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Site Design, Layout and Unit Mix: Making the Right Choices for Your Self-Storage Development

Once you’ve decided on a location to develop a self-storage facility, you’re ready to work on the building layout, design and unit mix. Here are some pointers for creating your dream project.

By Jamie Lindau

Once you’ve decided on a location to develop a self-storage facility, you’re ready to work on the building layout, design and unit mix. This is your blank canvas, and there are endless variations; but the characteristics of your market will guide you in the best choices. For example, if you’re in a rural location, you’ll look to build standard drive-up units. In cities, where the land price increases and there’s less available acreage, you’ll want to maximize your site with wide, large, single-story structures or a multi-story building.

Here are some factors you’ll need to consider as you develop your dream project, including buildable area, land elevation, structure types, building features, must-have features and layout essentials.

Site Parameters

One of the first steps in site layout will be to work with your civil engineer to determine the exact buildable area of the site, taking into account setbacks for your specific zoning, easements, any required landscaping and the retention pond. The retention-pond size is a factor in determining the amount of land available for your buildings and drives. Depending on where you live, the pond can range from about .25 to more than 2 acres.

The other important piece of information the engineer will give you is the grade change for which you’ll have to account. For example, if your lot has an 8-foot grade change from front to back, how are you going to work this into your plan? You can handle a drop with steps or slightly pitched buildings. If you have a 9-foot or greater elevation change, you can manipulate the grade with a “two-story into a hill” design. In this case, the facility will have ground-level access from both levels, doubling rentable space without the need for an elevator. This is a great option if the site is well-suited to it.

The only expensive feature of this design is the retaining wall that’ll be required on three sides of the building. This additional cost is easily covered by the square footage you gain on the second floor.

Self-storage layout in Champagne, Illinois***

Drive-Up Structures

The latest demand study published by the national Self Storage Association indicates the most important facility feature for customers is the ability to drive up to their unit. However, a site that includes all drive-up units is now a rarity due to land costs.

This conservative layout is easy to rent, but the design eats up a lot of land. If you offer only drive-up units, you’ll get around 14,000 to 15,000 square feet per acre. Consequently, your parcel will have to be large enough to yield the amount of net rentable square footage necessary to make the project feasible. Most developers simply can’t make the numbers work; they don’t get enough units on the site to make the development a good return on investment.

Consequently, what we see in the marketplace is an increase in large, wide buildings that maximize the rentable space. These may be 60 feet or even up to 200 feet wide. This design will give you 20 percent to 30 percent more rentable units.

Self-storage layout in Henrietta, New York***To make the buildings more rentable, you can add temperature control. It’s much more efficient to heat and cool one large building compared to several smaller ones. If you don’t want to build temperature-controlled units but still want to use wider buildings to maximize square footage, put all your smaller units here—5-by-5, 5-by-10 and 10-by-10. These are small enough that customers won’t complain about having to enter a hallway with a cart to gain unit access.

If you do decide to build drive-up units, you can use driveways between buildings as narrow as 20 feet, but 25 feet is more typical. I recommend you have at least 30 feet on the ends of each building for turnaround. In northern climates where it snows, you may want to even go to 35 feet to allow for snow buildup.

Multi-Story Buildings

In large metropolitan areas, you’ll most likely consider a multi-story facility because of high land costs and small lots. You’ll design the building with the largest possible footprint to get the greatest coverage. However, you still need ample turning distances around the building to make it easily accessible. This is a key point in multi-story design. Also consider how customers can unload their goods via a covered loading area or inside the building via a drive-through.

There can be extra costs with a multi-story project. First, most of these buildings are constructed with nice architectural features to satisfy city-planning departments. You’ll also have to install sprinklers. Finally, most building codes allow three-story structures to use conventional metal framing, but if a developer wants to go taller, the construction type changes so all the floors are fire-rated. The only way to build the project is with conventional concrete walls, floors and beam construction, where all beams are fireproofed. This design sounds expensive, and it is. Therefore, most self-storage developers shy away from building too high.

Unit Sizes

Notice I waited to talk about unit size. Many new owners worry more about this than trying to design the maximum site area while keeping the facility easy to rent. Your exact unit mix will depend on a variety of factors. I advise you to first design the building footprint for maximum coverage, and then fill in the mix. If you hire a feasibility study, your consultant should be able to advise you in this regard.

In areas with a lot single-family homes, larger units will be in higher demand. Communities with a lot of multi-family dwellings will require smaller units. The danger of building an entire project at one time rather than in phases is you’ll have to commit to your unit mix without having rented any units. In this case, look toward a smaller unit mix, because it’s easier to make larger units out of smaller ones than the other way around.

Must-Have Features

While the exterior design can vary greatly, there are some features every self-storage facility should include. The following are considered industry standards:

  • You need a nice large office that offers customers the “wow” factor.
  • The largest facilities might have two separate gates for entering and exiting—ideally, placed next to each other—but most sites can be served with just one. If a gate isn’t in your budget, still install underground conduit so you can add one in the future. Also, try to keep the keypads a minimum of 12 feet from the gate—the farther back the better.
  • Every new site should be equipped with video cameras. Plan for the conduit and power supplies up front for your first and future phases.
  • A decade ago, it was acceptable to build a facility with only a cargo lift. Today, multi-story facilities must have an elevator.
  • In locations with a high-traffic main entrance or multiple levels, automatic doors make it easier for customers to load and unload their belongings.
  • You’ll want to offer moving carts, so plan for cart storage near any interior-access doorways throughout the facility.
  • For sites with a high percentage of interior access, add a canopy over the loading area. Self-storage is following many of the trends in the hotel industry, where more amenities are being offered. You won’t find a decent hotel without a covered loading/unloading area, and you shouldn’t build an interior-access self-storage facility without one either.

Self-storage drive-through in Goerkes Corners, Wisconsin***

Layout Essentials

Last but not least, here are some basic guidelines for your facility layout:

  • Access. Can large trucks maneuver throughout the site? Can a moving van access the property with ease? Consider all scenarios when you build your facility’s entrance and exit.
  • Office location. The office or kiosk should be accessible from outside the gate. If the budget doesn’t allow for this during the first phase, leave room and install infrastructure to add it in the future.
  • Dead ends. No facility should have a dead end. Asking customers in a moving truck to back up is asking for disaster.
  • Security design. Ideally, people driving past your facility should be able to see between your buildings. This creates a safer environment and deters crime.
  • Drainage and ice. Adjusting the direction of the building layout and roof slope can minimize or eliminate problems with ice forming at the bottom of your unit doors. The ideal layout has structures running north to south, with no water shedding from the northern side. If your buildings must run east and west, purchase structures with a lean-to roof so the water drains on the south side.
  • Snow. In northern climates, consider the difficulties of snow plowing. Irregular-shaped buildings and sites without clear paths to dispose of snow can create headaches. Evaluate the design to ensure you’re not creating possible ice dams if you have a building with heated and unheated space.

Designing a self-storage facility may require a little extra time and expense up front. However, you’ll appreciate owning a site with greater occupancy and easier maintenance for decades to come.

Jamie Lindau is the sales manager at Trachte Building Systems, which designs, manufactures and erects a full line of pre-engineered and customized steel self-storage systems, including single- and multi-story, portable storage, interior partition and corridor, and canopy boat/RV. He’s also a frequent contributor on Self-Storage Talk, the industry's largest online community. For more information, call 800.356.5824, or visit www.trachte.com.

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