There isn’t an old mill or large empty building I drive by that doesn’t make me immediately think, “What a great conversion opportunity!” Most of these under-used buildings are well-suited for selfstorage and can be converted. Benefited by lower cost, swift up-fit and an abbreviated permitting process, they allow the savvy investor quick entry into his targeted self-storage market.
Using existing buildings to build a self-storage property offers many benefits over starting from the ground up. It often means lower building cost, a simplified building process, encouragement by local municipalities for re-use, and relatively lower up-fit costs. The cost of conversions can often be several dollars less per square foot than a ground-up project. Why? The fit-up costs of excavation, landscape, irrigation, foundation pour, electrical and HVAC are less. In most cases, construction enables speedier occupancy for owners and investors, allowing them a faster return on investment.
On average, conventional self-storage projects—particularly groundup facilities in highly populated urban environments—will take six months to a year and a half to reach occupancy-ready status. This is because zoning laws across the country are becoming more restrictive, complex and costly. Few things are more discouraging for would-be owners and investors than to spend months locating a potential site, and doing the proper demographic and feasibility research, only to be thwarted or delayed interminably by zoning officials.
Converting existing buildings can bypass many zoning headaches and time delays. For example, the structure and site work on conversions are virtually complete before the project even begins. Ultimately, the conversion project can be completed months ahead of conventional projects. Having this edge in a competitive market will often discourage competitors from entering your market area.
Deck Systems—Types and Tips
If you are fortunate enough to find an existing building to convert, the building process itself is much like that for new storage. One of the better scenarios is to find a free-spanning building with a clear ceiling height of more than 18 feet. This allows you to maximize the potential of the footprint by using a lightweight, structural deck system, creating a cost-effective way to add another floor within the structure.
Here, experience counts. Stick with manufacturers that specialize in self-storage and can supply light-gauge, sturdy, well-engineered systems that spread much of the structural load across large portions of the existing floor. This can save you some of the expense and hassle of re-engineering the existing structure.
By comparison, it will cost you several dollars per square foot less than the traditional-style, mezzanine, point-load system and will go up much faster. Industry experts will tell you an 18-foot clear-span or higher bay building with a footprint of 35,000 square feet can be converted to a complete facility with more than 55,000 square feet of rentable space.
When shopping for suppliers, one of the most important things to look for is a firm with specific experience in conversions and deck systems. If your goal is to maximize use and leverage the potential of the property, do your homework. Avoid firms that purchase steel components from one supplier, corridors and partitions from another, and doors from yet a third.
Purchasing directly from a manufacturer that supplies all of your components not only guarantees the components will all work together, it avoids placing the middle man on you balance sheet. This will save you money on product costs, allow you more flexibility in your design, and give you a more professional overall fit. It is also important to use a company with its own engineering and design department, one that can provide custom components specifically designed and pre-engineered to fit your building.
The Importance of Shipping
In your search for a conversion supplier, keep in mind special care should be used in shipping light-gauge, pre-painted steel. This is very important, yet commonly overlooked. Search for suppliers who ship, handle and preserve their own products before they arrive at your site. Using unfamiliar shipping companies may cause these prepainted products to be damaged before they get there.
Stick with a company that produces and ships its own products, and can carefully unload and stage all products on your site. Often, with outside trucking companies, products can be mismanaged or damaged during these processes. Unfortunately, damaged parts are virtually impossible for owners to recognize until it’s too late. Only when the erector starts digging through the pile of steel will damaged components be revealed.
All too often, the frustrated owner will use damaged parts, while trying to negotiate liability with the trucking company. Another alternative—and equally unsatisfactory—is attempting to return defective materials, which causes significant and unnecessary delays. This is why your supplier’s level of service should include transporting your product safely to your site.
Owners want to protect and enhance their investments for years to come, so they expect accountability from their suppliers. That’s why it is important to avoid firms that outsource design, engineering and installation. It has been my experience that these firms realize a high degree of turnover with their subcontractors, which can be problematic for an owner. If you use a manufacturer that subcontracts an erection crew, make sure the crew has the proper training and is certified. Nothing is more disheartening than to spend money on a high-quality product that you expect to last for decades, only to have that investment squandered by faulty installation.
Finally, look for a conversion company with experience in the business and a good track record. Find a company with at least a five-year warranty on construction labor. This says everything about the integrity of the firm and its willingness to stand behind your conversion. You want to ensure someone will be available to quickly and professionally respond to labor and material issues that may arise during the life of the project. After all, this will reflect directly on you as a provider of the self-storage product.
In the final analysis, conversions are an attractive and viable alternative to conventional, ground-up projects. The secret to successful conversions is understanding and following an intelligent process. Is the building in the right location for self-storage? What is the condition of the building? Will it suit your needs? Can floors be added? Can you find a reliable, single-source manufacturer that takes responsibility for all phases of the project? These are all questions that, properly answered, will ensure your conversion project is a success.
Kurt Conlon is a sales representative for BETCO Inc., a single-source manufacturer of self-storage buildings. Based in Statesville, N.C., BETCO provides knowledgeable field consultants, engineering and design services from inception through building erection. For more information, call 800.654.7813; visit www.betcoinc.com.