Saturday, May 18, 2024 May 18, 2024
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The SPCA of Texas’ New Animal Kingdom

They've created cutting-edge digs for dogs (and cats). Don’t call it a shelter.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Here is a math problem that involves saving the lives of dogs. This is important, so pay attention.

You have 100 adorable dogs that need to be adopted. You are building a shelter to show the dogs to prospective owners, but you have only enough money to build a display floor that’s 1,000 square feet. Each dog requires at least 10 square feet of space. The dogs that aren’t on the display floor can’t be seen by prospective owners, meaning they will spend more time in the shelter, thus increasing their chances of coming down with an illness and dying. That’s bad.

The question: ignoring real-world requirements (such as space to accommodate the prospective owners), what is the optimal size for each dog enclosure on the display floor, the size that will get the dogs adopted as quickly as possible?

Obviously it’s 10 square feet, right? That way all 100 dogs are immediately put on display, and each has a chance to get adopted as soon as possible.


Crowded dogs are stressed dogs. Stressed dogs are less adorable than relaxed dogs. They bite. They bark. They don’t interact well with humans. So they don’t get adopted.

It turns out that the optimal size for a dog enclosure is something larger than the minimum requirement. The task of figuring out what that size should be, exactly, fell to Gus Hinojosa and his team at Hinojosa Architecture & Interiors. Before he started his own four-person firm three years ago, Hinojosa worked for the giant Gensler, where he’d pitched the SPCA of Texas on a project. Then Gensler laid him off. But largely on the strength of the relationships he’d fostered during those exchanges with the SPCA (and with a little help from a bouquet of dog-shaped cookies that he got from Cookies by Design), Hinojosa beat out his old employer for the commission to design the new 40,000-square-foot, $10.5 million Jan Rees-Jones Animal Care Center, which opens this month.

“For them to consider us without a powerhouse large firm behind us, that was emotionally touching for me,” Hinojosa says. “They knew it was our first major project. When we interviewed with them, I expressed to them how important it was to us and that there was no option for failure.”

His creation is not your everyday shelter. It’s certainly nothing like the 40-year-old Dealey Animal Care Center near downtown that the SPCA is vacating to escape TxDOT’s bulldozers. The new shelter will more resemble a community center than the dank, depressing pound that you might recall from your childhood. Hinojosa doesn’t call it a shelter; he calls it a “re-homing center.” The SPCA says that it “establishes a new paradigm for modern animal care.” That isn’t bluster. Even before construction has wrapped, people from all over the country who are building their own shelters have come to Dallas to see what the future of pet adoption looks like. They heard about this thing called the Cat Rotunda. Who doesn’t want to see a Cat Rotunda?

photography by Elizabeth Lavin

But first, back to the dog enclosures, which are called “jewel boxes” at the new facility. The SPCA had bought a 70,000-square-foot building that once housed the printing press for a Methodist publisher. Forty thousand square feet of the space was reserved for the shelter, with the rest already occupied by SPCA administrative offices. When Hinojosa looked at everything that needed to be crammed into the space, called the “program,” he saw that it wouldn’t fit. So he gathered everyone around a table, including James Bias, the president and CEO of the SPCA of Texas. Bias knows something about spacial relations and critters. Not only did he build a new facility for the Humane Society at his previous post in San Antonio, but he himself has a horse, three goats, four dogs, three cats, and 11 children (seven of which are adopted). Hinojosa used colored construction paper, cut to scale, to represent the various parts of the program—the intake and assessment areas, the surgical clinic, the dog suites, and much more. The pieces of construction paper overlapped the floor plan.

“I called it paper dolls,” Bias says. “It was a low-tech way of getting where we needed to get much quicker than having them do a CAD [computer-aided design] drawing, come back, then do another CAD drawing and update it. It was interesting, in this time where everything is high-tech, to just use paper cutouts.”

photography by Elizabeth Lavin

In the end, the dog jewel boxes wound up being a spacious 50 square feet. They are arranged in six self-contained pods, with each pod of eight jewel boxes having its own distinct color (Sherwin Williams’ Daredevil red, Cheerful yellow, Candid Blue, and so on). Dogs are admitted to the shelter—sorry, re-homing center—in packs that travel through the facility as a group, eventually arriving at a pod together. Each of the pods has its own air-handling system. If a dog with, say, kennel cough comes through the system, this practice limits the number of dogs that could be exposed to the bug.

“You have to design knowing that a problem is going to come, just given the nature of bringing huge numbers of animals into a single place,” says Sandra Newbury, a veterinarian with UC Davis, whose veterinary school started the first “shelter medicine” program in the world. Newbury consulted on the SPCA project. Newbury and her colleagues help spread the message around the world about how important it is to give animals more space.

“It’s the difference between jamming your store full with a bunch of stuff, but nobody can actually see very well,” she says, “or presenting things in a very good way, so they’ll move really quickly. It’s not just about marketing, though. I always say in my presentations, ‘I don’t know who decided that cats should be stored in small, metal boxes. But I can tell you it wasn’t a cat.’ Somewhere along the line, someone who was designing a shelter said, ‘We can fit a cat into a box.’ Sure, you can. And it will get sick in five to seven days. Because they have viruses that take over when they’re stressed. How does that affect your resources, your ability to save lives, the welfare of the other animals that will get sick, the morale of your staff, the perception from the public?”

Which brings us to the Cat Rotunda. Cats at the SPCA cavort in spacious “condos” lit by natural light that overlook a rotunda designed to evoke a fishbowl. Overhead hangs a large light fixture that was originally designed for a hotel. Colorful fish and bubbles of acrylic hang from the fixture. LED lights emulate water movement. The idea is that prospective cat adopters are the fish in the bowl. We become the entertainment for the cats.

Unlike with almost any other commission that an architect might get, this project, when it opens, will deliver hard data to measure success. “The cats and dogs are either there or they’re not,” Hinojosa says. It will all come down to adoptions. And Bias will not only be looking at his own numbers but at the data from right down I-30, where the city of Dallas has its shelter.

“Will the city see an uptick in their adoptions?” Bias asks. “Because if you don’t find a match at our place, we’re going to do everything we can to get you to go two blocks west to visit the city shelter.”

While math is certainly involved, the bottom line is lives.

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