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The Art and Science of Self-Storage Layout: Building Positioning, Unit Mix and More

By Steve Hajewski Comments

Once you’ve found the right land parcel on which to build a self-storage facility, the next step is to create the ideal site layout and unit mix, which is both art and science. How wide should the buildings be, and how should they be positioned? What size units should you include? How wide should you make the drive aisles? Following are some factors to help determine what to build and how to build it.

Market Factors

First, consider the competition. Are there unit sizes that local storage facilities never seem to have available? Do they offer discounts on certain sizes? This might tell you which are in demand and which are hard to rent, which is a good starting point.

Next, consider area demographics. Homeowners rent less frequently, but when they do, they generally need bigger units. They’re also more likely to store large “toys” such as boats, cars and campers, especially if neighborhood covenants prohibit outdoor storage of these items at their homes. Suburban and rural self-storage sites that serve mostly homeowners can do well with 40-foot-wide buildings and larger unit sizes.

On the other hand, people who live in multi-family properties tend to move and require storage more often, but need smaller units. In high-density areas, 30-foot-wide storage buildings that provide more and smaller units make sense. You can even add units at the end of each building.

Melrose Mini Storage in Manchester, Md., was designed to fit an irregular parcel. Local regulations required the doors be hidden from view, so the site is well-screened by landscaping. The buildings were laid out with narrow, single-sided perimeter structures and a larger center building. Higher-income clients and those in urban areas are more likely to rent climate-controlled units. These buildings can be wider, with hallways for better property coverage. They’ll typically include few, if any, interior units larger than 10-by-20.

Finally, consider local land features. If your site is near a body of water or vacation/recreation area, vehicle storage may be a smart addition to your layout. Just be aware that even if boat- and RV-storage units are in demand, the lower rent per square foot and larger driveway requirements may not make it a worthwhile investment.

Building Sizes

Self-storage buildings are typically designed in five-foot increments. Start with a simple sketch. Rectangular structures will be the easiest to build and maintain, while jogs in buildings will increase the cost.

Once you’ve created some outlines, begin dividing the structures into 10-foot bays for standard-size units. To some extent, your building footprints will drive your unit sizes. For example, a 30-foot-wide building will most likely include 20-foot-deep units backed up against 10-foot-deep units, or 15-foot-deep units on each side, or some combination of both. Add smaller units to endwalls as desired. Look for opportunities to incorporate larger units where there’s room. These will be highly sought by boat and RV owners.

Narrow buildings with access on only one side (often 20 feet wide) are sometimes constructed along the edge of the property. These will cost more per square foot to build, but they can offset fencing costs. Wider, interior-access buildings can also be placed on the edge of a site, shifting potentially paved areas to rentable space. Pencil out a few financial projections to decide which layout makes sense for you.

The large units at Big Barn Storage in Evansville, Wis., (left), were feasible regardless of the need for extra-wide drive aisles due to the lower land cost. Because the buildings run east to west, a single-slope “lean-to” style was used to shed water to the south and prevent ice build-up against the doors.Traffic Flow

Design driveways to go all the way around your buildings to avoid dead ends. They can be a minimum of 20 feet for two-way traffic, but 23 to 28 feet is most common. While driveways are often closer to 20 feet in areas that don’t get snow, wider drives are preferred in regions that do, as we’ll discuss a bit later.

At the ends of buildings, 30 feet or more is typical to allow for vehicle turnaround. Your renters may drive trailers or trucks and are more likely to damage your buildings while backing up if faced with a dead end or too little room to maneuver.

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