Construction Basics

Heath Mulkey Comments
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The basics of designing and building a self-storage facility are, in fact, real basic. They range from the inclusion of entrances for truck access to the rain ledge at the edge of the slabs; but there are numerous basic elements all facilities must possess.

Buildings are, at minimum, between 8 feet, 6 inches to 9 feet tall, unless they are climatized. Then they need to be at least 9 feet, 6 inches tall if not 10 feet. The extra height is needed for the heating and air conditioning, and electrical and lighting systems.

There are various types of building materials from which to choose. A combination of metal and brick, block or stucco (masonry) is usually preferred. Using metal for the framing is the most economical while masonry, for the outer walls, is the most expensive. Masonry is most frequently used on buildings that can be seen from the front of the complex. This creates curb appeal while maintaining the economic advantage of a building constructed mostly of metal.

A masonry look can often be achieved with alternative materials. For example, a new metal panel made with embossment on the exterior mimics a stucco appearance. It is more economical to install than traditional stucco and has a high insulation value.

The majority of metal framing is primed with red oxide. Sometimes owners prefer to upgrade to a galvanized finish, but unless the framing is subjected to elements such as high humidity or salt water, it is not necessary. The galvanized finish looks brighter than the red oxide. Since framing is visible when you are inside a storage building, some owners prefer the bright finish. But this is an owner's preference item and not necessarily something customers inquire about.

Standing-seam roofs are preferred over screw-down roofs in storage buildings, even though a direct screw-down roof is less expensive. Why? A screw-down roof is simply corrugated metal attached with screws to the framing of the building. These screws have rubber washers, and when the rubber deteriorates, the roof will leak. A standing-seam roof has a concealed clip under the panel that attaches it to the framing. The standing part of the seam is where the panel attaches to the clip. In the storage business, damage to tenants' goods occurs the moment a roof starts leaking, and there is high probability no one would catch a roof leak before items are ruined. This absence of a watchful eye mandates the standing-seam roof.

Hallways inside buildings are traditionally 5 feet wide. Hallway walls are kept 6 to 8 inches lower than the framing and roof in climatized buildings. This allows for air circulation. Air ductwork is generally trunked down the hallways, and proper sizing of the air-conditioning units is important. Oversizing the units makes them turn off too soon, which means they do not draw the humidity out of the air. Humidity control is just as much--if not more--the goal than temperature control.

Roll-up doors are often preferred over swing doors because they do not block a surveillance camera's view down a hallway. Roll-ups are out of the way when in use. All doors should be as wide as possible to allow for ease of moving items in and out. The wide door design also contributes to less damage to the facility in the long run.

At some newer facilities, security systems are taking the place of an onsite manager. A tenant's perception of security is very visual, so make sure customers can see camera video screens running. There is an extensive amount of underground wiring required for security systems, so be sure to plan ahead and get all the underground work in before paving starts.

Drive isles are generally 30 feet wide with end-of-building widths of 35 feet to allow for turning. Entry and exit considerations must allow for gate configurations. There should be parking outside the gated area for customers. The boundaries of the complex can be a fence or a building fortress perimeter.

Once slabs are poured, it is time to stabilize the drives. A base of crushed rock or stone allows all subcontractors to enter and work onsite without making a mess. The extra dollars spent on site stabilization will pay off in the long run. A site that is stabilized will finish quicker and cleaner.

As a general rule, lights and electricity are avoided in storage units; however, they may be necessary in large interior-accessed units. Survey the market and plan to provide these to an equal or greater degree than your competitors. Light switches, timers or motion sensors can control the hall lighting, with motion sensors being the highest priced, yet the most common. Have these type of decisions finalized ahead of time so the electrician can plan accordingly.

Phase the facility. Phasing makes changes in unit mix easy. It also allows an owner to build more or less climatized storage depending on the demand for it. Outside parking spaces are great in future expansion areas that have already been graded.

A rain ledge at the outer edge of the building slab is very important as it keeps rain out of the exterior storage units. It is nothing more than an 8- to 12-inch lowered area around the edge of the building slab in which the door and exterior building pier set. This area is typically 1.5 inches lower than the rest of the slab and can be easily created with a 2-by-8-inch to 2-by-12-inch piece of wood.

The Basic Construction Team

Building a self-storage facility is a team effort. The team should consist of an architect, civil engineer, contractor (which could be the owner), attorney and soil engineer.

An architect constructs the facility on paper, which is important because it is far easier and less expensive to change mistakes on paper than on site during construction. Hire an architect with industry experience because there are several design issues specific to self-storage, and an experienced architect will actually save you money.

A civil engineer will make the difference in so many ways. He will help squeeze the site for maximum rentable square feet, and will try to minimize grading, which can be very expensive. Because self-storage projects have an almost 100 percent impervious surface, he will also handle the water management in an economical fashion. It is not as important to hire an engineer with self-storage experience as it is to hire one who knows and works well with the local municipalities. He needs to be willing to listen to someone about storage-specific issues regarding the site and fight for the variances on setbacks, buffers and anything else that reduces the rentable square feet.

The contractor has to coordinate all the subcontractors. This is a task that sounds simple but is actually very time consuming. The owner can perform this duty himself, but he needs to be willing and able to dedicate the time. Time and money can easily be wasted if the team's contractor is not performing at a peak level.

An attorney is a necessary evil. When problems arise, it's important to have an expert problem  solver to handle them.

A soil engineer is last but not least on the list. He does everything from approving the site to be purchased to helping calculate how thick the building slabs will be. He can warn of huge mistakes and help the team construct an economically thriving facility.

Successfully constructing your self- storage facility is the goal. Best of luck to your team!

Heath Mulkey is the sales manager for Compass Building Systems of Powder Springs, Ga., which designs, engineers, supplies and erects self-storage buildings. He can be reached via e-mail at heath@compassbuildingsystems.com; call 800.243.8438; or visit www.compassbuildingsystems.com 

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