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.
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 were 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 its 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.
Meeting Aesthetic Expectations
Developers often need to prove that a modern self-storage facility can be built as an attractive, positive contribution to the community. I find that self-storage has a bit of a bad reputation, although that is thankfully changing, Sterling says. On a recent project, her local authority advised her that the site needed to look like the Taj Mahal or it wouldnt be approved, despite the fact that warehousing was a permitted use within the zoning bylaw.
You can't fault the local authority, as they were just doing their very best to maintain a high development standard, Sterling says. We also knew what we wanted to build, and while it may not quite have been fabricated from marble and gold, we knew it was going to look really sharp when it was done.
Due to the local authorities' preconception of self-storage, it took a lot of communication to demonstrate and prove the development was worthy of the retail location, Sterling says. We got there eventually. The disparity between what local authorities think of self-storage facilities and the reality of these new third- and fourth-generation self-storage centers can be quite large, so extra communication is an absolutely essential ingredient when working on permitting.
StoreSmarts buildings feature stone-veneer wainscoting, which adds curb appeal. Buildings visible from the road have higher pitched roofs and dormers. Additionally, the office features an attractive and functional overhang. Eye-catching landscaping completes the welcoming overall look and feel of the site.
An additional consideration when building self-storage in Canada is how to deal with snow. Snow loads must be met, but its also important to plan for snow removal and storage. Orienting buildings to face north and south, avoiding north-facing doors, allows the sun to aid in melting snow and ice in drive aisles. Sites should be designed with an open area for piling plowed snow. Low-pitched roofs allow snow to melt slowly, rather than slide off into a pile in front of a unit. When low-pitched roofs are not an option, snow blocks can help.
Its important to work with your local inspectors to build a self-storage facility that fits your financial plans while meeting local codes. At times, that may mean tactfully educating them on building trends and techniques used elsewhere. Construction and development costs can vary greatly depending on how codes are interpreted, so be ready for anything.
Steve Hajewski is the marketing manager for Trachte Building Systems, a CSA A660-04-certified manufacturer of self-storage buildings with local builders throughout Canada, including French-speaking representation in Quebec. For more information, call 800.356.5824; e-mail [email protected]; visit www.trachte.com.