Situation Too Good to Pass Up

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All Seasons Self-Storage
Overcoming obstacles key to Boston-area conversion

By Tom Brecke


The former F.W. Dixon building had been vacant for nine years prior to its conversion to self-storage

When Anthony Miller saw the old F.W. Dixon manufacturing building in Woburn, Mass., he knew converting it to a self-storage complex was going to be a challenge.

Miller, owner of Hyland Commercial Building Concepts in Middletown, R.I., had built outdoor storage facilities for various clients in the past, but had never converted a building not designed for this sort of project. But, as fate would have it, Miller was already in the process of building a small self-storage facility for the owner of the F.W. Dixon building and was asked to do a bid on the job. As with most conversions of older buildings, Miller could really only cost out the new work, since it would be impossible to truly know what it would take until the site was torn apart and checked. Armed with some rough estimates and a loose preliminary budget, Miller's, design/build general contracting company was awarded the contract, taking on one of the more challenging projects of his career.

"This was presented to me, and I thought the owner was nuts," says Miller, in retrospect. "I approached it very tentatively at first."


Architect's rendering of converted facility.

Situation Too Good to Pass Up

Tentative or not, the location of the building--in the heart of an established neighborhood--was too good to pass up, so the building's owner gave Miller the green light to proceed with the conversion.

"It's right in the center of a residential area designated as a pre-existing, non-conforming building," explains Miller, adding that it was unlikely that Woburn city officials would have approved a plan to demolish the old warehouse for a new, ground-up self-storage facility. "There's no way if we had taken the building down that we'd ever get permission to build something like this. The only thing that got us the permit to put in a self-storage project was the fact that it was a pre-existing, non-conforming-use building anyway."

Miller says getting the permits needed for the project was tougher than he expected, beginning a somewhat arduous 14-month process that culminated earlier this year when the 24,000-square-foot, 300-unit All Seasons Self-Storage opened its doors.

"We didn't realize at first that the town planning board was going to be so difficult with us," he says, explaining that even small variations to the plans were scrutinized in great detail. "We made some modest changes from the initial footprint size and even that opened up a whole can of worms. There was a lot going on politically with the building in the town." Things such as the building's facade, security and landscaping were all worked over with a fine-toothed comb and mandated to the city's desires.

Getting Started

The 85-year-old building, with a 36,000-square-foot footprint, was originally framed with heavy timber in a post-and-beam style. It served many uses during its life, including a stint as a mushroom-growing warehouse. Most recently, it had been occupied by the F.W. Dixon Co., which built architectural models and processed other mill-work jobs at the site. Despite its disheveled appearance from being vacant for the past nine years, the structure was well-built and made an excellent base for a self-storage conversion.

"We started looking at things, and the building laid-out nicely. It had wide-open floors on both sides, good floor-to-ceiling clearance of 12 feet, and structurally, it was very sound," Miller says. "We went in and did some beam lifts and some other minor assurances, but the building was very well put together." Minor security upgrades included cable ties to give the building lateral stiffness and beam clips laged into the existing timber.

The Challenges

The first obstacle came in the form of major asbestos abatement on the outside of the building, but one of the more tricky problems in the conversion of the building was the revival of the old elevator shaft to modern-day standards.

"We completely re-fit the elevator shaft," says Miller. "It was an old freight lift that we had to strip and decommission. Then we had to bring the shaft to 1998 standards as far as firecoding. We had to design an elevator box and system that would meet the American with Disabilities Act regulations. Fitting that into the existing hoist-way was no small task."

What resulted was an elevator system new to everyone on the project, including the installer.

"Due to the configurations of the building, what we used was a cantilever-style elevator. It was a unique set-up--there aren't many like that one--it was even new to the installer," he says. But what resulted was a high-quality operation that fit the needs of the building perfectly. "It's a beautiful system," relates Miller. "It goes up and down very fast, it's extremely quiet and smooth, too." He lauds the efforts of Accurate Elevator and Canton Lifts as being extremely knowledgeable and competent, even with the new style of elevator used for the project.

"There was a lot of cooperation between the architect office and Canton going and checking and re-checking dimensions and shop drawings."

Another challenging aspect of the conversion was the erection of a new stairway inside the building. Through the years, the structure had sagged slowly, resulting in one end of the building--where the stairwell was being built--being 4 1/2 inches out of plumb from the peak of the roof to the foundation. Since there was no other place to put the stairs, Miller and his crew were forced to cut into the building and create beam pockets into the actual structure. "When you're hanging 50-foot steel beams, you have to hang them plumb," he says, adding that the trick was to not cut into any of the structural members that were existing in the building.

After the beams were hung, Miller said it took some creative work from carpenters and plasterers to make the inside of the building look plumb.

"They basically shimmed the wall on the inside from bottom to top and we plumbed-up the stair system from the outside wall." Miller says all the work is hidden behind sheet rock and plaster and looks very nice.

On the inside of the warehouse, all of the existing office space was removed as well as all the former hallways, which gave the project the ability to best utilize space for the 300 units. There are four floors, including a lower level in the form of a half-basement that is accessible from the ground level in the back through an overhead door. The rest of the facility is accessible through an office entrance or through a loading dock that goes directly into the elevator.

On the outside of the building, all of the existing windows were removed and walls redone using a fiber-mesh, cement-board product from Advantage Building Exteriors. With that, Miller could apply any epoxy-coated surface, such as exposed aggregate or what he explains as a "sandstone finish" that they used in areas both on the outside of the facility and also in the stairwell and office.

In Retrospect

They say hindsight is 20/20, and Miller would probably agree, but the final result, he says, made everyone involved extremely pleased. The budget was overshot somewhat and past its originally planned opening date, but he says most of that is due to the fact that much of the bid was guesswork until the actual walls were taken apart.

"A lot of stuff, even if I had done (a conversion) before, couldn't have been known with this building," explains Miller. "There was no way to know what these walls were like until we began ripping them apart and getting rid of the asbestos siding. All I could cost was the new work and it was difficult to imagine what we were going to go through to make it work."

But it did work and, in the end, was a successful project.

"We went through some interesting things," Miller recalls. "It didn't always go smoothly, but it went. When it's all said and done, the building came out real, real nice and the owner was happy with it."

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