Building Self-Storage on Petite Parcels: Factors to Consider

There are many reasons to build your next self-storage facility on a small site. Keep these important design elements in mind to design a superb and functional building on a smaller footprint.

July 28, 2016

7 Min Read
Building Self-Storage on Petite Parcels: Factors to Consider

By Kenneth Carrell

There are many reasons to build your next self-storage facility on a small site. Typically, there’s less competition, so you can charge more for your units. A smaller footprint also means you might pay less money for the land; and you’ll build a reduced structure, which costs less, too. However, there can be some challenges to a small land size when it comes to your building design.

First, your customers need to be able to maneuver easily around the structure and parking area. Second, you need to build enough units to make the project financially viable. This usually means you’ll need to go vertical. When designing a multi-story building, you need to keep in mind several important design factors. These include building height, building and unit access, loading areas, and the location and look of the office and retail store.

Here are some pointers to designing a superb and functional self-storage building on less land.

Impact on Rental Rates

There’s a huge need for self-storage in most urban areas, where land parcels tend to be smaller and more expensive, since there are fewer facilities. With less competition, you can typically charge more per square foot—sometimes twice as much as a similar facility in a more competitive market.

Rent rates can also be dependent on unit location. In general, there are three levels of unit pricing for multi-story facilities. Ground-level, drive-up units tend to be the most profitable for the majority of operators. On a smaller site, you’re going to have fewer of these, so you need to maximize them where possible.

The next most profitable units are the ground-level, interior spaces. These tend to go for a little less than the outside-access units but are still considered better than ones on upper levels. Units on higher floors typically have a lower rate per square foot compared to ground-level interior and drive-up units due to lack of customer convenience.

Building Height

The number of floors you can add will be limited by local building codes and zoning requirements as well as how the city jurisdiction interprets the codes. For example, installing fire sprinklers in the structure will often allow you to go higher.

Also remember that the higher you go, the higher your construction costs will be. Typically, for every floor you go up, you can expect to pay $5 to $10 more per square foot.

The type of construction you use will have a huge impact on the number of floors you can develop. Building with wood won’t let you construct as many floors as you can with metal. Concrete will let you go higher than metal, but the tradeoff is the cost to build. Most people in the self-storage industry use metal since it’s inexpensive and fast to construct.

Building and Unit Access

Building multiple stories gives you the additional square footage you need to make the project feasible, but keep in mind that access is one of the most important factors for your tenants. Most don’t want to travel more than 100 feet to get to their unit. After all, who wants to make numerous trips with heavy carts or furniture?

In addition, most building and fire codes will require that there be an exit within 150 feet to comply with safety mandates. All of this will dictate how many elevators and stairwells you’ll need. You may have one elevator and two sets of stairs, or two elevators and three sets of stairs. It never hurts to add extra stairs to the structure. If a person only has one or two boxes to store and he’s closer to the stairs than an elevator, he’ll often use them to get to his unit.

On smaller sites, you can often put the building up against the property line on one side and create central access to the upper floors. This allows you to maximize the square footage but does sacrifice some drive-up units.

A recent project in Whittier, Calif., is a good example. Scott Storage sits on a 0.9-acre parcel of land that’s narrow and deep. It also had a 10-foot easement running along one side. Other restrictions for the project included building height and minimum landscaping. The site was between a commercial building and apartment housing. The city requested the storage facility look more like an apartment building to fit in with the neighborhood.

The building height on this project was limited to 45 feet, and because it was next to a residential zone, it couldn’t be more than 35 feet high for the 50 feet that were adjacent to that zone. To maximize the building area and make unit access as convenient as possible, the elevator was placed toward the middle of the building. This allowed the shortest travel distances to individual units. Additionally, stairs were placed in opportune locations.

For customer convenience, it really helps to have a drive aisle all the way around the building, allowing maximum access to ground-level units. A project under construction in Newark, Calif., has a drive aisle that goes around most of the building and follows a portion on the property line. Since the parcel is oddly shaped, a tunnel was added to allow vehicles to pass under the upper levels of the building. Doing so allowed for a large number of drive-up units.

Loading Areas

An important point about designing storage on a smaller parcel is to ensure you build adequate loading/unloading areas. Customers need a place to load and unload their vehicles, and it should be as convenient as possible. A number of jurisdictions require a minimum number of loading areas, especially for self-storage.

A typical loading space is approximately 10 by 30 or 40 feet. The Whittier project included a central loading zone with three loading areas right next to the elevator. In Newark, since the facility had two elevators, the loading zone was split into two locations to maximize convenience. Next to each location, there’s room for a couple of vehicles.

Management Office

Although it can be tempting to add a smaller office when building on a lesser parcel, don’t succumb. A trend in self-storage offices today is to build them bigger. This hub sets the tone for your facility with customers. A 2,000-square-foot office and retail area is a good size. While this may seem like a lot, you’ll use all of it.

If possible, put the office at the front of the site to take advantage of visibility from the street. Large glass windows on the first and second floors help passers-by immediately recognize the building as self-storage. You can also add lighting to highlight unit doors on the second or higher floors. This can really help your facility stand out at night.

Another feature to consider adding to your office is a series of full-size display units. This provides new customers with a better visual of what will fit in each size. It also enables the manager to stay in the office and discuss various options with the customer without having to access several empty units.

A larger office also means you’ll have plenty of room to display retail products and highlight your property’s security measures. This is where having ample wall space comes into play. Customers want to know their stuff is safe, and cameras with security monitors are the good way to accomplish this.

Smaller sites offer a lot of pluses as well as a few minuses. It’s possible to get a lot of square footage on a lesser site with smart design. With less competition in infill areas, you can turn more profit on fewer units. When designing your property, always keep customer convenience in mind. By providing good access, adequate loading areas, minimal onsite travel distances and a great office, you’ll create a winning facility.

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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