterinary Economics