Self-Storage Development in Canada: Codes, Misconceptions and Climate Present Challenges

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By Steve Hajewski

Investors looking to build a new self-storage facility generally face similar questions no matter where they build: Is there sufficient unmet demand to warrant a new project? Will rental income provide a suitable return? Will the city allow me to build my structure where I want, and what special code requirements must be met?

That last element is typically where details become critical, especially for developers in Canada. Each province has its own codes, which are subject to the interpretation of local inspectors. So even under the same code, what may pass in one area may not be allowed 50 kilometers away.

Fire Code

One of the most stringent codes a Canadian developer can face is the fire code in Alberta. “In terms of building code, we find that we’re still dealing with what I refer to as code remnants from other building types, because our industry is relatively new and generally misunderstood,” explains Kim Sterling, owner of StoreSmart Self Storage in Red Deer, Alberta. “We also fly low on the radar, so it’s difficult to get the proper attention from the appropriate authorities to make the necessary changes.”

Case in point, the Alberta fire code requires a 45-minute separation between individual units, which can be achieved by dry-walling the interior of each and every unit, Sterling says. “If you read the code, parts of it read like the building code for an apartment building. The fact that we sometimes call ourselves or allow ourselves to be labeled as landlords probably doesn't help.”

The fundamental and significant difference, she points out, is self-storage operators do not have anyone living within their units. “These are low-occupancy buildings, in terms of person load, and the code needs to be re-jigged to reflect this important consideration,” she says.

There are other considerations relating to the non-combustible nature that typifies new steel construction and the end use of the building itself, which is for passive storage only and not a high-risk fire hazard. In addition, not every project in Alberta is required to meet the fire code the same way because implementation varies from one inspector to another. One developer in Calgary was allowed to forego the drywall fire separation by installing an electronic fire/heat monitoring system that could automatically call the fire department in case of a fire and even pinpoint the fire location within the building.

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