Canadians Beware When Building

April 1, 2006

8 Min Read
Canadians Beware When Building

All-metal construction is faster to build and better suited to self-storage.

As a long-time contractor, I have seen Canadian self-storage buildings constructed from just about everything but goat cheese and beer cans. Especially in the industrys early years, facility design was a hodgepodge of brick, stucco, metal, core slabs, vinyl, block with flat mop down, and asphalt shingles, just to name a few materials. Wood-frame and drywall buildings were big favorites and, shockingly, still go up on a regular basis.

The truth is, most Canadian facility designs are not conducive to the needs of self-storagesimply because architects remain ignorant of the industry. A successful enterprise requires cost-conscious structures that are quick to install, virtually maintenance free, bright, clean and meet building codes. 

Whats the answer? Savvy developers take their cue from the more mature U.S. market: light-gauge metal, noncombustible buildings. Compared to its American counterpart, Canadian self-storage is still a teenager. The first metal facility in Canada was built only about six years ago, but in the United States, these structures have proved their worth. Unfortunately, many Canadian investors are experiencing harsh building costs and time overruns due to elaborate construction methods. Usually its the little guys who get burned because they havent had the time and resources to attend educational tradeshows and exhibits in the States.

Avoid Pitfalls

When planning a development, its vital to find a contractor or structural engineer with self-storage experience to lead the construction team. Architects should be responsible mainly for street appeal, office design and some storm-water management. If youre not sure who to contact, start by calling U.S. vendors of metal buildings and components for referrals in your area. Theyll be happy to help. Better yet, attend a self-storage tradeshow and read up on the industry.

By working with people knowledgeable about site layouts, unit mix, code issues, etc., youll avoid unnecessary and costly features. For example, one investor recently broke ground on a facility outside Toronto that is designed with wood-frame, drywall and a sloped, shingled roof. The 10,000-square-foot project was expected to be finished in seven months. Had this investor known to select metal construction, an experienced contractor could have completed about 5,000 square feet per week, drastically reducing the budget. Plus, the site plan proved a mess, riddled with wide roads and other examples of wasted space and materials. Dont let this be you.

A slab is poured with in-floor heating.

Metal Proves Its Mettle

Wood-frame and commercial-type construction is slowly becoming a thing of the past because of costs, timing and code issues. In Ontario, buildings with wood frames require fire-rated drywall throughout to meet building codes. The drywall doesnt hold up well against humidity or constant abuse by customers. It also tends to sag when it gets wet and requires a lot of maintenance.

Metal construction is faster to implement, more cost effective and stands up to the test of time with little safeguarding. Furthermore, one construction crew can typically build the whole structure.

Sometimes, Canadian storage owners are skeptical about metal construction because they feel the look is too industrial. They believe a facility should have a more pleasing appearance than that provided by orange doors and a flat roofand many municipalities tend to agree. To circumvent this, buildings should be designed with handsome facades for the front office and units facing the main street. This can be done in several ways using siding, door and roof colors.

Another way to enhance appeal is to increase the roof pitch only on the front buildings and to install brick veneers or stucco on walls. Many storage owners initially balk at the standing seam on low-pitched roofs of galvanized steel, saying its ugly. However, the roof cant be seen from the ground because eves are typically 8.5 feet or higher. Also, a colored trough and trim runs around the top perimeter of the buildings, further screening the rooftop.

More important, a relatively flat roof is a must in snowy regions. Youve got to put the snow somewherewhy not leave it on your roof? You dont want the danger of it falling on your customers. If you have a standard 45-foot building and a 25-foot laneway, the amount of snow that ends up on the ground would be tripled by using a high-pitched roof. Allowing snow to remain on the roof has the added benefit of enhancing insulation for heated buildings.

With the proper use of siding, trim and door colors, flat-roofed, metal facilities are actually more visually pleasing then conventional structures, as well as far more economical to build. Since the office area will be occupied on a daily basis and require standard building materials, expect it to cost substantially more per square foot than the rest of the project.

Hot Topic

Another noticeable change in the Canadian self-storage market is the increased use of climate-controlled units, defined as those heated to more than 45 degrees in winter. Historically, climate control was accomplished with gas-fired standalone heating units, duct systems or baseboard heating. Lately, the trend is to install in-floor radiant heat.

Mechanical duct systems typically require 18 inches of head room, an added building cost. Plus, they are inefficient due to poor insulation in walls, ceilings and doors. In-floor heating is easy to install in new construction and economical to run. It may seem expensive as a line-item but saves money down the line, as storage tenants commonly leave exterior doors open for long periods of time, resulting in substantial heat loss. In-floor elements heat the mass of the concrete slab, which, being radiant, recovers almost immediately.

Navigating the Corridor

Corridors are another special construction concern. In Ontario, building code requires public corridors longer than 15 meters or a certain distance from an exit to have a sprinkler system. I recommend avoiding sprinklers at all costs, except for multistory facilities or interior conversions. The minute you introduce a sprinkler into the building, you are not only faced with the expense of installation, but the risk of water damage inside a sealed area. After four or five years, sprinkler systems can fail, and flood damage can be extensive.

The good news is buildings can be designed up to 70 feet wide with no sprinkler system required, provided the corridors run perpendicularly. Properly designed, this system wont reduce the amount of rentable space but will save money.

Its also important to consider smoke-corridor ceiling requirements. In Ontario, hallways cant be open all the way to the eaves as they are in the United States. The purpose of a corridor ceiling is to contain smoke and prevent it from invading other areas of a facility in case of fire. Many contractors have achieved this with drywall, acoustic ceiling tiles, and the extension of corridor ceilings to the underside of the roof or floor deck. However, drywall and ceiling tiles are prone to sagging, discoloration and moisture damage, a maintenance headache.

Several U.S. vendors offer an all-metal corridor system. It is easy to install and wears extremely well. As an added bonus, it has a high-gloss, reflective finish, which brightens the corridors substantially. This type of system easily allows you to run strip lighting on the corridor ceiling, saving the expense of lighting units individually.

Sound Foundation

The foundations of self-storage construction have also evolved. Just a few years ago, it was the norm to use perimeter foundation walls (known as 4-foot frost walls), sunk 4 feet into the ground. Floating slabs have emerged as a great alternative, requiring less excavation and concrete. Not only are construction time and labor costs reduced, the slabs create a better overall foundation because they evenly bear the whole buildings weight and allow its components to move together. The system works in most areas unless adverse soil conditions prevail.

Rain lips are another improvement to use in conjunction with slab foundations. To keep water from draining into exterior units, the old design involved dropping the slab 1.5 inches inside the door. This works well until winter when the sun reflects off the doors and melts snow that freezes in the depressions. A better solution is to put in a continuous rain slope, starting inside the door and dropping 1.5 inches to the outside.

Finally, its easy to add a nonslip broom finish to the slope. All water is guaranteed to run away from the building this way. The finished grades of the driveways must be a minimum of 2 inches below the lowest point of the rain slope. This will further eliminate any water or snow from seeping into units.

Storage facilities create a great income streamif built and marketed properly. But failure to control design and construction costs could mean youll spend years trying to recoup overruns. Before breaking ground, ensure your facility will be profitable by doing your homework and finding an experienced construction team. 

Bert Balas is president of Ontario-based All Storage Buildings & Components Inc., which specializes in assessing and building self-storage facilities, working from concept to final construction. For more information, call 888.655.7841 or 416.418.1456; visit

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