Whole Builders has been mainly a residential remodeler for most of its existence. But it's proved to be adaptable in order to survive 32 years and several recessions, the last of which claimed many small contractors.

The firm's commitment to economy has dovetailed nicely with its flexibility toward customers and commitment to environmental sustainability on 1,000-plus home improvements.

It also took a lot of creativity and small jobs to get Whole Builders through the recession, when housing valuations plunged for several years and most owners weren't interested in sinking more money into the homestead.

During the recession, south Minneapolis-based Whole Builders, which once boasted annual revenue approaching $1 million, had to content itself with insurance-repair work, must-do exterior maintenance jobs and projects for several past customers, such as installing first-floor bathrooms that enabled them to stay in their homes as they aged.

Revenues slipped under $600,000 annually in 2009 and 2010.

But Whole Builders survived, even as the seven-person company lost its longtime chief carpenter to cancer in early 2012 after a several-year battle that also challenged the small company.

The single-biggest lifeline out of the recession for Whole Builders, owned by architect Mary Jane Heinen and business manager Marcia Bethke, came from a past residential customer who hired Whole Builders for an overhaul and expansion of the Minnetonka Animal Hospital. The project preserved the old buildings and increased the facility's utility and aesthetics. Oh, and it cost about half the original bid of a competitor in 2010.

Veterinarians Kaaren Howe and Leilani Hotaling, owners of 15-employee Minnetonka Animal, say Whole Builders delivered a better, bigger, renovated clinic for about half the $1.5 million price envisioned by their original architect. He had called for their existing two buildings to be demolished and a new clinic erected on their corner lot at Minnetonka Boulevard and County Road 101, a bustling commercial hub.

Instead, Whole Builders' design remodeled the existing buildings and repositioned the smaller, 1,600-square-foot building behind the larger clinic that faces Minnetonka Boulevard.

And the whole job was completed in stages, meaning Minnetonka Animal only had to close down for a couple of days in April to accommodate internal reorganization and moving of files, some medical and office equipment.

"We tend to focus more on the budget than the 'dream,' " quipped Heinen. "And the Minnetonka Hospital project gave us new life. It was a creative solution and gave us confidence that we can do this for other small businesses."

Making the building function seamlessly

The clinic, which started in the smaller building to the rear of the lot, had never quite worked logistically. The larger building on Minnetonka Boulevard had been a gas station, with an attached barbershop and small retail shop.

The owners had pondered a new clinic on the site for a decade. But the pressure of running a growing business, a serious neck injury for Howe that required surgery and recuperation, and raising two daughters by Howe and Hotaling, who are life as well as business partners, kept them from moving forward with their expansion plans.

After Howe and Hotaling were stunned by the sticker price on the original demolish-and-build-anew plans in 2010, Whole Builders put forward the more economical bid that incorporated Bethke and Heinen's idea to preserve the existing buildings and move forward and attach the smaller one at the rear. A small amount of additional space was added to seamlessly connect the two buildings in a way that makes the former disparate parts come together in a way that feels and functions as one new building.

The plan proved more economical, functional and "greener," Howe said, because it preserved the skeleton of the existing buildings.

"It allowed them to use their money in the most important ways," Heinen said. "We also let clients challenge the bid with their ideas and sometimes it can work."

The clinic sports new interior walls, insulation, windows, efficient heating and cooling systems, remodeled exam rooms and workstations, a new basement for storage under the moved building, and a warm reception area that visitors would never guess was once a gas station's double-stall garage. And the new space reflects the owners' interest in the Ely lakes region of northeastern Minnesota.

Howe and Hotaling included rocks they got from abandoned mine pits in northeastern Minnesota on the outside of the building and as facing for the reception desk that gives the clinic a rustic, Up North feel. The nearly 1-acre grounds were planted with native grasses and rain gardens and walking paths that accommodate roof-runoff water and draw praise from neighbors and city officials.

"We are proud that we were able to stay in business," Bethke said. "We are grateful for our clients, some of whom have hired us several times, and now their children.''