The Big Picture

The Big Picture

Issues in Construction

By Jim Killoran

When it comes to self-storage development, there are three design possibilities to consider: the conventional single-story facility, a multi-story project or a conversion. The determining factor of whether to build up or stay on one level will be the cost of the land. In areas where land costs are high, you'll likely favor a multi-story facility in order to have enough net rentable square feet to make the project economically successful.

Another consideration for multi-story is the topography of your proposed site. Perhaps you can situate buildings in such a fashion that the second story is accessible without the need for stairs or lifts. This concept is much the same as that of a house with a daylight basement.

Be sure to consider your future business goals. A single story may be the obvious choice today, but how about 10 or 15 years from now? There are many facility owners around the country who wish they would have prepared their single-story buildings for a future second story. If the amount of available land that your proposed project will initially control--or can feasibly control in the future--is finite, give thought to how your surrounding area will look in the years ahead. Would building up make sense in the future? If so, plan for it now.

Even if your current proposal does not include using all the land that you have available right away, draw up a master plan that makes use of the entire parcel. As opposed to "phasing," which infers a definite plan to expand in the near future, the idea here is to take the long view, look way ahead, and give thought to some long-term "what if" scenarios: What if you were to build out in the future? How would it look? What should you do now to provide for future construction?

Granted, you may be only guessing, but it will be an educated guess. The important point is to look at the big picture and plan now to assure that you will be able to maximize your rentable square feet. Every square foot means income, and it would be foolish to paint yourself into a corner early on and limit your future earning potential.

This exercise can save you time, trouble and money in future construction. For example, if you plan now to lay some conduit for security devices--such as individual door alarms--you'll save yourself money and the headache of having to tear things apart later on.

Of course, you can't foresee everything in the future, so don't beat yourself up trying to plan everything perfectly. Just give it sufficient thought, and do what makes sense now.

Management Considerations

Odds are you will be providing living quarters as well as an office in your initial construction plans, or you will be adding these features in the near future. Therefore, some thought needs to be given to these amenities.

The Apartment. Typically, apartments for managers fall into two categories: those with a ground-floor apartment attached to the facility office, and those with a second-floor apartment over the office.

Either way, the apartment needs to be separated--by more than a door--from the area where business is conducted. It often makes sense to put the apartment above the office, with no inside connection to the office, allowing for more rentable space on the ground floor. Plus, if designed properly, the second-floor arrangement can provide the manager with good visibility of the facility's grounds.

If at all possible, build a two-bedroom apartment. Even for a one or two-person management team, one bedroom is not adequate. A two-bedroom apartment, however, allows much more flexibility. Remember, just because your managers live on the premises, they are not on duty 24 hours a day.

The Office. In planning your office space, give consideration to how it will be used. What ancillary products and services are you planning to offer now and in the future? Will you need additional work areas to accommodate those activities? Will you need display areas, shelving or racks for these products? Allow adequate space for your intended activities, and then give yourself some room to grow.

Some offices even include a separate "closing room," where a manager can take a customer to complete paperwork without interruption. This may be practical only in very large facilities where there is constant office commotion.

Curb Appeal

How will your facility impress passersby? Will it conform to its surroundings, yet distinguish itself as a self-storage facility, or will it stand in stark contrast with the rest of the neighborhood, void of landscaping, displaying only concrete, steel and asphalt?

Many jurisdictions will require that your development plans include landscaping and other design work that relate only to the aesthetics of the project. This is not necessarily bad, as every facility benefits by an adequate dose of curb appeal. It can definitely get complicated, however, if the demands made by the permitting authorities are such that your project no longer makes economic sense.

Aesthetically speaking, the industry has undergone a quantum leap since the early days of land-banking and some of the tacky projects that resulted. Today's self-storage customers expect more and will pay for more, so plan your project accordingly.

Material Considerations

The choices of material are several: steel, concrete tilt-up, concrete block, masonry, wood or a combination of these materials.

There are only a few locations in the country where wood can even begin to compete with the cost of these other materials, and while wood has its own desirable qualities, it also has a very undesirable quality: It burns. While there are a number of successful projects built of wood, it's certainly not the trend.

Steel is, by far, the most common material used for self-storage construction. When you combine the cost of materials and delivery to the site, as well as labor costs for erection, steel is typically the most cost effective, and today's sophisticated builders can offer a wide variety of style options. Plus, fires are usually contained within the unit if the building is constructed of steel.

Concrete tilt-up and block or masonry can be priced competitively in some parts of the country, and this material is generally thought of as the most secure and impenetrable of the construction material options. Again, fire damage is minimal. It is a bit more difficult to dress up concrete to achieve an aesthetically pleasing facility, but it can be done. One drawback: It is easier to replace steel components than to repair busted concrete block, as in the case of a car or truck damage.

Local building and fire codes dictate the final choices of materials, but consider the following option: Use concrete on the property-line walls of your perimeter buildings. Consider using a texture-faced block or masonry on those walls or building ends that face the front of your project; this will give a secure appearance as well as add character to the overall design. Then, use steel for the remainder of the project.


The goal is to maximize rentable square feet. Consider that an average overall rental rate is 50 cents per square foot a month, or $6 per year. If a well-thought-out layout yields 5,000 additional rentable square feet--which is very possible--you will have increased your income potential by $30,000 per year.

Layout involves numerous factors: required setback or greenbelts, width requirements for fire lanes, topographical challenges and, of course, zoning regulations. All of these make each site unique and make layout design a challenge.

The most common layout is the "circle of wagons" concept, in which the perimeter is lined with the backside of buildings and maximizes security. With a few exceptions, all ingress and egress to and from the facility should be funneled past the office through a controlled-access gate. The general rule of thumb approach to layout tells us to run buildings parallel with the longest dimension of the property. Typically, this yields the most square feet of usage.

When it comes to layout and design, it's in your best interest to consult with industry professionals that have a past record of success. Numerous companies provide building components to the self-storage industry, and many of them have computer software specifically suited for design and layout. Don't hesitate to ask for their assistance. Many have been in the business for years and are very skilled, plus, they will gladly help you through the construction phase of your facility.

Jim Killoran is the owner of LeManx Information Products, a company based in Shelton, Wash., specializing in providing information to the self-storage industry. He is the author of Self Storage Success and Self Storage Startup. In addition, he has been in the self-storage business for 15 years and is co-owner of Freeway Mini Storage in Shelton, Wash. For more information, call (800) 764-1909, or write to LeManx Information Products, P.O. Box 542, Shelton, WA 98584-0542.

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