Handled with care



When two Melbourne vet practices were ready to redevelop their properties, both turned to visionary architects to deliver a real ‘wow’ factor, reports Kerryn Ramsey.

During the design phase of a vet practice, it’s tempting to trim the financial fat. Some practitioners try to minimise costs by eschewing an architect, but this can be a false economy. An architect-designed practice usually saves money in the long term due to the building’s functionality, efficiency, and environmental and sustainable elements. However, most importantly, an architect provides originality—even a ‘wow’ factor—that can improve your business by impressing regular patrons, attracting prospective clients, and making staff feel proud of the practice.

Two Melbourne practices went down this path—hiring architects who pushed the design boundaries—with exceptional results. Monash Veterinary Clinic in Oakleigh South and Brimbank Vet Clinic in Melbourne’s western suburbs had established their practices but were ready to expand. Both were well-positioned on busy traffic; the Monash practice was a converted fast-food restaurant, while Brimbank operated in a 20-year-old cottage. Different approaches have now given both practices real impact.

When Sally Timmins of Timmins+Whyte Architecture took on the Monash Veterinary Clinic project in 2009, her concept was certainly unconventional. “When I started thinking about vet clinics, I pictured pets arriving in cardboard boxes,” recalls Timmins, who decided to turn the building itself into a larger-than-life ‘cardboard box’.

When she pitched this idea to the practice’s business partners, Drs Stuart Mason and Mark Foley, she was a little nervous. “Sometimes you really have to sell an idea when it’s a little crazy.”

Fortunately, the two vets had no qualms. “We were really excited by the idea,” says Dr Mason.

“The design has really worked well and isn’t distracting from the professional work we do.”—Dr Stuart Mason, Monash Veterinary Clinic

Timmins designed a corrugated wall construction to get the cardboard look, topped off by an awning that’s reminiscent of the flap of a cardboard box in an open position. “You can even see the sticky-tape coming down on one side,” she says. The large ‘handle with care’ sign became ‘handled with care’, which is pertinent given the care for the animals. The usual graphics on a cardboard box—‘this way up’ and ‘fragile’—have been replaced with a dog, cat and rabbit and are illuminated at night for visual impact.

“The design has really worked well and isn’t distracting from the professional work we do,” says Dr Mason, whose practice now has two surgeries, four consulting rooms, and a dog wash for public use.

An eye-catching exterior was also a priority for Brimbank Vet Clinic, which boasts a large entry canopy with a Hollywood-esque sign on top. This was designed by Riccardo Zen of Zen Architects who had also designed
a major renovation for Dr Jeremy Watson, one of the practice’s business partners. “We needed a building that was more sustainable in the long run, particularly from an environmental point of view,” says the vet who first opened the practice in 1998 with Dr Darrell Gust.

Set on a quarter-acre block, the existing house was originally positioned at the front of the property. Zen decided to locate the new clinic at the rear with car-parking at the front. “All the poor design issues they’d confronted in operating in a converted house were used as a springboard,” he explains.

To work closely with Zen, Dr Watson stepped up as project manager. “Fortunately, a good builder was one of our clients so he came on board,” he recalls. The vet’s management skills obviously came to the fore as the practice kept running during the nine-month build.

When it comes to passive principles, the clinic has operable clerestory windows in the consultancy rooms and operable windows between rooms to allow for natural light and passive heat gain. “I did rely a lot on Jeremy and his staff telling us how they operate so we could get a really good flow between the reception and the surgery spaces,” says Zen.

To minimise odours in the practice, an innovative ventilation system comes into play. “Animals are very sensitive when it comes to smell but so are the pet owners,” says Dr Watson. To remove these odours, the purpose-built clinic opens up automatically and flushes out all the stale air overnight.

Zen explains: “Before staff arrive in the morning, the windows shut down, the heaters come on and the place is ready to operate again. Then during the day, it continuously brings in fresh air while the stale air is being drawn out. At that stage, the heat energy that’s left in that stale air is given back into the building by a heat recovery system.

“It’s a much more pleasurable place to work now because there’s so much fresh air coming in,” says Zen. “The comfort levels are kept high and staff don’t feel too cold or hot.”

Sustainability is also a priority for Timmins+Whyte and was a driver for the Monash Veterinary Clinic design. In the reception area, the aperture of the western windows is minimised to stop heat loading while double glazing keeps the internal temperature stable, requiring less energy for heating and cooling.

Bringing natural light into internal rooms required some ingenuity. “We created openings that look through to other zones. It’s a great way for the staff to check on patients in different rooms,” she says. “The corridors also act as an acoustic buffer.”

This visionary clinic has been running for the past six years with eight veterinarians on board, and it’s become a flagship for practice design. “We have had lots of other clinics and people in the profession check out our practice,” says Dr Mason. “Everyone has been really impressed with the design and the spaciousness of the place.

“Moving into a new building also gave us an opportunity to re-brand our business. Our old logo and colour schemes had been in operation for many years and it was time for a facelift. It’s certainly modernised our premises.”

While the animals may not be aware of the exceptional design of these two practices, they do appreciate the comfort factor. Dr Watson explains: “From the moment the animal enters the building, we wanted to minimise any opportunity for them to get wound up.” Reducing the noise and smell was the first stage, along with natural light and a soft colour palette. In the consult rooms, a vinyl surface was chosen rather than cold, slippery stainless steel on tables. “Pets feel more comfortable, owners like it and we can keep it clean,” says Dr Watson.

For both Monash and Brimbank clinics, the combination of architectural design and pure comfort are a perfect match, helping both of these veterinary businesses to flourish.


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