In 1985, Mid-City Storage was simply an abandoned shoe factory in Cincinnati. By the end of the following year, this complex of approximately 140,000 square feet had been converted into artists’ studios and workshops, bulk storage, records storage and, more important, self-storage units. Inside the buildings were sprinkler systems, elevators and boilers. There was also a substantial amount of existing plumbing, electrical and wall systems that needed renovation, removal or replacement to convert the vacant space into a multipurpose self-storage destination.
Self-storage developer and visionary R.A. Hermes and his team had to rely on their experience in design and construction to plan the conversion. At that time, selfstorage was only a concept to many, and resources were few and far between. There were no pre-engineered partition systems, only a handful of feasibility “experts,” and many financers had the opinion that self-storage was speculative real estate. It took a little imagination and a lot of perseverance to overcome the challenges of a conversion. This article outlines some of the most important considerations for a conversion project.
A Sure Foundation
When undertaking a conversion, the primary focus should be on the overall structure of the building. You must have a sure foundation, including floors. Ideally, floor-load capacity needs to be 125 pounds per cubic foot; however, in one instance, we were able to overcome the building department’s objections to converting a second-floor space where the floor load was only 85 pounds.
After thorough research, we discovered the loading capacity of moving trucks and shipping containers designed to move household goods do not exceed 10 pounds per square foot. The storage units were limited to 8 feet in height, meaning a total of 80 pounds per cubic foot. In addition, 20 percent to 25 percent of the floor area was hallway space and common area that is normally unused. It made sense to us that if the prospective tenants couldn’t get their belongings on the road in a moving truck, they wouldn’t be able to bring their goods into the building.
The building department was likewise convinced. With the condition we hang signs that read “85 Pounds Per Square Foot, Household-Goods Storage Only,” they granted our building permit.
A Sound Roof
The cost of roof repair or replacement can be the largest unexpected cost of a conversion project. Whether the roof is built-up or rubber, if it’s close to 20 years old, you’ll want to consider complete replacement. Roof leaks can be extremely detrimental to a self-storage operation. It usually isn’t a matter of if your roof will leak, it’s a matter of when. In a conversion, the roof is usually higher than the tops of the storage units, so you know immediately when you have a leak. Your tenants know as well, and even if no damage is caused to goods, it causes tenants to re-evaluate their need to store at your facility when they see water in buckets or hallways.
The most common replacement options for a flat commercial/industrial roof are EPDM rubber or another type of single-ply system. Another option gaining popularity is to replace the current roof with a metal- Galvalume one. The Galvalume process is similar to galvanizing, which is a zinc coating; but Galvalume is 80 percent zinc and 20 percent aluminum, thus having a superior rust-protection coating. A Galvalume roof can last up to 50 years.
What option is best for you? Determine the cost over the life of the roof. Add the cost of the repair or replacement to the cost of financing the work. Divide that number by the life (in years) of the option. Also consider the following: If the roof can be seen, will it improve the look of the facility? How will the new roof affect the resale price? How much is peace of mind, tenant longevity and good will worth?
A Good Layout
Next, consider the overall layout of the building(s). What about customers? How will they access the building? When will they require access? Where will they load or unload their belongings? What sections of the building will be climate-controlled? How do you monitor access? Try to keep units no farther than 100 feet from the nearest point of entrance. Larger units should be kept closest to the entrance of the building.
When working with an older building, handicap access may have to be installed. If you have an existing dock area, consider installing a ramp next to the dock to provide the handicap access. Handicap ramps are not allowed to be more than a 1-in-10 slope. Most loading docks allow for a tractor-trailer length. By doubling-back the ramp, you can use one dock area as the handicap access ramp.
When creating the rental office and choosing your security systems, keep in mind more than 60 percent of self-storage shoppers are women. Even though you may have taken an old warehouse building and turned the space into self-storage units, it shouldn’t feel like a maze of units in a big old warehouse. Use white or battleship gray and paint everything, including the ceilings of the existing building.
To hide an unsightly ceiling, paint it black. To make this more effective, extend the black paint down the walls 1 to 3 feet. A final touch is to paint a bright band around the bottom of the black paint. This creates an illusion that prevents a person from looking up past the wall to the area above the bright band. Thus, the average eye does not notice the ceiling. Another option is to highlight the exposed ductwork, sprinkler system, conduit, etc., by painting bright colors to create a designer look. Be aware this option is a little tricky and more difficult to pull off.
A third option is to install a suspended ceiling. Be sure the suspended- ceiling system does not interfere with the sprinkler system. In some cases, you can facilitate “drop out” panels in your suspended system. If building code allows it, these panels can be installed below the sprinkler heads. In the case of fire or sprinkler- head activation, the ceiling panels drop out of the ceiling grid. Egg-crate panels are another option below sprinkler heads. These consist of open squares, available in different colors. They create a nice effect for high-profile areas and rental offices.
It can make sense to facilitate the existing heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system to provide climate-controlled storage. However, the existing system may not have the most desirable control system. We’ve seen some heating systems that run continuously from the time the system is turned on in the fall to being shut off in the spring. It can be as easy as having a thermostat installed to turn the system on and off as necessary; however, more elaborate systems are available. Depending on the system, this can pay for itself in as little as one day of operation.
If your building only has a boiler system or space heaters and you want to add air-conditioning, a rack system is an effective option. A rack system consists of A/C units (and heaters if needed) and a high-powered blower unit mounted above the storage units. The air-conditioning units run as needed to maintain the desired temperature while the blowers run constantly, continuously circulating the air. This eliminates the need for ducts, maintains a consistent temperature throughout the space, and helps prevent mildewing of tenants’ goods. A rack system is effective for heating and cooling in a new climate-controlled facility as well.
If maintaining heat in the building is not cost-effective, consider converting wet sprinkler systems to dry ones. Dry systems need routine drainage of the low-point valves to alleviate any condensation that may build in the lines. Wet systems only require the building temperature does not fall below freezing.
Intercoms, sound systems, video surveillance and electronic access create a more inviting presence. Remember your clients will be unloading goods, moving through the building and into their unit. It should be easy for them to find their spaces. Try to make the hallways line up as in a grocery store. Use automatic sliding doors for convenience. Post directional signage. When numbering the units, use the first and last number of the hallway units as indicators.
We’ve noticed many buildings shut down when the rental office does. This means if your rental office is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., your customers have to access during those same hours. These times may not be convenient for tenants who work during the day. One option is to extend the rental-office hours. Access to the building must be secure and monitored, but convenient for tenants. Some doors may be set to open during office hours, but require a code or key faub.
Finally, another ingredient essential to your conversion success is to have reasonable expectations. Conversion facilities are not the same as conventional self-storage facilities. Because the units are not subject to the weather and rain doesn’t wash the doors off, dust builds up. Allow enough time to keep the facility looking neat and clean. Also allow for maintenance contracts on the building systems, i.e., elevators, sprinklers and HVAC systems. Realize your costs will be higher than those at a conventional facility.
A Little Luck
Converting a vacant building that no longer fulfills its need to a useful self-storage operation is a noble concept. Self-storage is a need-driven product. Communities need self-storage for their residents. In the past, conversions have been successful in densely populated and major metropolitan areas where available land for a conventional facility is either cost-prohibitive or not available. However, many suburban communities are facing changes in zoning or retailers. Likewise, many department stores have consolidated stores or abandoned smaller stores for larger “big-box” operations.
In these markets, many opportunities exist for future self-storage development in an existing vacant building. With a little imagination, a sure foundation, a sound roof, a good layout, a comfortable environment, convenient access, reasonable expectations and a little luck, you may find your diamond in the rough.
Erik Hermes began developing self-storage facilities in 1980 with his father, R.A. Hermes, and is president of Hermes Construction Co., a design/build firm specializing in self-storage, conversions and multistory construction. For more information, call 859.781.7198; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melissa Hermes is co-founder and president of the Ohio Storage Owner’s Society and Kentucky Self Storage Organization. She is also president of Manager On-Call, a national call center devoted to providing professional answering services to the self-storage industry. For more information, call 866.271.0066; e-mail email@example.com.