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Managing the Self-Storage Design Process and Team to Ensure a Smooth Project

Design planning team around table
When designing a self-storage project, it’s critically important to understand the steps and professionals involved. Follow these guidelines to build a team and process that will work seamlessly toward the same goal.

When designing a self-storage project, it’s critically important to understand the necessary steps and team members involved before getting to final construction or permitted drawings. A typical development can involve more than a dozen advisors, consultants and contractors. Without a clear understanding of each person’s role in the process or the appropriate time to engage each party, an owner or developer can find himself over budget, behind schedule or at risk of losing the deal all together.

A little time spent on the front end of a plan can save a lot of time, energy and money, not only on the design process but, more important, on your construction budget. Here are some guidelines to ensure everyone is working seamlessly toward the same goal.

Identify Your Team

Identify your consultants before you need them, not when you need to hire them. Ask construction and development professionals in your local or target market for recommendations. Interview at least three of the following before beginning any design work:

  • Civil engineer: The company may offer in-house surveying.
  • Geotechnical engineer: The company might provide environmental services.
  • Architect: Ideally, he should handle structural and mechanical, electrical and plumbing.
  • Zoning/land-use attorney
  • General counsel
  • General contractor: The level of engagement depends on how you decide to contract, but their input is critical.
  • Property manager/feasibility consultant: While likely less involved in the continuous design process, his input can be invaluable along the way.

Interview these people as if you were hiring an employee. Consider asking these questions:

  • Have you ever worked on a self-storage project? If so, which ones?
  • Are you familiar with the jurisdiction in which I’m planning to develop? (This may include the local city as well as the county and department of transportation.) If so, what was your experience—good/bad/other?
  • Do you have the capacity to handle my project?
  • Who will be my “point person” in your office?
  • How long from the time we execute an agreement before various steps in the design process will be complete?
  • How are your fees structured? Are they billed upon delivery of various phases and broken out by scope? What will you charge if we must deviate from the defined scope?

Also, ask if they know about or have opinions on any of the other professionals you’re considering. I don’t mean their direct competition, but the other disciplines with which they’ll be required to work during the project.

Communicate Your Goals

Define and clearly communicate the team’s goals along the way. This may sound simple, but failure to clearly define your specific goals—in your own mind and with members—makes it likely someone will miss the mark at some point during the process. While the objectives may change along the way, it’s your job ensure everyone is focused on accomplishing the same tasks.

For example, let’s say you’re in the zoning-entitlement phase, with the goal to get approval from the local jurisdiction. Unfortunately, your architect was late getting you the elevations for submittal because he was working on optimizing the unit mix, which has no impact on zoning approval. If you’re the owner, you lead the design team to ensure everyone is marching toward the same target at any given time.

Engage in the Correct Order

Engage your team from the ground up, not the roof down. The design process can be costly and time-consuming. You can avoid wasting resources by thinking from the ground up, starting with the soil and site. For example, it makes no sense to involve an architect first if he doesn’t know how the building will sit on the site—information that comes from your civil engineer.

Everyone is going to want to make sure your soils can sustain your proposed improvements, so have a geotechnical engineer run soil tests based on the layout. A civil engineer can’t layout the building without a reliable survey.

Design for Approval

Unless you’re in a jurisdiction with by-right zoning and no site-plan or design-elevation approvals, you’ll need to obtain some level of approval from your local jurisdiction before submitting your construction drawings. Have a clear understanding of the design documents you need to present to obtain zoning/land use, utility, access or site approval. This is a good time to engage your zoning/land-use attorney to make sure your civil engineer and architect are drafting design documents in accordance with submittal requirements, arranging meetings with any public officials or staff to discuss preliminary plans and concepts, and ensuring that any rolling submittal deadlines are met.

Review Progress

When should the design team review its progress? Early and often! As a project advances, opportunities for value engineering (construction cost savings) diminish, so have the various members review and comment on each other’s work along the way. While one may always have done something a particular way, another might see an opportunity to accomplish the same task in a more cost-effective or timely manner.

This cross-checking should generate healthy dialogue among the group but, ultimately, you are the decision-maker. It’s impossible to be an expert in all subject matter, but in most cases, you can determine the correct answer by asking:

  1. Will it cost more money?
  2. Will it take more time?
  3. Will it have a significant positive or negative impact on my project’s performance?

Obviously, this is a simplistic approach, but it can come in handy when you don’t have a clear handle on the technical merits or downsides to a solution being discussed.

Understand the Stages

A typical project’s design lifecycle includes the following stages. Starting on the right foot is critical. It’s also highly recommended that you take the time to review the drawings as a team after each stage. This small extra step and time can save you significantly down the road.

  • Programming/scope meeting: This is a chance to confirm there aren’t any “scope gaps” in the team, wherein one person thinks another is in charge of something he himself should be doing. This is also an ideal opportunity to define the expected timelines for the work and various deliverables for each team member, and to establish a clear and consistent method of communication for the project. This can come in the form of a simple weekly or bi-weekly conference call or meeting, or regular updates to a “living” document all members can access.
  • Conceptual design: This typically includes the preliminary site plan, floor plans, and possibly building elevations or sections as required. (Stop: Have the team review and comment on the plans.)
  • Schematic design: This involves diagrammatic plans that document dimensions and relationships of various elements. It should include proposed locations of utilities and systems, but may not include final dimensioning and sizing. (Stop: Have the team review and comment on the plans.)
  • Design development: This involves further developed plans and elevations; most dimensions, specifications and details have been included, but not all. (Stop: Have the team review and comment on the plans.)
  • Construction drawings: Comprehensive drawings and specifications are ready to submit for permit or to obtain final bidding for construction.
  • Permitting: It’s likely permitting review will require some revisions to your as-submitted plans, so make sure your team communicates any required revisions to you and you understand their implications.
  • Construction: A good general contractor will have ongoing communication with your team to ensure the work in the field meets or exceeds the designer’s intent. They also might identify cost savings you can approve or deny. This is usually handled through a “request for information.”
  • Project close-out: Have members of your team walk through the project at close-out and help you create your punch list.

An effective design team is critical and, although they’re third-party groups, you should treat them like company assets. Good consultants and advisors can be challenging to find, especially during hot development cycles like the one we’re currently experiencing. The stronger of a relationship you can establish with them, the more they’ll want to perform good work for you, and the more you can identify their strengths and weaknesses. This will allow you to plan accordingly on the next project.

Jim Berry is a managing member of RRB Development LLC, which develops self-storage facilities in the Southeast. His experience includes mixed-use master-planned communities, “new urbanist” projects, and a variety of commercial and residential properties. He applies his experience to the development of urban-infill self-storage assets. For more information, call 404.643.8245; visit

TAGS: Development
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