Designing a Self-Storage Site to Maximize Land Use

Designing a self-storage site to maximize land use requires a balance between rentable space and operational efficiency. Here are several options to optimize a facility for profit while ensuring convenient customer access and easy maintenance.

Steve Hajewski

March 19, 2017

6 Min Read
Designing a Self-Storage Site to Maximize Land Use

When laying out a self-storage site, you’ll find there are competing uses for the land. Of course, your priority is rental space, but you also need driveways, green space, storm-water handling features and possibly an office, none of which directly produce income. To maximize your land, you must create balance between rental space, customer convenience and ease of maintenance.

Regulatory Constraints

Before you begin, familiarize yourself with local regulations, including zoning, setbacks, easements, green-space restrictions, parking requirements and coverage constraints. These will all influence your layout. Similarly, elevation changes on the property can impact design.

Before attempting to create a building layout, work with your local civil engineer to determine if a retention pond is required, what size it needs to be, and where on the property it should be positioned. If a pond is necessary, consider making it deeper to reduce its surface size.

You’ll also want to understand the fire code for your area. Most jurisdictions have allowed fire areas (space of a single building or between firewalls) of up to 12,000 square feet in an unsprinklered building. However, a change in the 2012 International Building Code has reduced that space to 2,500 square feet in states that have adopted the new code. This will mean more firewalls in traditional buildings or possibly sprinklers in wider buildings. The cost can be significant and may impact your decisions, especially if there isn’t already adequate water service on the property.

Think Wide

What level of service and curb appeal do you want and need to succeed in your market? Newer sites are offering increasing levels of amenities. Typically, the higher rental rates a site can command make the increased construction costs a solid investment.

One highly effective way to increase rentable space is by using wider buildings with halls. Traditionally, basic self-storage facilities consist of 30- or 40-foot wide buildings. These are efficient to build, and with doors on all sides, they tend to offer an attractive unit mix. While these drive-up units are convenient and easy to rent, it’s becoming increasingly common to see wider buildings (100 feet wide or more) with interior hallways. Most clients don’t object to the interior units as long as carts are provided for easy access. In the end, you’ll spend less on driveways, and the wider buildings tend to cost a little less per square foot.

Building Types and Uses

Once you’ve made the jump to wide buildings with interior access, consider whether your community has a need for heated and cooled units. These have traditionally been more common in upscale, urban or humid areas, but as the self-storage industry has matured, climate-controlled buildings are becoming more common in suburban and smaller markets.

When land is scarce or costly, it can make sense to build multiple stories. A decade ago, new multi-story properties would often include a freight-only “lift” instead of a passenger elevator. Today, multi-story construction normally includes an elevator. If you commit to an elevator, consider going to three stories instead of two, since the incremental cost makes it worthwhile if you anticipate having demand for the space.

Multi-story buildings typically take longer to plan and develop. They also take longer to break even financially since a larger amount of storage is built all at once. If the property has a grade change of around 9 feet, consider a “two-story into a hill.” This design can add a second floor with walk-in access from both levels without the need for an elevator. For every floor added, expect 70 percent to 80 percent to be rentable due to space stairs and halls.

In many areas of the country, operators receive requests for large units to store boats and RVs. Due to larger driveway requirements and lower income per square foot, these units are usually not as attractive an investment. However, it can be a good idea to incorporate a few larger units at driveway ends or intersections if there’s sufficient room for a customer to back his vehicle into the unit. With only a small number of these coveted units available, they can command a higher rent and be well worth the effort—especially if they use a driveway location that was already planned. If a site has a large amount of affordable land and demand for traditional units has been exhausted, there may be a strong business case to install large RV units.

Form vs. Function

Maximizing site revenue is about more than looking good in a financial forecast. Small units may earn more revenue per square foot, but only if you can rent them. Consider the function and maintenance of the site during the design process. Security can be improved by aligning buildings so you can see between them from the main road. In cold climates, prevent ice buildup by aligning buildings or adjusting roof pitch to avoid shedding water on northern exposures. Be careful to avoid creating dead ends, as these will cause tenants to be more likely to hit a building when backing up a rental truck or trailer.

Developers sometimes create buildings with jogs to best utilize space and maximize revenue. However, these design features drive up construction costs and can create additional spots where snow can build up without being easily accessible with a snowplow. If you’re considering jogs, weigh the potential negatives against the benefit of increased revenue.

Speaking of snow, if you’re in an area that receives heavy snowfall, you’ll need to plan for where the plow will push the snow. Ideally, this should be toward the pond if one exists.

Operational Decisions

Your management style will also affect site layout. Not every facility will have an office and gate, but if your site has both, provide parking and access to the office from outside the gate.

Automating management functions through rental kiosks may also be an option. If market conditions align with this choice, eliminating the office entirely will reduce construction costs and increase land coverage. Sites operated via a kiosk are increasingly common and can reduce operating costs compared to employing a full-time manager. If you go this route, bright lighting and conspicuous security cameras will help increase customer comfort and confidence.

Sites with kiosks should be designed with parking and kiosk access outside the gate. Position the keypads so customers with trucks and trailers will be completely off the street while waiting for the gate to open. Installing a second keypad for exiting the facility will help you track when people come and go.

Weighing Your Options

As you consider layout options, consider the potential cost and revenue for various configurations. To simplify the process, think in terms of cost and revenue per square foot rather than attempting to get detailed quotes on each possible arrangement. Your building manufacturer should be able to give you ballpark numbers for different types of buildings.

Correctly planning a site for the initial and future phases of your business is a major undertaking that will affect site operation for decades and impact resale value. Working with an experienced civil engineer and building manufacturer can go a long way toward ensuring your facility will be profitable as well as easy to operate and maintain.

Steve Hajewski is marketing manager at Trachte Building 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 also owns a self-storage facility in Wisconsin and is a frequent contributor on Self-Storage Talk, the industry's largest online community. For more information, call 800.356.5824; visit

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