By Kenneth Carrell
Everyone knows location is the most important criteria when planning a self-storage facility. In many urban and suburban areas, it’s difficult to find suitable sites on which to build a facility large enough to make financial success. The next best option, then, is to convert an existing building. Standing structures offer opportunities to move into established neighborhoods that don’t often have enough storage nearby.
Another benefit of reusing an existing building is lower construction costs. Since the exterior walls, floor and roof are already in place, you can save money. And although the initial cost will be more than the price of empty ground, it’s generally less expensive overall. Many conversion properties also offer the potential to expand by adding buildings to the site.
Here are some key considerations when searching for the right conversion opportunity.
How is the building positioned on the site? Is it to one side, tucked into a corner or in the middle of the property? Site orientation determines how customers will access the building. Most don’t want to walk any farther than they have to.
According to the latest building code, travel distance to an emergency exit can be no more than 75 feet in non-sprinklered buildings and 100 feet if a building has sprinklers. Make these your maximum travel distances if you can. The number of access points to the interior of a building should be minimized but still provide customers the shortest distance to their unit. I once converted a building in Pasadena, Calif., that had three separate entrances, which allowed tenants maximum access to their units.
Room for Expansion
If the building is in the center of the site, you can sometimes place additional storage outside. This can provide drive-up access to units without having to cut walls. Most drive aisles tend to be about 30 feet wide. If the property you’re considering has room, adding to the exterior of the building makes sense. This will help maximize the square footage for the site. I once added 20-foot-deep units to the outside of a building in San Diego.
If a site is large enough, you can add buildings around the perimeter. Conversions generally have a lot of parking because it was necessary for previous uses. Self-storage doesn’t require much, so jurisdictions often allow for a parking reduction, leaving available land on which to erect new storage structures.
Perimeter buildings can be beneficial because they provide security for the site. A 12-foot wall is harder to scale than a 7-foot fence. This strategy also can enable you to move the manager’s office and facility entrance closer to the street for better visibility. It’s generally best to phase in additional buildings after the existing structure is converted and filling up at a nice pace.
When examining a prospective building conversion, what’s the internal vertical clearance? Can you install a second floor? The typical floor-to-floor height for self-storage is 10 feet. Depending on how a building is framed, the perimeter might be as low as eight feet. While that’s not ideal, it’s workable; but the ability to add a second floor can often almost double the available square footage. One thing to keep in mind, though, is fire sprinklers, which need a certain clearance to be effective. Generally, try to maintain 18 inches of clearance for sprinklers to work.
How customers will circulate through the building is also an important consideration. If you add a second, third or even a fourth floor, how will they access the upper floors—elevators, or lifts (which can’t support people)? Tenants like to ride with their stuff. They don’t like putting it on a lift and then walking up a set of stairs to unload. The problem is elevators have high initial costs and annual inspection fees, which can be cost-prohibitive depending on how many are needed. A lift may ultimately be the way to go. If you do go with this solution, remember you’ll need a set of stairs next to the lift.
Interior Drive Aisles
Another important consideration is whether a building is large enough to accommodate an interior drive aisle. If it’s really large and the distance to the exits would be unfavorable, a drive aisle might be a viable solution.
Depending on how the building is designed, you might not even need a carbon-monoxide removal system. For a project I worked on in San Francisco, we installed individual parking spaces for recreational vehicles. Because the units were enclosed, the removal system wasn’t necessary. Although this added substantial cost to the project, the client believed it was worth it since he could charge substantially higher rent for the units. Keep this in mind if you decide to explore this option.
Another possible benefit to a conversion with interior spaces is climate control, which often brings in more money per square foot than traditional storage space. If you’re converting an old store or office building, there may be air-conditioning units that can be reused to control the temperature of the storage area. Since you don’t have to keep this space at a balmy 72 degrees, you don’t need ductwork to keep the storage area climatized. For a multi-story conversion I worked on that had multiple air-conditioning units, we removed a lot of ductwork to open up space. We wound up dropping it straight down to all of the floors, and the entire storage area was climate-controlled for very little cost.
A building conversion is a good way to put self-storage in an underserved area. There are opportunities in many markets. With project costs that are typically lower than new construction, extra land on which to expand, and many other benefits associated with reusing an existing building, conversions can make a lot of sense.
Kenneth Carrell is the principal architect at ARE Associates in Lake Forest, Calif., an award-winning architectural firm specializing in the self-storage industry. For more information, call 949.305.4752; visit www.areassociates.com.