By Michael Trunko
More and more often, self-storage owners are purchasing their buildings directly from a manufacturer’s authorized builder, eliminating the middlemen. Until recently, this approach was primarily used by experienced operators who wanted to expand their facility or build a new one.
Today, however, even first-timers are opting to go this route. HCI Steel Building Systems Inc., with its in-house engineering and manufacturing abilities, can listen to an owner’s concept and turn his idea into a reality. The company is capable of handling all the details of the construction process, from drawings through erection. Having all materials—structures, roofing systems, wall panels, etc.—designed, fabricated and delivered by one company offers many benefits. It not only saves money, but can also ensure a quicker and smoother project.
Worth Its Salt
“Most brokers and suppliers farm everything out to a number of different vendors,” says Gary Lundgren, owner of Alaska Mini-Storage. “When too many suppliers are involved, and levels of communication go from person to person and supplier to supplier, mistakes and delays can occur during the process.” Lundgren’s company, based in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, has been developing property and operating real estate in Alaska since 1963. He has been in the self-storage industry since 1978 and currently owns six facilities.
“Alaska has only about a six-month window for outside construction, roughly May through October, so you don’t have a lot of room to deal with delays,” Lundgren comments. “We didn’t start our Fairbanks project until July 2003, which meant we had about three months to get as much of the project completed as possible. We hoped to complete 90,000 of the 170,000 square foot facility before the severe cold weather hit.
“We knew that the total amount of square footage we could complete in such a short period of time relied heavily on the supplier’s capabilities,” Lundgren admits. “We couldn’t afford delays because of materials or missed deadlines. Therefore, we took great care in choosing a supplier for this project. Many factors were taken into account when we compared suppliers and proposals.”
Lundgren not only considered costs, but also the quality of the company’s workmanship, reliability and willingness to meet strict deadlines. In the end, it came down to two companies, but only one of them proposed to design and fabricate everything internally in its own manufacturing plant.
“HCI’s team offered us a better production and delivery schedule at a better price than any of the competition,” states Lundgren. “We were already into the building season and, in their proposal, they committed to design the facility, fabricate the material and deliver everything on a fast-track basis. None of the other companies could compete in terms of time or price.”
Founded in Alaska in 1981 as a manufacturer of pre-engineered steel buildings and metal panels, HCI designs, engineers and fabricates the material for all of its customers’ buildings in house. In 1986, the company moved to Arlington, Wash., and, in 1996, built a new, 90,000-square-foot facility. Today, HCI is one of only 26 manufacturers in the United States to have the AISC-MB certification for quality of workmanship.
“Most self-storage owners have a vision of what they want when building a new facility or expanding an existing one,” says Lee McDaniel, vice president and general manager of HCI. “They usually know they want a certain unit mix of 5-by-5s, 10-by-10s, 10-by-20s, etc. Based on this, we prepare drawings, do the engineering and detail work, provide sealed drawings for building permits, fabricate the steel, and ship the material to their sites. We often assist owners in finding a qualified erector to put up the facility.”
The company’s buildings are typically based on 5-foot modules in width and length. They are available with single- or double-sloped roofs, may have inside corridor access, and can have single- or multiple stories and climate control.
“We buy steel directly from the mills. We do all of the manufacturing and engineering ourselves, and we ship the ready-to-assemble material to the job site,” says HCI President Joe Holden. “You don’t have extra layers of people and suppliers, which is where mistakes can be made. You also eliminate extra layers of markup. By doing everything in house, we are as competitive on the East Coast with a multistory, climate-controlled building as we are in our own state.”
Timing Is Everything
“HCI not only designed and fabricated all our material in house, it provided assistance in finding a qualified erector for the project,” Lundgren says. “Since we were getting the material on a fast-track basis, we needed an erector who could put up the buildings in-kind. It wouldn’t do us any good to have the material arrive on time, then have delays in putting it up.”
Lundgren hired Farrell Contractors, an authorized HCI builder based in Boise, Idaho. “I wasn’t too concerned about the short time frame for construction,” says company owner Hayden Farrell, who specializes in self-storage. “I knew my guys could complete the 90,000 square feet—as long as there were no delays in getting material and the weather held out. How much you can complete depends a lot on your supplier. With the Fairbanks project, HCI had everything bang on for us, and there were absolutely no holdups because of material.”
Farrell, originally from New Zealand, was impressed by the quality of HCI’s material and workmanship. He also appreciated the fact that practically no material was left over at the end of a job.
Toward the end of the project, Lundgren learned another benefit to working with a one-stop supplier: Last-minute changes did not pose any problems. He gave HCI preliminary design criteria, and the company’s engineers were able to turn them into drawings within a few days. The company then instantly began fabrication of the material. Less than one week later, the material was on its way to Alaska, and there was no delay in construction.
Ease of Erection
While Farrell and his crew were initially going to build only 90,000 square feet, the smoothness and punctuality of the project enabled them to build 136,000 square feet. In addition to timeliness, he says, “The material went together well, and it all lined up perfectly. These buildings are extremely easy to erect.”
HCI recently completed a 37,500-square-foot, three-story project in Sacramento, Calif. The crane time totaled only 26 hours, approximately one-third the usual time required for this type of project. The erector, who was very experienced, had budgeted 75 hours for the job. Needless to say, he was pleased.
“Our buildings go together quicker and smoother because we are accustomed to manufacturing buildings to very high tolerances,” says Holden. “Our first customers back in the early 1980s were the Army Corps of Engineers and oil companies in Alaska. They demanded a high level of quality and conformance to exact specifications. All the details and connections are designed for ease of going together in the field.
“It’s important erectors not have to fight the parts as they go up. We can fabricate buildings up to 600 feet clear-span with 80-foot side walls. You don’t want to be fighting steel when you are up there. You want the connections to go together very easily.”
Surpassing the Goal
Lundgren has an additional 34,000 square feet of buildings to erect at the Fairbanks project next year, with construction beginning in May 2005. “I look forward to it, because this was a great experience,” he says. “Everything went together perfectly. There were no hitches, no problems and no surprises. “Everybody makes promises in business, but not everybody can deliver,” Lundgren says. “This is a supplier and erector that delivers what it promises and in the time it promises. HCI not only met all the deadlines on the fast-track schedule, it actually exceeded them!” For more information, call 800.255.6768; visit www.hcisteel.com.
Michael Trunko is an Ohio-based writer specializing in construction and related topics. He can be reached at email@example.com.