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Zen and the Art of Self-Storage

L. Bruce McCardle Comments
After a tongue-in-cheek title like that, how about a mammoth understatement? Construction is not an exact science. Neither is the semi-controlled chaos it creates. While some elements of building are neither controllable nor predictable, others are, and their outcome is often up to you.

A rabbi was once asked to answer the ancient Zen question: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” He responded, “Had you done a good job clapping with both hands, this wouldn’t be a question.” As in any business, there are sages and fools in our industry. Between tradeshows, seminars, magazine articles, associations, etc., there’s a lot of information out there—some good, some bad. Sometimes there’s more than you need or want to know. So how do you find the right place to start?

Before Thought

Every week, self-storage builders get calls from excited novices who say, “I’m ready to go! Let’s get started!” When asked for details about land, financing, concurrency, building size, etc., their response is, “I don’t know. But hurry up and get started!” Here’s where we can apply the Zen concept of “before thought,” otherwise known as “What in the world wasn’t I thinking?”

A metal-building manufacturer may not be the best initial point of contact. While he usually won’t mind visiting with you about storage and construction, a responsible vendor will refer you to an industry consultant for a feasibility study and pro forma. If land and financing are already in place, a good design-build general contractor with storage experience is the best starting point.

The next round of excited phone calls builders receive is from people who say, “Such a deal I got on this piece of property! It’s perfect for storage.” But they still need to answer some pertinent questions. Is the land properly zoned? Are there good access, egress, visibility and traffic count? What is the buildable area, taking into consideration setbacks, easements, wetlands, retention, etc.?

These are questions to be answered before you commit to buying a property. If you have a good premonition about a particular piece of land and the price is right, by all means, tie it up. However, always stipulate that a final agreement is contingent upon necessary details. Leave yourself a way out. This is where an experienced consultant can help provide answers before you buy.

Zen Masters (Catching Two Fish)

A good pro forma will tell you how many square feet of storage space you should build; and a thorough market study will reveal the type and size units that will provide the best return in your area. Now you’re ready for a site layout. Should you get in touch with the building manufacturer now? Not yet, Grasshopper.

Building a self-storage facility is a fulltime job. Before you begin, consider how much you will be involved and whether to hire professional support. Local subcontractors and suppliers can provide input on building design, but at some point you need a guru to pull it all together. An experienced design team will add cost to your project, but it will also add value. Experts can help you avoid unforeseen pitfalls and reveal timesaving shortcuts that reduce spending.

Some new builders boast about how they cut costs by not using an architect—at least at the beginning of the project. By the end of the endeavor, they’re complaining about how much all the problems cost them. It’s one of those tough Zen lessons: Sometimes we spend money while trying to save money.

There’s also an old Chinese proverb that says, “The man who tries to catch two fish at the same time usually catches neither.” When determining how much you will be involved with building construction, consider the time that will be taken away from your other businesses and ventures. Remember the last time you bought a piece of unassembled furniture to economize? Several hours into assembly, you wished you had help, or at least better instructions. Now imagine that on a much grander scale.

The Path

Actually building a project is the easy part. Getting to the point of readiness can be difficult. Even once you have your demographics, feasibility study, pro forma, financing, plans and specifications, you’re still not ready to build if you don’t have the right permits.

In some areas, the permitting process is very simple and takes only days or weeks. In others, it can be an arduous process, taking months or even more than a year. A design-build general contractor and local design professionals can help expedite the course, but you need to know how long it’s going to take and allow for that time in your schedule and financing.

One Master

You’re finally ready to build. At this point, a good general contractor will hold a preconstruction meeting with all of the subcontractors. During this gathering , a schedule—and more important, a hierarchy—will be established. You’ll make clear who is in charge and determine the role you will play. You’ll also create a plan for coordinating all the work.

It’s natural for subcontractors to feel their particular part of the project is more important than the others. Usually, one or two will try to take charge. If “one master” is not established beforehand, overzealous players can end up costing you money.

True Enlightenment

As with many life questions, we already know the answers. The key is having the discipline and focus to use this knowledge. Zen masters practice “mindful walking , mindful sitting, and mindful eating .” What this means is they are totally focused on the task at hand, dedicated to its successful completion. Be patient. Carefully plan and coordinate as much as possible before you build. I wish you great success at mindful building.

L. Bruce Mc Cardle is the eastern division manager for Mako Steel Inc., a supplier and installer of storage buildings from coast to coast. More than 80 percent of the company’s business comes from repeat customers or their referrals. Mr. McCardle enjoys working with first-time facility builders from design through grand opening. He has been involved in almost every aspect of the metal-building and construction industry for more than 20 years. Look for his presentation at the upcoming ISS expo in Miami. For more information, call 888.795.7594; e-mail ; visit . 

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