The Next Level

Tyson Hermes and Erik Hermes Comments
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The Next LevelMultistory gives self-storage development a lift

By Tyson Hermes and Erik Hermes

The self-storage market has begun to saturate in many areas of the country. As a result, developers have found it necessary to put facilities on premium property. New developments on highly visible, easily accessible sites are able to contend with the competition by providing something many first- and second-generation facilities cannot: convenient, modern amenities. These do come with a catch, however: cost. Developers may ask themselves, “How do you justify a traditional self-storage development on a high-priced, 5-acre site?” The answer is simple: Don’t use 5 acres. Build up, and use less land.

The premium for multistory construction is only slightly more than that of traditional single-story facilities ($1 to $2 more per square foot, depending on the market and topography). The money spent on elevators, stairwells and sprinkler systems can be offset by less roofing, insulation, asphalt paving, storm-water systems, fencing and land. Amenities that appeal to tenants—such as automatic sliding-glass doors at entrances, motion-sensor light switches, rounded hallway corners, and digital video recording—can be added at relatively little cost. Finally, the high-profile look of a multistory facility is more appealing to many planning commissions. It has enabled developers to petition municipalities that have previously said they would “never” allow self-storage.

The success of a multistory facility doesn’t come easily. It starts with a good plan on a great site. There are code considerations, design necessities and increased responsibilities that come with multistory construction. There are also key criteria that should be met. Not all of them are critical, but the ideal site would meet as many as possible.

Site Selection

Easy access, dense local population and a lack of competition help make a facility a success. Some things to look for in a site are:

  • The site should see a traffic count of 15,000 cars or more per day.
  • The nearest competitor should be at least 3 miles away.
  • There should be higher than average household income within a 5-mile radius of the site.
  • There should be popular retail outlets such as Wal-Mart or McDonald’s within 1 mile of the site on the same street.

Code Requirements

Many important code-related questions can be answered quickly with the help of a construction manager familiar with the self-storage industry. Some things to ask are:

  • How high will the local municipality allow you to build? It is preferable to have at least 35 to 40 feet for three floors. Keep in mind, an elevator penthouse usually projects at least 4 feet above the roof.
  • How many floors are allowed? How many square feet are allowed per floor? This depends on state and local codes.
  • What about emergency travel distance? In the event of an emergency, an exit or stairwell must be available to all tenants and employees within 250 feet. Review the footprint of the building to see how many egress stairwells will be required.
  • What is the allowable square footage without a fire separation? State and local codes will only allow a certain amount of open area before requiring fire-separation walls.

Design Necessities

Once local authorities accept the site plan, it’s time to work out the design of the building. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Make the facility inviting and easy to use. The following items should be considered:

  • Unit Mix—This works the same as in any self-storage development; however, you want the larger units to be closer to the entrances (and dock, if applicable).
  • Exterior Access Units—Be sure to include these, as they are still a selling point for many customers.
  • Elevator Placement—On the first floor, the elevator will require a 10- by-10-foot shaft and a 10-by-10-foot equipment room.
  • Hallways—The layout should have no more than 150 feet maximum travel distance for customers from an entry point to their units, keeping in mind the distance to elevators for upper floors. Traditional facilities are able to attain 75 percent to 85 percent rentable space. In a multistory site, 65 percent to 70 percent is more common once you account for the rental office, hallways, elevators, stairwells and mechanical rooms.
  • Climate Control—The amount of heating and cooled space depends on the local climate. Generally, multistory sites require a higher percentage of climate-controlled space than traditional self-storage. However, a 100 percent climate-controlled facility will turn away some customers who don’t want to pay for it.
  • HVAC System—Split-system vs. rooftop-units, ducts vs. circulation fans, fresh air requirements and humidity control are considerations that can affect the floor-to-floor height.
  • Sprinkler System—The choices are wet or dry sprinkler systems. Both suppress fires with water. The wet system keeps water in the pipes at all times. The response in the event of a fire is almost immediate. The dry system maintains pressurized air in the pipes. In the event of a fire, water is released into pipes to the activated sprinkler heads. The initial response is delayed by about 15 to 30 seconds. The system selected depends on climate and percentage of heated storage space. Wet sprinklers are acceptable throughout the facility if it is in a climate that doesn’t freeze or is all heated. More than likely, a dry system will be necessary in the unheated areas to avoid frozen water in the pipes.
  • Office Size and Placement—This depends on personal preferences and the retail sales an office generates. The recent trend is to make the offices spacious, well-lit and inviting with nice finishes.
  • Gate Placement—Customers should be able to access the office without going through the gate. However, the gate should be situated so all who access exterior units must pass through it.
  • Windows—Large storefront-type windows facing the street are an excellent way of showing the public what is inside the building, plus they act as free advertising. Windows are a necessity inside the facility, especially at the end of hallways or near elevators, to alleviate the feeling of being in a maze.
  • Color-Coded Floors—Since the upper floors will likely have the same layout, consider using different colors on the unit doors for each floor. Customers tend to remember their door color more than their floor number.
  • Loading Areas—Dock access is convenient for some customers, but not a requirement for most. Providing carts for tenants will make elevator use more acceptable. Allow a staging area and wider hallways near the elevators for tenants moving items to the upper floors. Review the size of the entrance door and elevator door or any other “pinch points” to ensure whatever can fit through the entrance can also fit on the elevator and down the hallways.

Potential Drawbacks

Phasing. With traditional self-storage, the facility can be constructed one building at a time. This is called phasing. The ability to construct the facility in phases allows you to limit your investment and risk. The unit mix can also be adjusted to match the market as new buildings are completed. With multistory facilities, phasing is not possible, as the entire shell of the building must be completed on the first day of operation. Thus, more cash is required in the beginning for the additional working capital. In addition, the unit mix and layout should be planned very carefully because adjusting the units later can be costly.

Schedule. Drawing preparation, permit processing and construction time are longer with multistory building. Allow four to six months for drawing preparation and permits and eight to 10 months for construction. The schedule varies greatly depending on the municipality’s familiarity with multistory selfstorage and the building system selected.

Manager’s Responsibilities. Multistory buildings are more complex than traditional self-storage and, therefore, add greater responsibility to the manager’s role. This includes checking wet and dry sprinkler systems, maintaining elevators, inspecting and maintaining smoke detectors in elevator shafts and ducts, maintaining hallways and stairwells, and securing the facility at the end of each day.

Operating Costs. Multistory buildings may experience higher operating costs, including utility costs (gas and electric). This depends on the amount of heating, cooling and lighting in the facility. Elevator maintenance, sprinkler maintenance and yearly inspections may also be higher.

Multistory self-storage is beginning to fill a niche that has not previously existed. With proper planning, a good manager and cooperation from local municipalities, multistory facilities can be built in communities and cities previously unwilling to allow self-storage. This is done by literally taking self-storage to the next level.

Tyson and Erik Hermes are brothers and owners of Hermes Construction Co. Since 1980, they’ve specialized in the design, development and construction of self-storage facilities. For more information, call 859.781.7198; e-mail thermes@hermesconstructionco.com; visit www.hermesconstructionco.com.

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