Layout and Design

Layout and Design
Maximizing use of your self-storage site

By Ken Carrell

Anyone can build a building, but how well that building comes out is another story. The design of the facility can make or break a self-storage project. With the cost of land constantly rising, maximizing the amount of building you can get on your site may make all the difference. The facility design becomes extremely important to this end.

Choose a Style

In designing the layout of the typical self-storage facility, there are two distinct styles. The first style surrounds the property with a fence and has the storage buildings in the middle of the site. While this layout is very common in older facilities, it is still used on smaller sites where you don't have a lot of area to work with. One of the distinct advantages of this design is it allows for the maximum number of drive-up spaces for the buildings.

The second style, which is much more common, uses a perimeter building that also serves as the security fence for the facility. This is known as a "fortress" style. A definite advantage to this layout is it maximizes the site coverage of the lot. This layout is generally used except where setbacks from the property line would create a significant loss of building area.

Office Space

The next important consideration of the design of a storage facility is the manager's office. This is where your customer gets his first look at your facility. He wants to feel his "stuff" is safe, and the office can give him the impression it will be. If your customer sees security monitors, cameras, etc., when he walks in the door, he feels his property is going to be well cared for. But the office is also your selling place, and layout becomes important for this reason as well. Packing materials and other retail goods for sale should be displayed so they are easy to reach and view.


Your customers need to be able to get to the office, so parking is an important consideration. Even still, it is probably one of the most misunderstood parts of site design. Although a typical parking space is 9 feet wide by 18 feet deep, you also lose the backup space needed to get a car in and out of the space. A typical parking space takes anywhere from 300 to 400 square feet of area that is better used for your buildings. While planning and zoning boards always want to see a lot of parking incorporated into a site, the truth is, it rarely gets used because customers tend to park in front of their units. The Self Storage Association has information on the amount of parking required for various size facilities. While this provides a more realistic idea of the amount of parking required for a project, it takes convincing of the planning department to allow it. If you can convince the planner you don't need that much parking, you can put that space back into your storage buildings.


Once they've rented a unit or two from you, customers need access to move in. The typical stacking distance at the entry gate should be approximately 40 feet. You can get away with less than that, but if you have the space, it's always better to provide it. This allows for the truck to pull in off of the street and operate the gate keypad without blocking traffic. And access to keypads requires some thought. You want the driver to access the keypad without having to get out of his vehicle. But since the driver sits on the left side of the truck, he typically has to pull in on the left side of the driveway in order to operate the keypad. This creates some interesting situations for traffic control.

Multistory Sites

The design of your self-storage site incorporates several different building decisions. Should the buildings be single-story, two-story or multistory? How wide and long should they be? In two-story buildings, should you use elevators or lifts, or make them drive-up? Are you able to provide secure, 24-hour access to the buildings?

Single-story buildings are the least expensive to build. If your land cost is low and you have a large enough parcel, plan on going with one story. The more expensive the land becomes, though, the more incentive you have to go upward. The cost of the structure goes up with each floor added. Up to a maximum of three floors, you can use an inexpensive form of construction for the typical building. Once you go beyond three floors, you must use costlier forms. To determine how many floors to build, you need to look at not only the cost of the land and construction, but whether you'll be able to fill up the space once it's built.

If you decide to build two stories, you have other options to consider. Do you use elevators or lifts, or use a drive-up type of building? Elevators cost more than lifts, but provide your customers a better sense of comfort. If you go with a drive-up second floor, you need to have room available for the ramps required at each end of the building. With buildings above three stories, you will need to have elevators. The design of the building can determine just how many elevators will be required.

Buildings should generally be no wider than 60 feet. This allows drive-up access from both sides and one or two interior corridors, which will maximize the building efficiency. Likewise, the length of the building should be around 300 feet. This allows corridor lengths that won't exceed 150 feet, the design standard a customer will be willing to walk to get to his unit. This isn't to say you can't or shouldn't make the building larger or smaller than what has been discussed here.

To Use or Not Use an Architect

A lot of facility owners ask why they should use an architect to design their facilities. Often, steel-building manufacturers provide the design for the owner when there is nothing special about the site. They have staff dedicated to the design of facilities for their customers. These designs are useful, but are not always laid out for efficient use of the site. When the site is small, unusual in shape, steeply sloped, etc., it is useful to bring in an architect. Because architects specialize in the design of buildings, they focus on how to make the facility work. They also know how to design the facility to accommodate the various codes and ordinances every city seems to keep adding. For this reason, it is to your advantage to find an architect who specializes in the design of storage facilities.

As you can see, the design and layout of a site involves consideration of many factors. Although there is no one perfect layout for a site, the ideas presented here make a good starting point. The ultimate goal in any design for a storage facility is to get the customers in and keep them. Making your project user-friendly is a good step in the right direction.

Ken Carrell is principal of KC Architects, based in Aliso Viejo, Calif. His firm specializes in self-storage as well as other types of commercial architecture, and is licensed in several states. For more information, call 949.716.0114.

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