Thanks to COVID-19, health and safety have never been more top-of-mind. The spread of the virus focused a spotlight on germs and sanitation. We’re now hyperconscious of the places we go as well as the people and items with which we interact. The No. 1 goal is self-preservation.
Though self-storage is often a low-traffic business, our facilities must still be safe environments for owners, staff, tenants and guests. The pandemic has forced us to think about our buildings in a new way. Coronavirus isn’t the first outbreak to threaten the way individuals live and work, and it likely won’t be the last; so, it’s imperative to scrutinize facility design, materials and components, and find ways to improve their impact on users’ well-being. Here’s how to take a health-conscious approach and meet today’s public demands.
What Is a Healthy Building?
When you think about a “healthy building,” what may immediately come to mind are eco-friendly components such as recycled products and solar panels. While these can certainly contribute to the strength of a business, they’re just part of the solution. Facility design with people’s well-being in mind has a broader scope that emphasizes cleanliness, safety, air quality, proper climate and low noise. It leverages good ventilation, natural light, germ-resistant surfaces, spacious layouts, proper traffic flow and technology.
“A healthy building is one that promotes human health and wellness,” says Stephen Overcash, principal of design at Overcash Demmitt Architects. “Self-storage facilities specifically do so by protecting users and their belongings from unwanted exposures to unhealthy surface and air contaminants.” Even before the COVID crisis, many architects, developers and owners were already designing self-storage sites that would be considered healthy by today’s standards, using open architecture, large windows, wide hallways and spacious offices.
One of the most important aspects of a healthy building is the quality of the air streaming through it. After all, airborne transmission is what brought the pandemic to the point of crisis. But even without the threat of a virus, air quality should be a priority for storage buildings of all sizes. Poor flow leads to a stagnant environment, which can trap harmful particles. Enhanced ventilation can be the answer.
“The efficiency of HVAC air filters will certainly be a focus point addressing the need for improved indoor air quality,” says Eric Sweet, vice president of construction management for real estate investment trust Life Storage Inc. “We’ve seen from studies in the airline industry how effective the amount of air changes and the air-filter efficiency has had on decreasing the number of airborne contaminants.”
Better HVAC systems can come with a bigger price tag and consume more energy, but they also provide a multitude of health benefits. “Increases in ventilation air flow and filtration, along with germicidal UV light within the HVAC system, will reduce airborne contamination between units and users,” Overcash says. In addition, these systems typically produce less noise pollution, which can negatively impact those subjected to it.
Self-storage facilities in nearly all climates have another obstacle to overcome: moisture. Humidity from internal and external sources leads to the growth of bacteria and fungi. It also attracts pests. It can lead to illness for people who are subjected to it for long periods, bringing on respiratory symptoms and infections, allergies, and eczema.
“One of the biggest thorns in the side of every storage-facility owner is preventing moisture infiltration,” says Robyn Schoch, project executive for Swinerton Inc., a commercial construction company specializing in self-storage and other sectors. “Moisture breeds mold and can be detrimental to the facility’s ability to offer safe storage to its customers.”
It’s critical to prevent water infiltration, and that means analyzing all areas of a structure that pose a potential risk, Schoch adds. This might happen at the intersection of two different building materials, such as where the roof meets the wall. “The goal is to ensure the facility is watertight—the first time,” she says.
Room to Move
Social distancing became a standard practice during the pandemic, and providing extra room to maneuver at your self-storage facility has multiple health benefits. To begin, it can improve traffic flow and elevate the overall look and feel of an area. This is especially true for the rental office and public restrooms. Spacious hallways and larger elevators allow customers to pass each other safely or keep their distance entirely, preventing germ spread.
Fortunately, larger offices have been trending in self-storage design in recent years; and having more space made it easier for operators to make essential upgrades during the pandemic, such as adding physical barriers to limit virus transmission and encourage social distancing. Plexiglass shields at the rental counter have become more common, as have self-service rental stations equipped with kiosks or tablets.
Of course, there’s been a lot of emphasis on creating a contact-free rental experience for self-storage customers. This is where technology saves the day. Tools and practices that allow for contact-free operation were already becoming popular in the industry even before 2020, but the move toward automation was pushed into hyperdrive in the face of COVID-19.
From online rental capabilities to self-serve rental stations to mobile apps, technology allows renters to interact with a business safely, with low or no human contact. For example, some properties now use Bluetooth entry and exit capabilities on gates and doors, says David Meineke, vice president of Jordan Architects, a design firm that specializes in self-storage and other industries.
Overcash predicts operators will adopt even more tech in the coming years. “We see even greater opportunities for change with an increase in the use of automation and robotics,” he says. “Office staff will be remote through video or holographic applications, and units will be accessed by kiosk or phone application from centralized access portals and brought to the user by robotic crane. Access portals will be closely monitored and even programed for automated cleanliness and security.”
Unfortunately, physical touchpoints can’t always be eliminated from a self-storage environment. Operators and customers still regularly come in contact with keypads, door handles, elevator buttons, countertops, kiosks and handcarts. In the restroom, there are toilet flushers, faucets and paper-towel dispensers. For these items, sanitation protocols are an absolute must. It’s now typical to see automatic hand-sanitizer dispensers and disinfectant wipes in common areas. In bathrooms, foot pedals allow users to open doors without their hands, while faucets and air dryers are activated hands-free with motion.
“Certainly, sanitation will be the focus of many moving forward,” Meinecke says. “This will have less of an impact on design and more on implementation of certain technologies as well as maintenance by management to ensure door handles, keypads and the like are cleaned frequently if touchless technology is not being utilized.”
Overcash recommends the use of ultraviolet, germicidal irradiation for surface disinfection of unoccupied spaces if possible. Owners and builders can also make smarter choices in building components. For example, some are tossing out their carpeting, which can trap germs and allergens, and opting for flooring that’s easier to clean. Exchanging door hardware to those with copper alloy or other antimicrobial finishes can also halt germ spread, he says.
For new developments, Overcash proposes a layout that reduces the need for doors and other physical touchpoints. “Seamless walls and flooring are highly encouraged, as these thin lines are where bacteria and other contaminants can secretly grow,” he adds.
While government building codes are constantly being updated, it could be a while before any pandemic-based mandates go into effect, if ever. Code modification is a complex process. Moreover, the International Code Council, the global source of model codes and standards for building safety, releases a new edition only every three years, Overcash notes.
“While office buildings and other establishments with higher occupancy rates will certainly experience updated building codes, the relatively small occupancy associated with self-storage is not expected to result in changes,” Schoch says. “However, developers and owners may anticipate changes to the frequency and approach to municipality inspections, including the possibility of more third-party testing requirements.”
For the most part, it’ll be on industry developers, owners and suppliers to make the necessary changes to achieve healthier self-storage properties. The consumer base will also be a driving force, as most customers will seek environments they perceive as safe, even after COVID-19 recedes.
“The self-storage industry was already headed for change with the development of new technologies in security and automation,” Overcash says. “The pandemic has only served to accelerate this process and highlight the need for these changes to occur now.”