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Building Codes

January 1, 1998

11 Min Read
Building Codes

By Cecile Blaine

Designing a self-storage facility requires an eye towardsecurity, traffic flow, durability and making the most efficientand profitable use of the land available. Those considerationsare added to other criteria determined in advance by the buildingcodes, the site influences, owner requirements and designcriteria. For that reason, designing a facility needs to be aslow, careful process with lots of reflection.

"One of the things that I keep emphasizing is thatdevelopment is not something you jump into," says HermanMenze, owner of Menze Building in Tempe, Ariz., who has designedfacilities for U-Haul, Pegasus and Central Self-Storage, amongothers.

A common mistake some builders are guilty of, says Dan Curtis,president of Doors and Building Components of Douglasville, Ga.,is trying to re-invent the wheel. "A lot of people feel likethey have to invent something, and actually there are plenty ofgood vendors in all phases of the business who can give peoplecorrect answers," says Curtis.

Building Codes

Before pencil ever hits paper or that CAD program is evenwarmed up, building codes need to be researched and studiedthoroughly, because codes will dictate a number of criteria thataffect the design of the facility. Some of those items includesetbacks, water-retention methods, landscape, parking, fire-truckminimums, septic systems, easements and flood plains. Once thoseitems mandated by the code are identified, then the facility canbe designed with more certainty.

Maximum Coverage and Convenience

The design of a facility must take intoconsideration the size and shape of the land it will be built on,and it must utilize that land in the most efficient way, creatingas much income as possible. In other words, it must maximize thebuilding-to-land coverage, which many builders say is optimal at38 percent--38 percent building to 62 percent land. The moreexpensive the land, the more efficient the design must be. At thesame time, the design needs to be convenient for customers,because that's what sells units.

During the life of the self-storage industry, architects,designers and builders have vastly improved facility design,creating many industry standards. Nothing should be created,however, without a feasibility or market study of the area wherethe facility is planned. Only then can a designer know what theunit mix should be, what the security needs are and otherelements of the market.

Layout/Traffic Flow

The shape of the parcel of land is probably the most importantcriteria in determining the layout of the facility. With fewexceptions, a mini-storage building can be constructed on justabout any piece of real estate, attests John Wilson, chiefoperating officer with American International Construction Inc.of Houston. "There's really nowhere you can't put one,"he says. With the proper design and traffic flow, nothing isimpossible, Wilson adds.

Clearly, one of the most popular configurations for a facilityis the fortress layout, in which the outer walls of the buildingsserve another purpose--that of a boundary for the facility. Notonly is this layout thought to be safer, but it also helps makethe best use of the land, as it eliminates the need for a fencearound the outer portion of the facility, reduces the size of thefooting and generally allows the builder to go beyond the heightlimit on the outer wall, says Menze.

Rows of units are often laid out parallel to the longest sideof the parcel. If security is an issue--and where isn't it anissue--laying out the rows perpendicular to the office gives themanager a view of every unit just by walking one side of theproperty.

The larger the project, the more the layout will affect theflow of traffic. Most designers recommend one entrance and exitcombination. While it creates more congestion than having asecond exit, the security benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

In a one-story facility, larger units should be located towardthe rear of the facility or at least toward the end of thesidewalls, says Mike Wimble, construction manager with PioneerInternational Steel of Austin, Texas. "You want to keep thebig traffic in the back of the project," he reminds."You don't want to have U-Hauls backed up."

For the same reasons, driveways usually range from 20 feet to35 feet wide, with the price of land often determining the widthof the lanes. "For the most part, when somebody builds askinny driveway, it's so they can get more square footage out oftheir property," notes Wimble. "Square footage ismoney, and money is the name of the game."

But Wilson says scrimping on the lane width to get a few morerentable square feet is one of the egregious flaws a property canhave. "The worst thing is not to make the lanes wideenough," says Wilson. Facilities need an intersection of atleast 25-by-30 for trucks and larger vehicles to get aroundeasily, he maintains.

Building Design/Hallways

Great temptation awaits those developers designing hallways ona long, narrow piece of property to create very long rows--andhallways--without breaks. Menze suggests creating unbrokenhallways no longer than 150 feet long. "I like to see anexit every 150 feet," he points out.

Others have more conservative criteriafor hallways. Danny Clemons, president of American InternationalConstruction, likes to see units a maximum of 70 feet from anexit. Marking hallways with arrows, written directions or centralfocal points are other design elements that can help orientpeople and keep them from getting lost, he adds.

Cooled storage buildings are no longer a novelty, but astandard. When designing a new facility, most builders suggestincorporating climate control into 20 to 40 percent of the units.Those units should be located on interior hallways and upperfloors of multistory buildings in units with swing doors, whichhave better seals to keep the air conditioning inside the unit.

Multistory facilities allow for a greater number of units and,therefore, revenue on a small or expensive piece of land. Butbuildings with more than one level also have different designcriteria that apply. For example, any facility that is more thanone story is required to have a lift or an elevator, according tothe Americans With Disabilities code, and typically has morestringent fire-code requirements than a single-level facility.

Designing the Perfect Unit

Unit sizes should reflect the industry standards, which aredivisible by five: 5-by-5, 5-by-10, 10-by-10, 10-by-15, 10-by-20,etc. In other words, there is no need to create odd-sized units,such as an 8-by-12, just to be different. Again, there's no needto re-invent what works well already.

In the unit design, builders must address one of the mostcommon ways goods are damaged: flooding. Sloping the floors ofthe units or installing what is called a weather ledge helps getrid of moisture or water that builds up, according to Menze."If I pour a floor flat and water spills in there, it can goover to the other unit," he says.

Steps, rather than slopes, are designed into pre-engineeredbuildings, according to Pioneer International Steel's Wimble."An inch-and-a-half step will stop a ton of water fromgetting in," he says.

Separate But Equal

Moveable partition systems have become a popular designelement in facilities over the years, because they enable amanager to change the unit mix with little effort. Galvanizedsystems, which are dark gray and show fingerprints and corrosion,have given way to Galvalume(r), a combination of zinc andaluminum. "It will not fingerprint and stain, and it'll staybright and shiny for a long time," says Curtis.

Those opposed to the idea of moveable partition systems say itreflects more of a marketing problem than a unit-mix problem."It is my opinion, after being in the business forever, thatyou should change your marketing, not your units," maintainsClemons. "I think you should do a good job in designing yourfacility to start with."


Security systems need to be incorporated into the wholefacility design at the very beginning in order to cut down onlarge, unplanned expenses down the road. For example, individualdoor alarms need to be included in the initial design beforeconstruction begins, as retrofitting a facility can be anexpensive nightmare. And when they are installed, Curtisrecommends placing them at the top of the door, which make itmore difficult for them to be damaged in an accident orvandalized.

When installing a keypad for entry into the facility, theplacement of it on the driveway should allow for three cars linedup bumper to bumper in the driveway. Otherwise, traffic problemsarise. Also, the keypad needs to be close enough to the car sothat it's convenient for the customer. "A lot of people puttheir keypads for entry into the gate where people have to getout of their cars to walk up and punch in their codes and getback in the car," says Clemons. "Well, if it israining, snowing or really hot or really cold, it's veryinconvenient for the customer."

Driveways and Parking Lots

Driveways and lanes need to be wide enough to accommodatecustomers' cars and trucks--especially fire trucks--but not sowide that customers are tempted to turn around and ultimatelybang into the building, warns Curtis. "I believe in havingnarrow driveways and, if possible, making them one-way," hesays. "So, if you have it a little narrower, they say,'Well, it's not worth trying. I'll just drive down to the end,turn and get out of here.'" Twenty feet or 25 feet is fine,while 30 feet or 35 feet is too wide, he maintains.

Buildings that taper off at the ends also help create a widerturning radius for traffic to get through. For example, abuilding containing 10-by-10s could have two 5-by-10s at the endin order to round off the building and create an easier turn forvehicles. Menze says a good design should have a turning radiusthat is 28 feet wide on the inside of the turn, 48 feet on theoutside, but 35-by-55 is better to ensure that fire trucks canget through.

Due to the many misconceptions about the self-storageindustry, building codes often don't adequately reflect the lowparking needs of a facility. "The parking lots will have waytoo many (spaces)," Curtis says of most designs.Self-storage is a "quiet, passive use of real estate. Thereare only eight people per every 100 units per day that will entera self-storage facility." Building codes that dictate morethan that should be challenged, he argues.

Menze has been a soldier in the war of the self-storageparking lot, as well. "It seems like every time I go into anew area I fight that battle," he says. "For a50,000-square-foot facility, you only need five to six parkingspaces."


When talking about interior lighting, Menze believes varietyis the key. "Too much light is just as bad as notenough," he says. Instead, he prefers to have one verybright light--what he calls prison lighting--and then lower wattlights around the rest of the facility.

Outside, the Tempe designer suggests focused rather thanscattered light. "You want your lights to hug the ground andnot shine over into the other people's property," he adds.


Many older facilities were designed with built-up roofs,whereas today the standard is the standing seam roof. Menze hasseen plenty of good wood truss and asphalt shingle roofs, but heis particularly opposed to built-up roofs. "Those built-uproofs cause a lot of problems, because they are good for a whileand then they start to leak, then you patch them and work withthem.," Menze pointed out.

With all the hoopla over the standing seam roof, PioneerInternational Steel's Wimble says he doesn't see a lot ofadvantages in the standing seam over other types of metalroofs--especially the screw-down system or R-panel, as it iscalled. "Everybody has their opinions," he says."I think both systems are very functional. A screw-downsystem is cheaper generally and just as functional, if installedcorrectly."

The Apartment/Office Equation

Self-storage facilities are increasingly being designedwithout managers' residences, as the face of the industrychanges. Shurgard doesn't hire on-site managers, and U-Haul ismoving in that direction. Therefore, they don't have to buildmanager residences at their facilities. "Twelve years ago,when we first started the company and we were building, justabout every project had an apartment," says Clemons."Today, probably one in 10 has an apartment." It's partof a trend among some management companies to hire younger, moremarketing-oriented managers.

"You wouldn't want to live where you work, neither wouldanyone else," he adds.

When a residence is included in the facility design, it isusually attached to the office, either on the same floor or withan upstairs component. The jury is still out on whether themanagers' residence should be attached to the office or not. Theadvantages of attaching it are straight forward: convenience,time savings, etc. Disadvantages include having the customerexposed to cooking fumes, grandchildren or other family matters.

DBCI's Curtis says separating it offers some other advantages,as well. "Usually, when it is separated, the (manager) isn'ttempted to go in and sit down in the easy chair and watchTV," he says.

Less room for residences means more square footage and moremoney for the self-storage office and, according to Clemons,"It is getting bigger." Some of his clients spendbetween $50,000 to $100,000 on their office spaces, signaling amaturing of the industry in general, he says.

"This business has grown up," Clemons points out."It's not a second-rate business anymore. It's a retailbusiness. My customers are starting to see that and starting todesign much better facilities--much more customer-orientedbusinesses."

Finally, the design phase of building a self-storage facilityis the period in which all the pre-determined elements must bemeshed with the optional design elements to create a facilitythat blends with the land, is convenient for the customer,reflects the needs of the market and meets the budget of theowner.


Study the Building Code Carefully
Take Advantage of Examples of Existing Good Design
Maximize Building-to-Land Coverage (Without Jeopardizing Convenience)
Design One Entry/Exit Combination
Build in Phases
Locate Climate-Controlled Units on Interior Hallways with Swing Doors
Locate Larger Units Toward Ends of Buildings, Toward Back of Facility


Use Wood Construction--Metal is Standard
Try to Re-invent the Wheel
Rush the Project
Scrimp on Lanes to Get More Square Footage
Create Odd-sized Units as a Marketing Gimmick
Overbuild Parking Lots

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