By Ariel Valli
In the highly competitive world of self-storage, curb appeal is becoming more important. This is particularly true for older facilities. After all, who wants to drive to an industrial part of town and store their valuables in a rundown, tired-looking building?
With the trend toward having a “retail feel,” street-facing aesthetics play an ever-increasing role in a storage facility’s ability to attract customers. In addition, some older facilities are in areas that have become retail-oriented over time. To compete, these sites may now need a facelift, which can be accomplished in a variety of ways.
In general, self-storage renovation can be considered the redevelopment of a site from old to new. It can be achieved by changing a facility’s size, shape or mass, or by simply upgrading materials, colors and landscaping. These improvements are primarily reserved for the most visible portion of a project—the street presentation that’s visible to potential renters. Renovations generally fall into four categories, ranging from the most costly to the least: structural demolition and reconstruction, non-structural façade renovation, painting, and landscaping. Here’s a look at the process for each and the benefits they provide.
1. Structural Demolition and Reconstruction
Some facilities are so old and dated that there’s little to be done to improve their appearance without radically changing their structure. Tearing down all or some of the most visible part of the facility may be the only option. This is especially true in the reception area; the small, plain offices of early-generation facilities simply can’t be remodeled to obtain the sleek, bright attractive look that’s important today. These older structures are often too small, too limited in height and possibly just too ugly to create a large, attractive retail area.
A good example is the red-tiled, mansard partial roof that was previously overused in southern climates to articulate a wall elevation. Even if the tile were changed to shiny metal, the poor shape and awkward dimensions of the mansard would defeat the purpose.
Another example is wall height. Older facilities were built low to the ground due to the economics of those times. Opportunities for taller wall masses that can articulate a project’s identity and provide a place for signage placement may simply not exist.
In these instances, it’s often best to tear down and rebuild the high-quality, retail-type structure storage customers prefer. This is most important in the case of facilities that were built 20 to 30 years ago in a good commercial location that can’t be duplicated today due to the politics of land-development policy in some jurisdictions. Once demolition is complete, a larger, taller office and facility-identifying features such as signage or image-door display towers can then be added.
2. Non-Structural Façade Renovation
Some self-storage facilities have a workable size, shape and mass, but the materials used are so outdated that they don’t present an opportunity for improvement. The excess use of ordinary concrete block, stucco, wood trim and even wood siding in first-generation facilities is well-known. Some materials that were common decades ago are no longer popular today. The exposure of these materials to sun and weather over the years has also taken its toll.
In these cases, the preferred approach is to strip off the old materials and apply new ones over the basic structure of the building. Another option is to cover the outdated materials with new state-of-the-art ones. I’ve seen many projects in which colorful metal panels of all types have been installed over existing wall finishes, creating a vibrant retail look that catches the eye. The addition of glazing, whether vision glass or spandrel (non-vision) glass, over existing unsightly materials can be an effective way to modernize an exterior.
Newer but still outdated-looking facilities can benefit just by applying a new coat of paint. Concrete block and stucco are commonly used in self-storage. The appearance of these porous, water-absorbing materials can be degraded over time by sun, weather or even landscape-sprinkler overspray.
Unsightly staining is common in facilities that aren’t properly designed to accommodate water spilling off the roof during rainstorms. Light rains are the worst, creating a mixture of dirt and soot that combines with water just enough to run down a wall surface and create large swaths of unattractive stains. Airborne dust from vehicular traffic adds to the problem.
Re-painting with a high-quality, water-resistant paint goes a long way toward improving the look of a facility that otherwise has a workable physical appearance. These days, colors are bolder and brighter than they were in the days of tan or beige on brown color articulation. Repainting with multiple colors, whether horizontally banded or separated by wall offsets, adds even more interest to a paint-only renovation.
One of the most discouraging items to see in some older facilities is unkempt landscaping.
Overgrown trees sometimes block important visible aspects of an elevation design. Large areas of dead or dying shrubs, grass or groundcovers make the situation worse.
There’s a growing trend in self-storage—and throughout the development industry in general—to stop use of water-intensive landscaping. A facility that otherwise has a decent appearance can be greatly improved by tearing out the older landscaping and installing a new design that’s drought-tolerant and attractive in terms of plant variety, colors and massing. Just like buildings, plants can get old and tired-looking over the years.
A Modern Look
Self-storage facilities being designed these days are vastly different than the utilitarian structures of the past. The industry has continually evolved from “backlot industrial” to “Main Street retail.” Offices are brightly lit and colorful, using large glass and metal surfaces to convey a modern look.
The opportunities presented by older facilities in good locations are great. Renovtion by way of one or more of the options noted above should be considered by all owners in these circumstances. The fractional costs of modernization vs. new construction can be nothing but good for the bottom line.
Ariel L. Valli is president and principal architect of Valli Architectural Group, which was founded in 1997 to provide specialized design services to the self-storage industry. Over the course of a 33-year career, Mr. Valli has been involved in 500 completed self-storage projects, primarily in the Southwest. Completed projects include numerous award-winners. For more information, call 949.349.1777; visit www.valliarch.com.