By Bruce Jordan
Design is a very subjective term, and when applied to the self-storage industry, it can involve aesthetics, function, construction materials, architectural forms and a sociopolitical dimension. We’re always looking for new ways to improve building performance while refining the look of new projects. We aim to incorporate innovative new materials as we gain a better understanding of customers and how they relate to and choose a storage business. Throw in climate, local politics and emerging products, and you have a variety of design options to shape the next generation of storage facilities, one that combines purpose with panache.
We’re seeing a trend toward larger facilities—not in all markets, but definitely in the major U.S. cities. In fact, there are several 200,000-square-foot facilities being designed right now. Just a few years ago, this was considered too large.
This trend is partially attributable to increased density in large cities, but it’s also a way for developers to stake their claim in a particular market and discourage competition in areas where new sites are scarce. While debt-servicing a partially vacant facility through lease-up adds cost to a project, the future availability of land (or lack thereof), its increased value and rises in construction costs also have their price. It remains to be seen if this trend will continue, but it’s something we’re seeing in many markets today.
Architectural Metal Panels
New construction materials are coming on the market all the time, giving developers and architects many fresh options for building design. Architectural metal panels are providing designers with many new cost-effective yet attractive choices. These include insulated and fire-rated panels, which were previously considered expensive for self-storage. While their cost is similar to that of stucco, these panels can be installed in less time. They even give builders nice-looking options for cold-weather installation.
Architectural metal panels come in many shapes, sizes, profiles, finishes and colors. Profiles can run horizontally or vertically and be attached with concealed fasteners. They can also run from curvilinear, ribbed, horizontal reveals. Finish options include baked enamel and corrugated or exposed metal.
Colors tend to vary by region and operator, but the trend is toward earth tones. Sedate colors as well as terra cotta, burnt orange and even a few purples can add some boldness and visual interest to a building. The use of color in self-storage design has always been a great way to brand facilities.
Since a customer’s initial impression often occurs at the self-storage facility’s entry and office, these areas play an important role in the overall design. Make no mistake—this is a retail business. As such, your office should reflect a retail design, showcasing your product while providing a bright, cheerful, organized and secure environment.
A great design element to use in the office is a large expanse of clear glass so the building is plainly visible from the fronting street and parking area. Landscaping can be designed to direct a customer’s attention to the office and enhance or soften the entryway. A customer should be able to see and clearly understand the entry sequence. This will also add a security element when the manager and tenant can see one another from the moment the customer parks. When each customer can clearly see the entry, office and manager, there’s a sense of safety and organization, which contributes to a positive experience.
There’s also a trend toward smaller, freestanding customer-service counters similar to those found in newer car-rental offices. This kiosk approach allows for a more open office, but the jury is still out on this style. A majority of developers still prefer a well-designed counter with a seating area for customers and a clear representation of the facility’s security measures displayed on screens. This approach is more functional, as it gives managers more file space and convenience while offering customers a friendly place to sit and engage with staff.
Set space for a robust retail store, but don’t block the manager’s view to the parking area and entry gate. Show units are another great way to display retail items if budget and space allow. They help customers visualize how much space they might need and keep managers in the office to interact with other tenants. A coffee and snack bar or an under-counter refrigerator for bottled water provides a nice touch in a well-designed office.
Loading Areas and Elevators
With the trend toward multi-story facilities increasing, loading-area design takes on greater importance. I’m a big fan of covered loading areas that offer protection from the elements. These spaces can be further enhanced by adding lighting and music, which can take the edge off a rather mundane experience.
If you have a three-story facility, the majority of your customers are using elevators to access their units, so elevator-loading space is a key design element. Bi-parting doors are a preferred style. I recommend an at least 10-by-10-foot open loading area on every floor for each elevator. If possible, add a window. Daylight is a helpful means to navigate back to the elevators on the return leg.
In newer facilities, the elevator cab should have a minimum height of nine feet to allow vertical clearance of taller items. A well-placed, well-lit “You are here” wall map in each elevator lobby serves customers well, and a two-way intercom provides convenience for customers and staff. Don’t forget to leave room for moving carts and hand trucks. Create space to store and keep these items organized, as it contributes to facility efficiency.
We’re seeing an increasing number of vacant buildings being converted to self-storage, including former grocery stores and office buildings. Conversions have their own challenges; however, if designed well, they can be very successful and provide a viable alternative to ground-up development.
The typical conversion involves the addition of a second or third floor. This means the building’s original foundation or slab on grade needs to be evaluated for its ability to take the increased load. If you’re evaluating a building for potential conversion, have a geotechnical engineer core the slab to determine its thickness and that of the reinforcing steel. In cases where thickness and reinforcement are at a minimum, it may be necessary to over pour the existing slab with two to three inches of new concrete. This provides a nice new floor but at a price.
A self-storage conversion usually involves a renovation of the building façade and the addition of one or more architectural tower elements for visual appeal and potential signage. Large buildings offer ample room for expansive signage, which allows the property to be seen from a distance.
The parameters for the loading area take on increased importance in a conversion since there are fewer exterior openings for roll-up doors. I recommend adding as many access and loading areas as conveniently possible to keep the travel distance to units at a minimum.
Self-storage facility design is evolving, and that’s a good thing! Ours industry is learning more every day about customer preferences and what good design contributes to a successful, efficient operation. Good design is timeless and contributes to a project’s success. Let’s take what we’ve learned thus far and start the next generation of state-of-the-art facilities.
Bruce Jordan is president of Jordan Architects Inc. He has more than 30 years of experience in architecture, preceded by an extensive background in construction and real estate development. His experience includes self-storage, professional office buildings, high-density residential projects, mixed-use projects, retail facilities, hotels, restaurants, industrial, commercial, and specialty projects such as museums and theme parks. For more information, call 949.388.8090; visit www.jordanarchitects.com.