By Frank G. Relf
Whether designing a new facility or converting an existing structure, today’s self-storage owners and developers are seeking innovative ways to increase a property’s rentable square footage. Adding more rentable space from existing areas can also help offset the increased construction and development costs associated with the current building market.
There are unique solutions for accomplishing this goal with both new construction and conversions. With ground-up development, there’s a chance to design from scratch and, therefore, build to the maximum square footage possible. With conversions, existing property conditions have a large impact on design, and there’s typically lower net rentable space than with new construction. However, these buildings will often contain areas such as large elevator lobbies or electrical rooms that can be redesigned and designated for storage units.
Most facilities built or converted today are designed to industry standards in terms of the office and retail areas, loading bays, and elevators. However, failing to think beyond these standards could mean you’re overlooking potential rental opportunities. This article highlights innovative ways architects, developers and owners can create as much net rentable square footage as possible through smart facility design.
Finding ‘Free’ Space
It’s important to consider innovative ideas during the design phase of any proposed self-storage project, starting with the due-diligence period. During this phase, a review of the zoning code applicable to the site has criteria that dictates bulk size, land-area coverage or floor-area ratios (FAR), which typically dictate how much gross floor area is allowed.
One innovative way of increasing the net rentable square footage is to determine if other “free” gross square feet can be generated by adding cellars, which may not count in FAR calculations. Another method is to increase the height of the floor level and highest floor to allow for the construction of upper lockers. This provides more rentable square footage without adding floor area, which would count against zoning allowable limits.
With building conversions, the ratio of gross square footage to rentable square footage is usually less efficient, with higher losses due to existing structure conditions such as stair or elevator core placement, structural column grids, building configuration or other factors. One way to find new space is to convert old, unused mechanical rooms by removing abandoned equipment, then using the irregular spaces for storage units. Other places to look for extra space are stairwells and elevator lobbies, which may be larger than required by storage-industry standards.
Additional rentable square footage can be obtained by infilling shaft ways that may no longer be used for mechanical systems, elevators or plumbing chases. It’s surprising how much this can add up in a multi-story building.
Another consideration that involves more capital construction is to build into underutilized areas at the rear or side yard of a site that aren’t readily accessible but offers expansion possibilities. This may require site-plan review and approvals, or potential variances for setbacks or lot coverage, but it offers the potential to increase rentable square footage and could be worth the time and expense.
Changing Current Space
At existing storage facilities of older design, a change in unit mix—such as converting larger units to smaller ones—may often be required to meet local demand. This could mean converting a standard 5-by-5 with 8-foot ceilings to two stacked lockers. This is common in our industry and often the most cost-effective way to meet market demand. Likewise, 10-by-10 units can be split into two 5-by-10 units, and so on.
Many office and retail areas are large and may offer the potential for adding units by reducing the size and redesigning a more compact space. Although this seems contrary to the current trend of providing a retail-store feel, in areas of the country with high development and purchase costs, it may make economic sense.
Manager’s apartments are becoming less desirable due to the increased technology in security systems and online services. Converting an empty apartment to storage units can add to your property’s net rentable area. Also, because the apartment is typically close to the entrance, operators can potentially rent these units at a higher rate.
To see an example of converting existing space (in this case, extra offce space) to additional storage units click here.
Consider Cost vs. Reward
Although it may seem like the possibilities to add more rentable square footage are limitless, there are some things to keep in mind when designating these new rental areas. First, consider how your customers will access these “odd” spaces as well as the impact these spaces will have on building-code exit requirements.
When stacking lockers, such as sets of 5-by-5 units, on top of one another, think about how tenants will access the top lockers. A rolling step ladder will help them gain access, but you also need a place to store it when not in use.
One of your biggest concerns should be the impact on building and fire codes. If your city requires sprinklers, for example, how will you accomplish this for your new units? You also need to contemplate the impact these new units will have on your building’s structural, mechanical and electrical systems.
The most important factor to consider is the cost requirements to make innovative use of these spaces as well as the income stream that could be generated. A complete economic analysis is needed to determine if what’s proposed is feasible to pursue. These decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis, depending on the market in which you’re operating or developing. Not all options work in every market. Your team of professionals is there to help you investigate any and all opportunities to gain net rentable square footage in any location or type of building.
Frank Relf is president and owner of Frank G. Relf Architect. He has more than 30 years of experience providing professional architectural and engineering services to the self-storage industry. His services include site acquisitions and planning, unit-mix analysis, zoning and municipal approvals, construction documents, bidding, and construction management for new construction, conversions, remodels, expansions and specialty-storage designs. He is a licensed architect in multiple states. For more information, call 631.271.4432; e-mail [email protected]; visit www.fgrelf.com.