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Learning From Others' Building Blunders: Common Self-Storage Development Mistakes

Building a self-storage facility is a complicated endeavor during which many things can go wrong. By understanding the mistakes made by other owners and developers, you can avoid common blunders to construct your site properly.

By the time you’ve finally received all the approvals for your new self-storage project, it’ll likely have taken two to three times longer than you anticipated. To top it off, you’ll probably have agreed to additional requirements from the city and now have to work the added expenses into your budget.

Still, you’re ready to build. Next, you’ll need to hire a general contractor (GC) or prepare to be your own. For this article, let’s assume the latter. To ensure success, it’s helpful to understand the common mistakes made by other owners and developers, so you can avoid their building blunders. Here are some pitfalls to watch for during the construction process.


The single biggest mistake I see people make when building self-storage is failing to have proper site grading. Though you likely have a grading plan from a licensed civil engineer, once you determine final grades at your property (there are always field changes to be made), you’ll determine if the plan will work.

What you’re looking for is enough pitch to drain water correctly. Water should flow off your pavement to a retention pond, for example. If you’re using asphalt, you’ll want it to drain at a 1 percent pitch. If you have a concrete drive, you can reduce the slope by half. The greater the slope, the better for drainage.

Many self-storage owners and developers also regret not installing underground storm drains, including pipes from the gutter spouts. This costs more, but you’ll always be happy you did it in the long run.

Speaking of grading and dealing with precipitation, a related mistake is draining water to the north side of buildings in any icy, cold climate. You don’t want water to pool and freeze there.

Underground Conduits

Failing to properly plan and install the underground conduit is another major error. This sounds like a minor item, but it’s extremely important.

The first line traveling from your office to your storage structures is for power. Normally, you’ll need at least a 1.5-inch conduit going to each building, so you have power for outdoor lighting. If your site is climate-controlled, you may need a larger pipe. If you’re phasing your project and don’t know which building you might put up next, you’ll want to oversize the pipe and make sure the conduit extends beyond the first-phase pavement.

The next conduit layout you should work on is for your camera system. This low-voltage wire must be in a separate conduit from the electrical pipe to reduce interference.

The last conduit you’ll need is for the access system and keypads. Its location will be determined by the location of your gate system.

Gate Placement

Poor gate placement is another common mistake. The ideal spot will allow customers to be off the road while entering their code. The gate itself should be at least 12 feet in front of the keypad so there’s a better chance tenants won’t run into it. Customers should be able to access the office or kiosk, if applicable, and have room to turn around and leave without going through the gate.

If you plan to install a gate now or sometime in the future, always plan the exact location in advance. This could change the type of gate you’ll need. In many cases, you may need a vertical-lift instead of a sliding gate. This costs a lot more, but it may be the best type for your site.

The Foundation

You’re now ready to pour your foundations. Have your site surveyor stake out the corners to ensure you’re setting the building in the correct spot. I know this costs, but ensuring all the structures are properly located and at the correct floor height is invaluable. During construction, you may run over the grading stakes. It costs more to have your surveyor come out again, but it minimizes slipups.

I’m also a firm believer in verifying the foundation dimensions before you start to pour. A typical mistake is the concrete contractor doesn’t have the correct building width. He might have taken the dimension from the outside of the form, not from where the concrete will stop. What frequently happens is steps inside buildings might not be in the right spot or at the correct height compared to the final site-plan layout.

Paving and Bollards

Once your foundations are poured, you can conduct final grading and possibly install your binder course of asphalt paving. Many people do this later once the building is up, but others still pave before the building is installed so the asphalt contractor doesn’t hit it.

Whichever the case, install all bollards before paving. Typically seven feet long, they should be a minimum of six inches wide and three to four feet into the ground. Always put bollards on all four corners of your buildings, on all sides of your keypads, and at the corners of your gate. I’ve also started to put them at all my recessed hallway openings. Many customers seem to back into these areas, so it’s good to protect them.

If you’re building large boat/RV-storage units, you may want to put bollards in front of each door jamb. This can be expensive, but it’ll defend your building against damage.

The Office

One of the biggest regrets many self-storage owners wind have is they wish they’d built a nicer management office. It’s important to put all the extra money you have into making your office as beautiful and spacious as possible. The additional design touches always pay off in the long run. Also, make sure there’s a heated unit next to your office to store equipment, the electric cart and maintenance items. This will be help keep your site clean and in good working order.

The Buildings

When the actual buildings are installed, verify that they’re going up according to plan.

Do a proper walk-through with your installer to ensure all doors are working, the wall panels aren’t missing any screws, etc. Remember, it’s easier to fix any issues up front than find out about them after you’ve started renting units.

In buildings with hallways, create an area to accommodate moving carts. Otherwise, they’ll be left in the corridors and can become an obstacle for tenants.

It’s also wise to pull a separate permit for every building. This is so you can get a Certificate of Occupancy for each. When you have one building complete, you can start renting. Keep in mind, this might not be possible in all jurisdictions. Some will require you to pull a single permit once all buildings are done.

You’ve been working for many months, if not years, to open your self-storage facility. While you won’t be able to prevent all mistakes during the building process, being aware of what could go wrong can minimize them.

Jamie Lindau is a self-storage owner and the national sales manager at Trachte Buildings 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 presents Trachte’s free “Building Blocks of Self-Storage” seminar in more than a dozen cities throughout North America every year. For more information, call 800.356.5824; visit

TAGS: Construction
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