By Bruce Jordan
The definition of innovate is “to introduce as or as if new; to make changes, do something in a new way.” We’re always looking for innovation in design, and self-storage is no stranger to this process. Ever-changing market forces, competition, zoning boards and a better understanding of customer needs combine to compel invention in our industry. Inspired design drives performance, so we progress onward and upward, taking self-storage to the next level.
As ours has evolved into a sophisticated business model, building design has evolved with it—and for good reason. Here’s a look at how today’s trends affect the look and feel of storage projects.
The Future of Storage Architecture
We’re always looking for ways to create more visually stimulating storage facilities and use building materials in imaginative ways. There’s a saying that form follows function, and while I agree, it doesn’t mean we can’t design bold forms and use color in new ways. I’ve never been asked to design a project that disappears into the backdrop. Instead, we seek to conceive sites that introduce the unexpected, create a lasting impression and set themselves apart from the competition while fitting into a community context. The goal is to be the future of self-storage, not the past.
The management office should be the center of visual attention from the fronting street and, hence, it should be the tallest architectural element. This tells customers where to enter the property and park. It also helps to put them at ease because they have a clear picture of the office and can see the interior from outside.
This is where clear rather than tinted glass comes into play. If it works for retail, it works for self-storage. Use of daylighting not only saves energy, it introduces natural light that’s warm and much more inviting than fluorescent.
Covered loading areas are being added to multi-story facilities. This makes the task of loading/unloading more user-friendly, convenient and safe. The use of enhanced overhead lighting, music and perhaps a nice planter or two will take the edge off of what would otherwise be an industrial look. When possible, make the loading areas clearly visible from the office so staff can monitor what’s going on and prospects can see how attractive and convenient they are. Finally, include a convenient storage area for push carts, but keep it well out of the maneuvering area in front of the elevators.
A bright and cheerful elevator lobby with easy access is appreciated by customers. If you have a three-story facility, two-thirds of your square footage is on the second and third floors, and a relatively high percentage of customers will need the elevators. Consider using large cabs (a 5,000-pound elevator will usually provide a sufficient cab size). You can also order elevators with a 9- or 10-foot-high cab for a small increase in price. This will add to loading flexibility.
Also think about adding bi-parting glass doors to elevator lobbies that open via motion sensors. This allows for hands-free entry and no doors to prop open.
Color is a tricky subject—often misunderstood, frequently changing and, well, subjective. There’s a wide range of styles and local preferences. Architectural style may dictate the use of color, whether it be an off-white for a Mission-style project in California, a terracotta tone in Santa Fe, N.M., or pastels in Miami. The local planning commission or city council may have strong opinions on the use of color, so it’s a good idea to understand any regional preferences before approaching officials with any plans.
Conversely, many jurisdictions don’t have any preconceived notions on color. In these situations, I like to go in a bolder, yet tasteful direction. Bold doesn’t necessarily refer to the door color, as the management office and street elevation likely won’t display doors. Instead, consider using building materials and colors in unpredictable ways. For example, an architectural look can be transformed by adjusting a metal panel so its ribs run horizontal rather than the traditional vertical. The construction industry changes rapidly and new products are always being introduced, so keep an eye out for inventive ideas in materials and color and ways to use them.
The Management Office
As we have come to better understand the self-storage customer base, industry design has responded. Gone are the small, dark, utilitarian management offices with moose heads on the wall to greet customers. There’s a movement toward open plans where a scan of the room encourages more communication.
Since 60 percent of the customers signing a rental agreement are women, it makes sense to provide a warm, safe and secure retail environment. Today we use natural light via big windows to create a bright, cheerful, friendly environment. The trend has also been to move away from a large customer-service counter toward smaller, multi-station workspaces that provide more personal interaction with customers. This can be seen in other retail establishments such as rental-car businesses.
Office lighting has also changed greatly and plays an important role in merchandising. Consider LEDs the new normal. Accent lighting can then be added to bring attention to retail displays and the customer-service areas. Fortunately, there are new fixtures that offer many options. Solar tubes can also bring daylight to the office, elevator lobbies, restrooms and storage corridors. The fixtures are relatively inexpensive, and sunlight is free.
Another change in the customer base has also altered office functionality. As more storage operators enjoy business customers as long-term tenants, Wi-Fi has taken on a more important roll. Many operators have received great response to customer workstations where tenants can sit and answer a few e-mails while visiting the facility. Contractors and other businesses that use the facility more frequently will also make use of these offerings.
Office graphics have become bigger and bolder, including plasma screens. Operators want to proudly display their site graphics. Going bigger here also allows TVs to be seen from outside the management office, which is a form of advertising.
To make this work, the facility needs a lot of clear glass rather than tinted glass, which used to be the norm. Large windows allow customers to see directly into the office from the parking area. They also allow in natural light and contribute to the perception of a safe and secure environment. Knowing what’s on the other side of the door before you enter is a big plus.
The self-storage industry is in a period of growth and modernization. Pay attention to customer comments and keep a watchful eye on new trends that will keep you and your facility at the forefront of the industry. If you think good design is expensive, try bad design. Innovation is the key.
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. Jordan's 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.