Finding the best location and an experienced design team ensures your self-storage facility will be built harmoniously, from ground to roof.

September 15, 2008

9 Min Read
Building Self-Storage: Creating a Harmonious Design Team

Reflecting on my schooldays, sitting in music-appreciation class learning about harmony, tempo and rhythm, I’ve thought the elements of construction are like writing and performing music. They both bring together different components to a central point, harmonizing them in order, setting tempo, following the rhythm through to the crescendo and, voila! It’s a building.

Each individual and organization has their own reasons, a personal song, for building self-storage. The budget, investment return required and the time frame are all taken into consideration to create a financial plan for the project. Once the final criteria are defined, the idea is ready for development. The developer finds the right conveyance to bring the owner’s idea to life, writes the melody to reflect the goal and describes the process to achieve it.

Writing the Score

Preparations start by finding a location with potential to achieve the goal. As part of the investigative process, engineers are hired to find out what restrictions and fees are associated with the land and its intended use. Governmental control (and cost) may be anything from simple building-code compliance to an almost unimaginable headache. Competition is analyzed, and the result may dictate necessary levels of service and curb appeal, as well as rental rates.

Demographics of the population and traffic patterns determine rentable square footage and unit mix. This investigation reveals how the project should be designed. The developer then directs the general contractor and design team in creating the most marketable, cost-effective, highest-quality facility that meets the owner’s financial and time criteria. Design (the written music) and construction (the orchestral performance) are fashioned to support the developer’s melody.

Any number of working relationships may be negotiated between all the parties involved in a construction project. The design team may work independently for the developer, or the general contractor may be responsible for the design as part of its services provided to the developer. The components of design-build construction set forth below are a typical pattern of interaction between the parties.

Orchestral Members

The design team is comprised of the architect, who has ultimate responsibility for the coordination and work of all parties; a civil engineer; a structural engineer; and one or more mechanical engineers. They also incorporate the work of surveyors, landscapers, environmentalists, etc. These services may be contracted individually by the developer or general contractor, or they may work through the architect.

Architect.  The design process starts with a survey of the land. The architect then creates a plot plan, indicating locations of buildings in relationship to the land. In this initial design the architect considers all the information the civil engineer has provided about site restrictions and the availability of utilities.

The next step is to design the walls and partitions for each floor or level. These are referred to as floor plans. Then the elevations, which are a drawing of what the building will look like, can be done. Elevations include all the exterior faces of the building, and resemble a conceptual picture of the building rather than a lined design. Cross sections and details are added to clearly indicate floor levels and details of footings, foundation, walls, floors, ceilings and roof construction. Details are large scale drawings used by construction personnel to give a close-up of a particular aspect of what they’re working on.

Civil Engineer.  The civil engineer is responsible for everything with regard to the land and what lies beneath the surface. Civil engineers are typically hired locally because of their familiarity with governing authorities and restrictions on land use. Duties include location of utilities, building setbacks, zoning, easements, ingress and egress, land elevations, watershed, etc. Civil engineer drawings are commonly referred to as “civils.”

Structural Engineer.  This person assures the materials and the manner in which they are assembled is strong enough to withstand its own weight, the weight of any use it may be put to, and all internal and external forces—known as vertical loads and lateral stresses—applied to the building.

A load is any force exerted upon a structure or one of its members. Snow load is the weight of snow resting on a building. Wind load is the force imposed by wind blowing in any direction; and seismic loads are the potential forces exerted by earthquakes. Additional loads are the weight of the building itself, referred to as the dead load, and live loads, produced by people, furnishings, equipment and materials inside the building.

Stresses, on the other hand, are internal forces of a material constructed so as to resist external forces. Tension is the stress to pull something apart; compression is the stress to push something together; and shear is the stress that tends to keep two adjoining planes of material from sliding against each other under opposing parallel forces.

Mechanical Engineers.  Mechanical, electrical and plumbing drawings are created by mechanical engineers and referred to as MEPs. They are often drawn by one engineer. Mechanical drawings cover the complete design, layout and installation of heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems within buildings and on the premises. Their drawings show floor plan layouts, cross sections and details of products and materials.

The electrical drawings cover the complete design of the electrical system for lighting, power, alarm and communication systems, and related equipment. They should show connections to existing power, and floor plans indicating the location of outlets, lighting fixtures, power panels, etc. Plumbing drawings depict the location of plumbing fixtures, distribution lines and water-use connections.

Landscaping.  A landscaping design may also be required by the city or county, specifying ground coverage and plant materials. Tree ordinances often dictate location and types that may be included. Environmentally sensitive locations may have many plant and animal-life preservation restrictions. Requirements vary greatly from location to location.

Shop Drawings. In addition to these drawings, which must be submitted to authorities for approval, individual contractors (such as the metal-building contractor, electrician, plumber, etc.) have their own in-house shop or construction drawings for personnel use during actual construction. These go into great detail as to how the individual contractor fulfills requirements set forth in the master plans.

Finding Harmony

Once the music has been written, the general contractor is responsible for making sure that everyone is playing the same tune—building the project in accordance with the design. General contractors may provide labor and materials themselves, use subcontractors and vendors, or a combination of the above. Subcontractors provide their own shop drawings and may be in charge of trade-specific permits and inspections. General contractors have three specific important functions:

  • Quality control through inspection

  • Cost control through the bid process and elimination of mistakes

  • Time control through scheduling, and coordination of every aspect of construction

It is the general contractor that weaves everyone’s efforts into the completed product. Construction of a typical self-storage project would include the following trade and services components. Some of the more critical elements of work performed by these trades are considered below.

Utilities. Utilities, excavation and grading may be the most costly components of a project. Utility providers must work closely with officials and service providers to hook up or extend existing water, sewer and power lines. Often the progression of work at a jobsite is dependant on actions taken by those outside parties. Grading is extremely important in the control of water. Retention and detention pond size is based on the local water cubic-footage requirements. They can be costly and reduce the amount of land available for buildings.

Concrete. Just as grading is critical to the flow of water, the concrete slab is critical to the flow of the building. Slabs that are not properly framed, poured or cured, must be corrected by the concrete contractor, or other trades that follow. For instance, if a slab curves or is too narrow or wide at an end, or if it undulates, the metal framing that rests on the slab has to be adjusted to mitigate the defect so that the roof ends up flat and the sides of the building are straight. Block or brick columns must be nearly exact as well. Only relatively small adjustments can be made by the metal-building subcontractor.

Doors. Door and hallway systems’ color, sheen and style radiate the personality of the store. Doors, gates and elevators are the project’s only moving parts. Great care should be taken in selection and installation of all noticeable elements.

Drives. Drives, particularly turning radiuses, have to be of sufficient quality to support the intended use. Soil and weather conditions affect material composition and cost. Often a combination of asphalt and concrete is used to achieve the most cost-effective quality product.

Roof. Standing-seam or screw-down roofs are usually used on metal buildings. It is not the type of roof chosen, however, that is most important. It is how it is installed. Leaks typically appear at some type of transition, either at a vent, hatch, around an elevator shaft, or at a step-down or parapet wall. At each of these transitions where a horizontal surface meets a vertical surface, where metal meets metal, a good design and proper use of sealants is imperative.

Sealants. Quality painting and concrete floor sealing are completely dependent on the products used. Floor sealants should be at least 22 percent solids. Paint, particularly over block or any permeable surface, has to be applied full strength over the appropriate sealant with at least two coats.

HVAC. Different climates require different HVAC systems. Tonnage has to be appropriate for the space being conditioned. The distribution system, including types of vents and fans, must be considered. The importance of humidity control should be a factor in air-conditioning unit selection. Electricity is a significant operational cost. It is just as wrong to have too much HVAC as it is to have too little. Units must also be properly maintained, and the subcontractor/general contractor should ensure maintenance and warranty information is passed on to the client.

Lighting. Lighting is also an ongoing operational expense. Design and materials should be as cost-effective as possible. Replacement parts, including bulbs and ballasts, are specific to the system installed.

Fire Protection. Fire-safety systems are usually dictated by the local fire authority. They may be seemingly excessive or absent, and may be costly. Separation fire walls or a combination of fire walls and sprinkler systems are usually necessary for codes.

The Final Performance

Owner or general contractor preference is the determining factor in many of the remaining components of construction. The number of options in insulation, exterior coatings and building accents has grown phenomenally. The key in incorporating these products on the project is to be certain that transitions from one type of material to another are done carefully and have no potential to leak. Attention to detail by everyone working on the jobsite is crucial.

For a truly collaborative project, the developer determines the melody, the design team writes the notes, and the general contractor assembles and conducts the orchestra. Only through contribution, communication and cooperation is beautiful music—and the perfect self-storage song—possible. But once completed, it will likely receive rave reviews for years to come.

Donna May is the president of Cross Metal Buildings, a member of the Parham Group, which specializes in self-storage development, construction and education. She is a real estate broker and has been a partner in 11 start-up self-storage facilities. She is also a contributing writer for the Parham Group website,  For more information, call 210.477.1260; visit

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