Collaboration, Imagination and Other Secrets to Maximizing Land Use and Design in Self-Storage

So, you bought a piece of land on which to build self-storage and probably paid a pretty penny for it. It makes sense that you’d want to maximize that purchase and develop the best project with the most income potential. The process involves lots of variables. Here are some key items to consider.

Marc Goodin

October 6, 2022

9 Min Read
Secrets to Maximizing Land Use and Design in Self-Storage

If you want your new self-storage development to succeed, a critical component is land use. You must maximize it to produce the best project with the most income potential. That takes diligent teamwork and no small amount of imagination. You must review design options and efficiencies with your development team early in the process.

Communicate with this team regularly, whether in person or online. If you fail to come together and arrive at decisions collectively, each member will act independently, which can lead to project delays and a less than optimal outcome. On the other hand, brainstorming builds team strength and is an excellent way to arrive at the best design in the least amount of time.

At a minimum, each meeting should include you (the owner), along with the civil engineer, architect and qualified industry consultant. Why? Because you each bring something to the table that the others need.

The architect probably doesn’t know how much area is needed for stormwater renovation and detention. They also may not be the most knowledgeable about local politics and regulations or things like balancing earthwork, septic systems and driveway sight lines, among other items.

The civil engineer typically doesn’t know about suitable or efficient building widths and lengths, firewalls, or when a building can or should be accessed from one side. They also shouldn’t be your lead on office location, building-code egress requirements (which can limit maximum widths), and a host of other issues.

You and your consultant are necessary because neither the architect nor engineer knows what the goals are for the site, including the percentage of climate-controlled vs. traditional space, unit mix, and square-footage phasing. They also don’t know what it’s going to take to differentiate your facility competitors. And they certainly aren’t in control of the construction budget.

Maximizing land use and deign on a self-storage project involves a lot of important variables. Let’s look at some of them in detail.

Site Layout

When it comes to maximizing your land for self-storage, the conceptual layout is the critical starting point. Too often, designers believe the goal is to get as much storage space on the site as possible, when the real objective should be to build an efficient, premium project.

For example, you’re often better off with 80,000 square feet and the right unit mix than 100,000 square feet and the wrong mix. Sometimes 80,000 square feet and additional boat/RV parking can be more profitable than 100,000 square feet of self-storage. Other times, it may be best to settle on 80,000 square and avoid spending $500,000 to haul a ton of dirt off site. That’s where collaboration and insight from your teammates comes in to play.

I’ve seen many horrible self-storage situations that could’ve been avoided if the layout had been created and reviewed as a team. For example, I’ve seen very expensive retaining walls erected as a way to get extra space that’s doomed to remain empty due to a lack of demand. I’ve also seen layouts with more climate-controlled units than could ever be rented in that market.

So, let me repeat: The best site layout takes input from your entire team. That said, it can often be started by the person with the most self-storage experience. Sometimes, it simply falls to the person who can get it done the quickest. Then you meet as a group to share ideas and improve the plan. These meetings should take place until the final layout is achieved. This collaborative process is invaluable because it gets everyone on the same page from the outset and helps avoid confusion and disagreements down the line.

Building Considerations

Every parcel will be faced with certain limitations, which will impact the goals for your self-storage project. Make sure you and your development team are clear about what those are. For example, are there any land or zoning restraints? Based on the size and topography of the site, what are your maximum and minimum building dimensions? How many square feet do you hope to build? How much climate-controlled vs. traditional space?

Understanding that every project is unique, following are a few rules of thumb to help you along. Failure to follow these basic guidelines can cause a 2% to 3% loss of square footage, which can add up to a significant amount of lost rental income over the years.

Building position. For traditional self-storage sites (as opposed to multi-story), using buildings along the perimeter of the property (called a fortress layout) can be a great way to eliminate perimeter fencing and save money; however, this shouldn’t be done at all costs. Make sure there are clear sightlines into and out of the facility along the public road.

First, this helps passersby quickly understand that you’re a self-storage business. Being able to see out to the public street from the office is also a security issue. Then there are the aesthetics. If you have the long side of a building facing the street (no customer access), it typically needs to be dressed up unless you and the municipality are willing to accept the view as-is. These days, that isn’t typically the case, so your savings from foregoing the fence can be lost due on the cost to make the side of the building more appealing.

Keep in mind, too, that the most efficient perimeter buildings are either 45 feet wide with one hallway, 50 feet wide with one hallway or 80 feet wide with two hallways. If land constraints don’t leave an alternative, you could have a perimeter building with the width of a single unit—say 20 feet wide to accommodate all 10-by-20s; however, just be aware that the smaller the building width, the higher the cost per square foot to build.

Traditional storage. Your traditional, drive-up buildings should be 30 feet wide. This is efficient and typically allows you to reach the required percentage for each unit size. You can have an occasional 40-foot-wide building, but then most units will need to be 10-by-20. You don’t want too many of those, as 10-by-10s are more popular and rent for more money per square foot.

Climate-controlled storage. If the building will have access on all sides, the most efficient design uses hallways 30 feet apart, with 30 feet from the hallway to the outside of the building. If there’s access on only one side of the building, the same rules apply, except you’ll have a row of 10-foot-deep units and a hallway on the no-access side.

Driving area. The facility entrance and parking for the management office are critical to the customer experience. Wide driveways and large, paved intersection radii make a site more inviting. Also, the keypad must be sufficiently far from the municipal road so customers who are entering the property don’t block traffic. A light positioned where the driveway intersects with the road is a must. Finally, leave room for sufficient landscaping.

Dumpster. Believe it or not, the dumpster enclosure can take up significant space and may even impact part of the site layout. Consider doing without, as this area will simply invite tenants to leave their unwanted trash and furniture, even if it’s locked. As an alternative, consider putting plastic trash containers in a unit just inside the entrance gate for staff use only.

Value Engineering

Once the general layout for your self-storage project is complete, add in details regarding items such as grading and utilities. Continue holding your regular team meetings to discuss ways to value engineer every aspect of the design. If you have a contractor or project manager on board, they should participate in this next round of conversations. Here are some price-sensitive items worth discussing:

  • Bituminous curb vs. typical concrete curb and gutter

  • Auto exit loop under the pavement vs. an exit keypad

  • Expense of a retaining wall vs. settling for less square footage

  • Type of retaining wall

  • Type of perimeter fencing and gates

  • Sidewalk for the office parking lot vs. no sidewalk

  • Gas vs. electric heat

  • Roof gutters vs. no gutters

  • Pavement thickness

  • Type of flooring: polished concrete, plank or tile?

  • Security-camera types and amount of coverage

Value engineering isn’t always about saving money. It can also be about including items that make your self-storage facility a premium product that commands higher rates. Many upgrades need to be accounted for during the planning stages because they can affect building size and layout. For example, are you going to have a large management office or small? Do you need a place to install a kiosk?

Design Imagination

When it comes to creating the best possible design for your self-storage project, use your imagination and think unconventionally. You can get great ideas by perusing “Inside Self-Storage” magazine, and other industry resources. It’s also valuable to visit one or two facilities per week and compile a list of things you like and dislike about them. In addition, lean on your development team to contribute ideas during your meetings.

Here are some of my favorite, most creative ways to upgrade a self-storage property:

  • Turn a 10-by-20 unit space into a wine cellar and/or cigar storage.

  • Create half a dozen “premier units” that include power, lighting, carpeting, walls that go all the way to the ceiling, and a standard man door instead of a roll-up door.

  • Consider putting steel slat walls, a “show” unit and a coffee bar in the office.

  • For visitor parking, use 10-by-20 spaces instead of 9-by-18.

  • Put electrical power in three 10-by-10, climate-controlled units for pharmaceutical use.

  • Put electrical power in three 10-by-20 units for high-end vehicle storage.

As you can see, there are many variables that can impact your self-storage land use, from the positioning of your buildings to interior decisions that can alter dimensions and floor plans. The best way to arrive at a smart layout and design that works best for your property is to embark on a collaborative process from the word go. Lean on and listen to your team members to leverage their expertise and insight.

Marc Goodin is CEO of Storage Authority LLC, a self-storage franchise, and the owner of three self-storage facilities that he designed, built and manages. He’s been helping others in the industry for more than 25 years. To reach him, call 860.830.6764; email [email protected]. You can also purchase his books on facility development and marketing in the Inside Self-Storage Store.

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter
ISS is the most comprehensive source for self-storage news, feature stories, videos and more.

You May Also Like