Using Creativity and Innovation to Overcome Less-Optimal Self-Storage Parcels

Not all land parcels are ideal for a self-storage development. However, owners and builders who take an innovative approach to site layout can find solutions to maximize space and add value.

Bruce Jordan

August 16, 2019

5 Min Read
Using Creativity and Innovation to Overcome Less-Optimal Self-Storage Parcels

As the great self-storage land grab continues, creative design techniques are becoming vital in strengthening an owner’s or developer’s bottom line. The cost of land has risen substantially, forcing him to dig deeper for value. He often must consider properties with hurdles in the form of shape, size or zoning. Our industry also facing challenging jurisdictional processes that demand outside-the-box thinking.

But fear not! There’s a wealth of design options to counteract these obstacles. Let’s explore some of the ways to maximize a less-than-optimal land parcel. These include building multi-story, adjusting parking-space design to meet requirements without losing rentable space, finding more square footage within the structure, adding imaginative architectural elements, and optimizing the site topography.


In an urban setting, a vertical approach to self-storage can help mitigate small land area. In many scenarios, it’s possible to push building walls to the extent of setback or property lines and incorporate parking and loading at grade within the building envelope. While this forces a higher second-level finished floor, it allows lockers to be installed above standard units.

Parking Areas

In many jurisdictions, parking requirements aren’t clearly defined for self-storage, leaving the developer to deal with the standards originally conceived for warehouse uses. I’ve seen ratios of as much as one space per 500 square feet of storage, which results in a sea of parking! Some developers have been successful in reducing the required parking by providing data from the Institute of Transportation Engineers to illustrate the actual parking demand for self-storage. In some instances, cities have adopted our recommended ratios for future projects.

However, if your plea for a more realistic parking ratio falls on deaf ears, there are design techniques that can help accommodate stringent requirements. For example, parallel parking can be used effectively, along with one- or two-way traffic, without eating up valuable land. In some cases, traffic can be one-way with drive aisles ranging from 20 to 24 feet and parallel width running 8 to 10 feet. One-way aisles work with smaller sites that have a limited number of drive-up units, as they provide circulation to all portions of the project and clear access for the fire department.

If the project is more than 30 feet tall, you’ll need to provide aerial-apparatus access for the fire department. In this case, the parking along one side of the building can be perpendicular to the façade. This fulfills the 15- to 30-foot clear requirement for the access road (mandatory to allow for the ladder to swing into position) and provides a large bank of parking.

In the case of urban-infill sites, which have less area to forfeit, drive-in loading and parking areas can address the requirements and be used as a selling point. Drive-throughs not only provide direct access to elevators and the facility office, they’re brightly lit with music circulating throughout the space. The drawback is they require additional floor height at the first level for vehicle clearance; however, this can be turned into additional rental space. More below.

Floor-Area Ratio

Many jurisdictions use floor-area ratio (FAR) to regulate density in a given zone. While FAR can limit a property’s yield, there are design methods that can help make up for the net rentable square footage and dollars lost. For example, lockers can be successful in certain markets and are a cost-effective, creative solution for occupying extra vertical clearances while adding net rentable area and revenue. Accessed via rolling ladder, lockers are excluded from FAR and have proven profitable in dense urban markets.

Another option is to include a basement, as in some jurisdictions, it’s excluded from FAR calculations and can add significant area to a project. Although basements do carry some additional costs around soil export, unforeseen ground issues and waterproofing among others, they do offer upside as well. Basement temperatures stay moderate year-round and can be a natural climate-control solution without the cost of heating or cooling. When considering a basement, it’s important to check with the jurisdiction to ensure it’s exempt from FAR for a commercial application.

Finally, many jurisdictions exclude certain other areas from FAR calculations. For example, I recently completed a project that excluded elevator shafts, mechanical rooms, stairwells and exterior-wall thickness, which resulted in the addition of approximately 6,000 square feet. On the other hand, I’ve also experienced jurisdictions that include everything in the building envelope.

Architectural Features

Regardless of a site’s development limitations, unique architectural elements can go a long way in capturing the eye of potential clientele as well as satisfying jurisdictions and surrounding neighborhoods. Alternating materials, building articulation and thematic architecture are all creative ways to ensure you’re getting the most value out of your land and project.

For example, spending a little more on design at the entry speaks volumes for a project. While high-end materials can help, it’s important the architecture frames the entry by implementing vertical and horizontal articulation. The building should tell a story, with the office being the climax.


It’s becoming increasingly rare to find sites that are the optimal size and shape, have the ideal location, and are flat. However, uneven topography can work to your advantage and give you an edge in the market if the project is designed correctly.

For example, the landscape might lend itself to a multi-level facility design. Depending on the amount of fall across the site, a two-story self-storage project can offer drive-up units on both levels by using the slope as a ramped-drive aisle. It also removes the need for costly and maintenance-intensive elevators. Eliminating elevators adds net rentable area to the project, making for a more efficient development overall. In addition, using the topography cuts down on the import or export of soil, saving on construction costs.

As the self-storage industry continues to garner popularity among the investment community, viable sites will become more difficult to come by. However, with an imaginative approach and creative design techniques, most challenges can be overcome to bring value.

Bruce Jordan, president of Jordan Architects Inc., has more than 30 years of experience in architecture, preceded by an extensive background in construction and real estate development. His experience includes self-storage, professional office buildings, high-density residential projects, mixed-use projects, retail facilities, hotels, restaurants, industrial, commercial, and specialty projects such as museums and theme parks. For more information, call 949.388.8090; visit

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