Building Codes

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By Cecile Blaine

Designing a self-storage facility requires an eye toward security, traffic flow, durability and making the most efficient and profitable use of the land available. Those considerations are added to other criteria determined in advance by the building codes, the site influences, owner requirements and design criteria. For that reason, designing a facility needs to be a slow, careful process with lots of reflection.

"One of the things that I keep emphasizing is that development is not something you jump into," says Herman Menze, owner of Menze Building in Tempe, Ariz., who has designed facilities for U-Haul, Pegasus and Central Self-Storage, among others.

A common mistake some builders are guilty of, says Dan Curtis, president of Doors and Building Components of Douglasville, Ga., is trying to re-invent the wheel. "A lot of people feel like they have to invent something, and actually there are plenty of good vendors in all phases of the business who can give people correct answers," says Curtis.

Building Codes

Before pencil ever hits paper or that CAD program is even warmed up, building codes need to be researched and studied thoroughly, because codes will dictate a number of criteria that affect the design of the facility. Some of those items include setbacks, water-retention methods, landscape, parking, fire-truck minimums, septic systems, easements and flood plains. Once those items mandated by the code are identified, then the facility can be designed with more certainty.

Maximum Coverage and Convenience

The design of a facility must take into consideration the size and shape of the land it will be built on, and it must utilize that land in the most efficient way, creating as much income as possible. In other words, it must maximize the building-to-land coverage, which many builders say is optimal at 38 percent--38 percent building to 62 percent land. The more expensive the land, the more efficient the design must be. At the same time, the design needs to be convenient for customers, because that's what sells units.

During the life of the self-storage industry, architects, designers and builders have vastly improved facility design, creating many industry standards. Nothing should be created, however, without a feasibility or market study of the area where the facility is planned. Only then can a designer know what the unit mix should be, what the security needs are and other elements of the market.

Layout/Traffic Flow

The shape of the parcel of land is probably the most important criteria in determining the layout of the facility. With few exceptions, a mini-storage building can be constructed on just about any piece of real estate, attests John Wilson, chief operating officer with American International Construction Inc. of Houston. "There's really nowhere you can't put one," he says. With the proper design and traffic flow, nothing is impossible, Wilson adds.

Clearly, one of the most popular configurations for a facility is the fortress layout, in which the outer walls of the buildings serve another purpose--that of a boundary for the facility. Not only is this layout thought to be safer, but it also helps make the best use of the land, as it eliminates the need for a fence around the outer portion of the facility, reduces the size of the footing and generally allows the builder to go beyond the height limit on the outer wall, says Menze.

Rows of units are often laid out parallel to the longest side of the parcel. If security is an issue--and where isn't it an issue--laying out the rows perpendicular to the office gives the manager a view of every unit just by walking one side of the property.

The larger the project, the more the layout will affect the flow of traffic. Most designers recommend one entrance and exit combination. While it creates more congestion than having a second exit, the security benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

In a one-story facility, larger units should be located toward the rear of the facility or at least toward the end of the sidewalls, says Mike Wimble, construction manager with Pioneer International Steel of Austin, Texas. "You want to keep the big traffic in the back of the project," he reminds. "You don't want to have U-Hauls backed up."

For the same reasons, driveways usually range from 20 feet to 35 feet wide, with the price of land often determining the width of the lanes. "For the most part, when somebody builds a skinny driveway, it's so they can get more square footage out of their property," notes Wimble. "Square footage is money, and money is the name of the game."

But Wilson says scrimping on the lane width to get a few more rentable square feet is one of the egregious flaws a property can have. "The worst thing is not to make the lanes wide enough," says Wilson. Facilities need an intersection of at least 25-by-30 for trucks and larger vehicles to get around easily, he maintains.

Building Design/Hallways

Great temptation awaits those developers designing hallways on a long, narrow piece of property to create very long rows--and hallways--without breaks. Menze suggests creating unbroken hallways no longer than 150 feet long. "I like to see an exit every 150 feet," he points out.

Others have more conservative criteria for hallways. Danny Clemons, president of American International Construction, likes to see units a maximum of 70 feet from an exit. Marking hallways with arrows, written directions or central focal points are other design elements that can help orient people and keep them from getting lost, he adds.

Cooled storage buildings are no longer a novelty, but a standard. When designing a new facility, most builders suggest incorporating climate control into 20 to 40 percent of the units. Those units should be located on interior hallways and upper floors of multistory buildings in units with swing doors, which have better seals to keep the air conditioning inside the unit.

Multistory facilities allow for a greater number of units and, therefore, revenue on a small or expensive piece of land. But buildings with more than one level also have different design criteria that apply. For example, any facility that is more than one story is required to have a lift or an elevator, according to the Americans With Disabilities code, and typically has more stringent fire-code requirements than a single-level facility.

Designing the Perfect Unit

Unit sizes should reflect the industry standards, which are divisible by five: 5-by-5, 5-by-10, 10-by-10, 10-by-15, 10-by-20, etc. In other words, there is no need to create odd-sized units, such as an 8-by-12, just to be different. Again, there's no need to re-invent what works well already.

In the unit design, builders must address one of the most common ways goods are damaged: flooding. Sloping the floors of the units or installing what is called a weather ledge helps get rid of moisture or water that builds up, according to Menze. "If I pour a floor flat and water spills in there, it can go over to the other unit," he says.

Steps, rather than slopes, are designed into pre-engineered buildings, according to Pioneer International Steel's Wimble. "An inch-and-a-half step will stop a ton of water from getting in," he says.

Separate But Equal

Moveable partition systems have become a popular design element in facilities over the years, because they enable a manager to change the unit mix with little effort. Galvanized systems, which are dark gray and show fingerprints and corrosion, have given way to Galvalume(r), a combination of zinc and aluminum. "It will not fingerprint and stain, and it'll stay bright and shiny for a long time," says Curtis.

Those opposed to the idea of moveable partition systems say it reflects more of a marketing problem than a unit-mix problem. "It is my opinion, after being in the business forever, that you should change your marketing, not your units," maintains Clemons. "I think you should do a good job in designing your facility to start with."

Security

Security systems need to be incorporated into the whole facility design at the very beginning in order to cut down on large, unplanned expenses down the road. For example, individual door alarms need to be included in the initial design before construction begins, as retrofitting a facility can be an expensive nightmare. And when they are installed, Curtis recommends placing them at the top of the door, which make it more difficult for them to be damaged in an accident or vandalized.

When installing a keypad for entry into the facility, the placement of it on the driveway should allow for three cars lined up bumper to bumper in the driveway. Otherwise, traffic problems arise. Also, the keypad needs to be close enough to the car so that it's convenient for the customer. "A lot of people put their keypads for entry into the gate where people have to get out of their cars to walk up and punch in their codes and get back in the car," says Clemons. "Well, if it is raining, snowing or really hot or really cold, it's very inconvenient for the customer."

Driveways and Parking Lots

Driveways and lanes need to be wide enough to accommodate customers' cars and trucks--especially fire trucks--but not so wide that customers are tempted to turn around and ultimately bang into the building, warns Curtis. "I believe in having narrow driveways and, if possible, making them one-way," he says. "So, if you have it a little narrower, they say, 'Well, it's not worth trying. I'll just drive down to the end, turn and get out of here.'" Twenty feet or 25 feet is fine, while 30 feet or 35 feet is too wide, he maintains.

Buildings that taper off at the ends also help create a wider turning radius for traffic to get through. For example, a building containing 10-by-10s could have two 5-by-10s at the end in order to round off the building and create an easier turn for vehicles. Menze says a good design should have a turning radius that is 28 feet wide on the inside of the turn, 48 feet on the outside, but 35-by-55 is better to ensure that fire trucks can get through.

Due to the many misconceptions about the self-storage industry, building codes often don't adequately reflect the low parking needs of a facility. "The parking lots will have way too many (spaces)," Curtis says of most designs. Self-storage is a "quiet, passive use of real estate. There are only eight people per every 100 units per day that will enter a self-storage facility." Building codes that dictate more than that should be challenged, he argues.

Menze has been a soldier in the war of the self-storage parking lot, as well. "It seems like every time I go into a new area I fight that battle," he says. "For a 50,000-square-foot facility, you only need five to six parking spaces."

Lighting

When talking about interior lighting, Menze believes variety is the key. "Too much light is just as bad as not enough," he says. Instead, he prefers to have one very bright light--what he calls prison lighting--and then lower watt lights around the rest of the facility.

Outside, the Tempe designer suggests focused rather than scattered light. "You want your lights to hug the ground and not shine over into the other people's property," he adds.

Roofing

Many older facilities were designed with built-up roofs, whereas today the standard is the standing seam roof. Menze has seen plenty of good wood truss and asphalt shingle roofs, but he is particularly opposed to built-up roofs. "Those built-up roofs cause a lot of problems, because they are good for a while and then they start to leak, then you patch them and work with them.," Menze pointed out.

With all the hoopla over the standing seam roof, Pioneer International Steel's Wimble says he doesn't see a lot of advantages in the standing seam over other types of metal roofs--especially the screw-down system or R-panel, as it is called. "Everybody has their opinions," he says. "I think both systems are very functional. A screw-down system is cheaper generally and just as functional, if installed correctly."

The Apartment/Office Equation

Self-storage facilities are increasingly being designed without managers' residences, as the face of the industry changes. Shurgard doesn't hire on-site managers, and U-Haul is moving in that direction. Therefore, they don't have to build manager residences at their facilities. "Twelve years ago, when we first started the company and we were building, just about every project had an apartment," says Clemons. "Today, probably one in 10 has an apartment." It's part of a trend among some management companies to hire younger, more marketing-oriented managers.

"You wouldn't want to live where you work, neither would anyone else," he adds.

When a residence is included in the facility design, it is usually attached to the office, either on the same floor or with an upstairs component. The jury is still out on whether the managers' residence should be attached to the office or not. The advantages of attaching it are straight forward: convenience, time savings, etc. Disadvantages include having the customer exposed to cooking fumes, grandchildren or other family matters.

DBCI's Curtis says separating it offers some other advantages, as well. "Usually, when it is separated, the (manager) isn't tempted to go in and sit down in the easy chair and watch TV," he says.

Less room for residences means more square footage and more money for the self-storage office and, according to Clemons, "It is getting bigger." Some of his clients spend between $50,000 to $100,000 on their office spaces, signaling a maturing of the industry in general, he says.

"This business has grown up," Clemons points out. "It's not a second-rate business anymore. It's a retail business. My customers are starting to see that and starting to design much better facilities--much more customer-oriented businesses."

Finally, the design phase of building a self-storage facility is the period in which all the pre-determined elements must be meshed with the optional design elements to create a facility that blends with the land, is convenient for the customer, reflects the needs of the market and meets the budget of the owner.

DO

Study the Building Code Carefully
Take Advantage of Examples of Existing Good Design
Maximize Building-to-Land Coverage (Without Jeopardizing Convenience)
Design One Entry/Exit Combination
Build in Phases
Locate Climate-Controlled Units on Interior Hallways with Swing Doors
Locate Larger Units Toward Ends of Buildings, Toward Back of Facility

DON'T

Use Wood Construction--Metal is Standard
Try to Re-invent the Wheel
Rush the Project
Scrimp on Lanes to Get More Square Footage
Create Odd-sized Units as a Marketing Gimmick
Overbuild Parking Lots

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