By Kenneth Carrell
The old real-estate adage "location, location, location" remains especially true when it comes to self-storage. With the costs of buildings fairly standardized, it's the cost of the land that can make or break a project. And the ability to squeeze one more square foot out of a piece of land can make all the difference in whether a project will "pencil out" or fall by the wayside; so design becomes extremely important in maximizing the use of the site.
The design team for your project should be brought in as soon as possible, sometimes before you even start looking for properties. The design team can sometimes see problems or advantages without ever having to put pencil to paper. But even if you don't have a design team ready to go, are trying to decide on someone to do your project, or feel you don't need a design professional to help you get every last square foot from a property, there are still some general guidelines you can look at to help you decide on a piece of property.
While the following list hits some of the important ideas to keep in mind when looking for a property, it should not be considered a complete list by any means. Just as every individual is unique and special, so is every piece of property. Two properties side by side can still be very different when it comes to design considerations.
The first and most significant design consideration of a project is the topography of the site. The single biggest cost of a project can be the grading. Even sites that appear to be flat will sometimes have a significant amount of grading to do. And while hillside locations will obviously require more grading than flat areas, each type of project has its own special advantages. While the cost for a level piece of ground is probably going to be more, the grading will generally be less involved. While a hillside site will require more grading, you can sometimes use the site itself to allow access to upper floors of buildings rather than using a mechanical means of access.
The topography of the site can also be useful for advertising your project. Someone driving by your facility will see your project for months or years without ever needing to rent a space. But, if one day they do need to rent a storage unit, they'll know you're there. They're more likely to go to your facility since they know where you're located. The topography of a site can sometimes allow customers to see the doors of the storage spaces from the street, so people will know what you are without ever having to see a sign. On the other hand, sites with good street visibility sell for more money than the site that is tucked into the back corner.
The second and equally important design consideration is security for the facility, which can actually be assisted by the site topography. When you have a steep site, sometimes a low fence is all you need to keep someone out of the property. Flat sites might need to use the buildings or fences for security. One of the advantages of using the buildings for perimeter fencing instead of providing a separate fence is keeping your costs down. This also has the side benefit of maximizing the lot coverage in many instances, but other factors can sometimes force you to provide separate fencing.
Another factor to consider in site design is traffic, not only in getting to and from the site, but also on the site itself. Obviously, the biggest concern is to provide access from the street, especially to someone driving a rental truck. You want to get someone onto your site with the least amount of trouble. Where possible, you want to minimize the number of left turns to get onto your lot. When someone driving a 24- foot rental truck causes a 12 car pile-up in front of your property, your neighbors won't be real happy with you.
You also want to minimize the number of entrances to the facility. Ideally, one entrance to the site should work in most cases. This will allow for the manager and your security system to control vehicle traffic onto the site. This will allow for the maximum security possible while still allowing ease of use for your customers.
While visibility to passing traffic has some advantages, in many instances, it shouldn't be the major consideration in site selection. Although visibility from the street can help let people know that you're there, when someone starts looking for a place to store their possessions, they don't necessarily need to see your facility. Advertising can take the place of visibility in many instances. But that's not to say you shouldn't consider a location that has good visibility. When someone is looking for a storage space to rent, they will remember your facility and probably check you out first.
Buildings can be your best advertising as well. Someone driving by and seeing a lot of roll-up doors isn't going to confuse your facility with a McDonald's. And while some jurisdictions don't want roll-up doors visible from the street, you can always design the exterior of the buildings to enhance the feel of a storage facility. When you can't use the design of the building to help passing traffic figure out what type of a facility you are, that's when you take into account your signs. Some locations allow pole signs, while others won't allow them at all. Can you use the building walls for additional sign area? If the project backs up to a major road or highway, you want to get a sign on it.
The Powers That Be
The local jurisdiction involved in the project presents yet another design consideration. This is where everybody who's anybody gets their say in your project as well. Whether it's the state, county or city that controls the design of the site, government officials can have a more than significant impact on your site. The jurisdiction controls not only setbacks and zoning, but things like lot coverage and floor-area ratio. You could have an ideal site, but if it's not zoned for self-storage, you might be out of luck. This is also where your neighbors, nearby businesses and just about anybody else gets their say in your project.
The jurisdiction will also tell you where you can come onto the site, how many cars need to be able to stack in front of your gate and countless other little things regarded as important. While your project may be on a major street and the layout of the drive would work extremely well there, the jurisdiction may require you to change the layout to suit other needs and safety concerns.
The local planner may also tell you how they want the building to look or not look. While most jurisdictions allow you to do pretty much whatever you want within reasonable guidelines, some places do everything but draw the actual plans. Most jurisdictions require the buildings to present an attractive appearance to the street while structures hidden by buildings can be constructed out of just about anything. They will also tell what exterior materials are allowed and what materials aren't.
Drive Aisles and Spaces
The design for moving vehicles around the site can either maximize the use of the site or waste a lot of space. Flat sites only require minimum drive-aisle widths, and vehicles can pull up next to their space. But add in some up-and-down slopes and, all of a sudden, the situation changes. Slopes can't exceed certain percentages or trucks trying to drive up a hill are going to come sliding right back down--not good if it's your building at the bottom the truck runs into.
When laying out drive aisles, the typical widths can vary from 20 feet to as much as 40, with 25 feet being about average. Once you get the vehicles on your site and moving around, your customers need to be able to get into the spaces they just finished renting. Although it is possible to walk 300 or 400 feet to your storage space carrying boxes, you'll find that those spaces won't lease nearly as fast. Most of the time, you try to keep people from having to walk more than 100 feet or so to their space. Any more than that and it's too much work. They can go down the street to the other guy who has easy access and rent from him.
While it's rarely difficult to pick out a site to build your project on, it can be difficult picking out just the right site. And while the ideas presented here should not be considered an exhaustive list, keeping them in mind while picking out a site can save you a lot of grief down the line. Because, while the site you choose may be the least expensive part of your project, the wrong site could make it the most costly.
Ken Carrell is principal of Kenneth Carrell Architect, 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.