Tricky Business: Self-Storage Site Layout

May 16, 2008

4 Min Read
Tricky Business: Self-Storage Site Layout

Planning your self-storage site layout can be tricky. It can make or cost you money. Your key factor is to remember you are building your storage business for the marketplace and your customers, so don’t make decisions based entirely on construction costs.

Build Your Team First

Building a team of experts knowledgeable in self-storage is vital to the successful development of your new site. Don’t fall into the trap of believing your architect or contractor knows all about the demographics of your area or all about the self-storage industry. By the time you eventually find out they were making reasoned assumptions, it’s only you who will be left holding the bag. Find a specialist to consult, and conduct a feasibility study yourself to better understand the area demographics.

All of the different members of your technical team will be helpful in their respective areas of expertise but do your own research, find out about local competitor sites, and develop your own understanding of how your new self-storage business can find its place in the market.

Zoning, Codes and Regulations

Building codes and zoning need to be researched and are different in every city. Some locales will allow you to build with a basic site plan and with manufacturer’s drawings. This is becoming rare, so if you are building in a major city on a main road in either single-story or multi-story, get ready to complete a long list of requirements.

Elements of a Good Site Plan

A great deal of consideration goes into a good site plan, including:

  • Building setbacks

  • Distance between buildings

  • Size of buildings

  • Fire walls

  • Fire routes

  • Water drainage

  • Maximum site coverage

  • Parking spaces

  • Water supply, services

  • Electrical services

  • Hallway lengths

  • Fire sprinklers

  • Natural space requirements

  • Security-camera angles

These items will be needed to complete your site layout and could be taken care of by your manufacturer, architect, engineer or design/build company.

Plan to maximize the natural visibility of your site. Carefully consider how big and where to place your signage. Use the best visual exposure point to your advantage. Sign advertising and your curb exposure is virtually free. Where is your best exposure? Does your lot back on a road or highway? Does the lot corner on two main roads? Use the free advertising from signage and road exposure to fill your buildings quicker, but remember to consult local bylaws to determine if there are limitations on how much square footage of signage face is allotted according to the size of your building or lot.

If your building code allows, build perimeter buildings to maximize the site. This design may also eliminate fences and add firewalls. The site may require you to set the buildings back from the lot lines to eliminate firewalls and add fences.

Maximize Every Foot

The use of single-story larger buildings or multi-story buildings with interior hallways can eliminate driveways on your site and create more rental footage. Buildings can be 10 feet to more than 200 feet wide, but keep in mind most of your customers will prefer the drive-up units so don’t over do it.

To minimize the damage to your buildings put large units around good access and turning points or on fire routes, and use protective bollards at every corner of every building about 16 inches from the building. The cost to install four bollards will be the same as replacing one corner of a structure.

The entrance and security gate should be a drive-in and drive-out system. Offer a bigger entrance than required to make your customers feel comfortable at the gate. If your site has an office, make sure your clients can access it from outside the gate and add parking for office visitors.

Every site contains a different unit mix and should be researched to suit your marketplace demographics. Keep in mind, 20-foot to 40-foot buildings can give you more versatile options over time by allowing you to remove and install walls at 5-foot increments to make different size units whenever you may need to. An example unit mix is 15 percent 5-by-10, 30 percent 10-by-10, 25 percent 10-by-15, 20 percent 10-by-20, and 10 percent 10-by-25.

The Conversion Option 

There have been many changes in self-storage design in the last few years. Many more two- and three-story sites are developing in city areas. Single-story drive-ups with 20-by-20 units and larger mini workshops with heat, hydro and phone lines are now available.

Teardowns of old cold-storage buildings and an upgrade re-install of larger climate-controlled buildings is moving the self-storage industry into a new phase. Old conventional buildings in downtown city cores are being converted into one- or two-story facilities all the time. In cottage areas, 45-foot heated and non-heated drive-through units with doors on both sides with 9-by-9 doors for storing off-season boats and RVs are definitely worth planning.

Laying out your site will require research, building code and bylaw experience and, most important, site-area maximization work with your design firm. Let the designers know you want to maximize your site to meet minimal building code requirements. Firms can get carried away with appearance, and building costs can rapidly escalate.

Stay involved in the process. You only get to build it once.

George Gray is the president for the Ontario-based Grayveld Builders Corp., a design/build company specializing in self-storage development. For information, call 866.855.2769; visit

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