By Christopher Nason and Chris Elam
When the Arcland Group set out in late 2008 to develop a new self-storage facility on a parcel of land in Ranson, W.V., the deck was stacked against them. Just north of downtown Ranson, the proposed site faced the main street of a quaint country town with historic masonry structures. The typical utilitarian self-storage facility would have appeared out of character with community architectural standards.
In addition, the back of the site sloped precipitously away from the street in such a dramatic fashion it seemed unlikely any building would work on the lot. And unbeknownst to the architect and client, the recession was just around the corner, presenting unforeseen financial hurdles to the viability of the project. Thoughtful planning and a flexible architectural design turned the obstacles into opportunities, ensuring Ranson Self-Storage’s success.
Meeting Design Challenges
The first challenge to overcome was the steep site, which informed all future design decisions. The response to this challenge was a 10-foot-high retaining wall at the front of the site that allowed building to appear as one story from the main street but have a second level below the grade, opening at the rear of the structure. The street facade incorporated architectural upgrades such as split-face concrete block, decorative awnings and a generous amount of storefront glazing.
To construct such a design, the architect and structural engineer designed a stepped-foundation retaining wall of cast-in-place concrete. The harsh look of the wall was tempered at the side by stamping brick patterns onto the surface. Through careful planning, the security gates were shielded from the street while still maintaining a vehicular access point from the main thoroughfare. As a result, the front office building could be designed in character with the town, and the back buildings could be economical metal structures, appeasing community members and the storage owner.
Typical metal wall panels were still used on the office building to save cost at the side and back, but were designed into the façade to appear seamless to the overall aesthetic. In such a way, potential liabilities like a sloping site and architectural sensitivities became assets to the project.
The second major challenge to the viability of the project came after construction. Because of the flexibility of the design and a responsive management team, the business model was able to evolve as market conditions shifted. Originally, the project was planned as a two-phase mixed-use development with storefront glazing to accommodate retail tenants in the main street building. It was hoped potential business tenants might want to be located on the busy street next to the self-storage offices.
However, as the economy turned, the possibility of rental tenants dried up, and the spaces were converted into sought-after air-conditioned storage units with show doors facing the street. The lost rental income was offset by higher-dollar storage options.
Often the best design is one that leaves room for adjustment on the ground conditions. The decision to build out a site in a couple of phases allowed the management team to delay implementation of the second phase and not overextend themselves in a down market. Thus, the problem of overbuilding and under renting was avoided.
Additionally, the second phase can adjust the unit mix based on the actual demand after the facility is in operation for a significant period of time. Financing future phases—a problem now—will likely be easier since the banks and lending institutions are more prone to lend money to a proven entity with a track record of success.
With all of the challenges confronted and conquered, Ranson Self-Storage is well-positioned to grow as the economy recovers.
Christopher Nason and Chris Elam are with the architectural firm GMF + Associates. For more than 25 years, GMF has been designing self-storage facilities along the eastern seaboard. The company specializes in multi-story self-storage, adaptive reuse of historic structures and challenging sites. For more information, call 757.498.9800; visit www.gmfplus.com.