Self-Storage Design Challenge: Making the Most of a Small Land Parcel

Smaller-sized lots can actually be great self-storage development opportunities. Follow these design guidelines to get the most from your urban project.

April 29, 2015

5 Min Read
Self-Storage Design Challenge: Making the Most of a Small Land Parcel

By Kenneth Carrell

In many regions of the country, a typical self-storage site is about four acres or more. This gives the owner a good-sized facility through which to generate revenue. However, once you move into cities, those nice big parcels disappear. It’s difficult if not impossible to find a tract of land big enough to build a storage facility that’ll offer a good return on investment. Instead, you might find a suitable site, but it’s on an acre or less. Should you move on or seriously consider the smaller footprint?

Smaller-sized lots can actually be great self-storage development opportunities. They can save on the overall construction costs and offer an opportunity to charge higher rental rates due to less competition in urban areas. If you’re considering a small parcel for your next facility, follow these design guidelines to get the most from your project.

Make (and Save) More Money

A smaller storage facility in the just the right spot can be a great investment. Urban areas often have less competition, so you can charge more per square foot. Plus, there’s typically a huge need for self-storage in these areas By taking a site that’s about an acre in size, you can still build a nice-sized facility that’s large enough to turn a profit.

Scott Storage in Whittier, Calif., was built on a less than acre but was still able to attain 59,000 square feet of net leasable space.For example, Scott Storage in Whittier, Calif., is on a 0.9-acre parcel of land. However, its innovative design, which includes three stories, helped the property attain 83,000 square feet in overall size and 59,000 square feet of net leasable space. The facility opened in 2010, leased up in less than a year and has been full ever since.

The cost of a site in an urban setting is normally higher than one in the suburbs—if it’s the same size. But lots in the suburbs are generally bigger, so the costs start to match. Then there are the construction costs. Because you won’t be building as big a structure in an urban area, your price per square foot for construction will be more, but it’ll cost you less to build the facility, since it’s smaller.

Most jurisdictions now require storage buildings to look more like office buildings or retail and even to match other properties in the area. This could mean decorative windows and façades, specialty materials and even vibrant colors. Smaller buildings will cost less to dress up than larger ones.

Adding Floors

One of the easiest ways to add more square footage and great design is to build up. Building multiple stories will provide the square footage you need, give the property more presence and create ample space for signage. Operators often believe it will be harder to rent units on upper floors, but this is really no longer the case. Once customers are in the elevator, it doesn’t matter if they have to go to the second floor or the 22nd.

In the case of Scott Storage, three floors were deemed appropriate due to a setback requirement. Since the building was so small, it only needed one elevator. However, other developments might require two, and it doesn’t hurt to add extra stairs. Often, if a person only has one or two boxes to store and he’s closer to a set of stairs, he’ll use them to get to his unit.

The number of floors you can add to your project will be limited by building codes and zoning requirements. In most jurisdictions, you’ll be limited to four floors. If you can go higher, remember your construction costs will go up substantially, since you’ll have to implement a higher grade of construction.

Another factor to consider is how many parking spaces will be required. When building additional floors, the number of parking spaces and even elevators you need could change. Scott Storage was required to have 11 parking spaces. Including more parking can cut back on your overall rentable square footage.

Consider Access

Building access is critical on smaller sites. Since you don’t have a lot of room, you need to make unit access as simple as possible. I sometimes put the building up against the property line on one side and then include a central access to the upper floors. This allows me to maximize the square footage. However, for convenience, it really helps to have a drive aisle around the structure, allowing entrance to ground-level units.

A project currently under construction in Newark, Calif., includes both a drive aisle around most of the building and a portion on the property line. The ground-level ceiling height is about 16 feet, which allows cars and trucks to drive under a portion of the building.

Another important point is to allow for loading spaces. Tenants need a spot to unload, and they’ll want it to be as convenient to their unit as possible. Scott’s Storage includes a central loading zone right next to an elevator. This helped the project lease up very quickly.

Build a Nice Office

Another important design consideration when building on a small site is the management office. Just because you have less room doesn’t mean you can skimp on the office. You still need everything you would otherwise require on a large site. Plus, in an urban environment, there are additional services you can offer that will increase your revenue.

One service that can be useful to customers is a postal station that includes P.O. boxes, shipping, packaging, etc. This ancillary center can turn into a real moneymaker, since businesses can make use of the physical address, a place to store their products and the ability to ship packages without having to lug them to another location.

Small sites offer a lot of advantages to those looking for urban self-storage development opportunities. Even though the property is on a smaller footprint, you can still get the square footage you need to make it profitable through creative design. Although your new property may have fewer units than a sprawling facility, you’ll likely have less competition and can charge higher rates. Adding ancillary profit centers can add even more revenue. All in all, small sites can work to your advantage if you just plan ahead.

Kenneth Carrell is the principal architect at ARE Associates in Lake Forest, Calif., an award-winning architectural firm specializing in the self-storage industry. For more information, call 949.305.4752; visit

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