2016 Facility of the Year: Renovation Winner

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5A Rent-A-Space – Foster City, CA

The 5A Rent-A-Space in Foster City, Calif., has seen some changes over the years. For example, when the facility opened in 1976, a gallon of gasoline was $0.59, the United States was celebrating its bi-centennial, and the country had just introduced the new NASA space shuttle program with Enterprise. Nearby Silicon Valley was in its infancy as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had recently formed Apple.

Marketing was also different. The facility, then listed as AAAAA Rent-A-Space, got its name as the Knuppe family that built and owned it was trying to make it first in the all important Yellow Pages phone book.

The facility has been operating for 40 years under the same ownership, and, while the company had kept up and competed in the changing business climate through the decades, the challenge for H. James Knuppe, owner of the facility, and Michael J. Knuppe, president, was to bring the facility’s buildings into the 21st century.

“We’ve had two or three remodels over the years,” says Knuppe. “Foster City sits on an island and is a bedroom community, and the city really held a lot of control over design criteria and colors.”

Taking on city hall wasn’t the only challenge for the facility, which was designed during the self-storage industry’s infancy and still retained some of those outdated design elements. The facility has 1,424 units and 141,240 square feet of rentable space, all of which had to be upgraded for today’s customer expectations.

The results of the $1.2 million renovation not only brought 5A Rent-A-Space Foster City into the modern self-storage world, it brought in more customers as well.

A Long History

The Knuppe family have been pioneers in the self-storage industry since the mid 1960s, when they realized a home building business could evolve into self-storage. “We built the Alameda facility in 1971, which we believe is the oldest stand alone self-storage facility in the country,” says Knuppe. “As home and condo builders, we didn’t know much about it and thought it would be a short-term venture, that we were just holding the ground. We had no idea then that it would grow into a multi-billion-dollar business.”

Of course, as they say, the rest is history. The Knuppe’s continued building and operating self-storage facilities, amassing 18 facilities by 2007, when they sold 15 of them to Extra Space. 5A Rent-A-Space still has three: one in Foster City; one in Moraga, Calif.; and one in Lahaina, Hawaii.

Real estate costs have exploded all over the country, especially in California. Knuppe says that his company has been offered as much as $41 million for the 4.5 acres in Foster City, but they decided to renovate and retain the facility instead. “Obviously, we didn’t pay that in 1975, but that’s what happened to property values,” says Knuppe. “Foster City was our fourth self-storage facility and one of our best.”

The Three-Year Renovation
One of the first challenges the Knuppe’s had to address was negotiations with city hall to allow for brighter colors. The facility once consisted of long, linear, two-story, non-descript buildings reminiscent of early self-storage models.

Unfortunately, the city mostly allowed for muted earth tones. “Self-storage needs to be visible, so the city agreed to allow us to dress up to a powder blue with silver aluminum motifs,” Knuppe says. Luckily, Foster City has also been a long forward thinking city. For example, it was one of the first cities in California to allow open housing for all races.

Once the colors for the buildings were approved, the real work began. The facility is designed without fencing, allowing the buildings to go straight to the property line, a feature Knuppe says helps them utilize every bit of available rentable space.

Knuppe hired Galen Grant, president of FCGA Architecture in Danville, Calif., to spearhead the redesign of the facility. Grant has worked with the Knuppe’s since the late 1980s, having helped them with 18 self-storage build or remodels.

Grant’s experience with the company helped him do the redesign on the Foster City facility. “One of the things we’ve learned is that the old perception of self-storage is still in some people’s minds, but the one-story metal buildings with roll-up doors is a thing of the past,” says Grant.

Grant knew that the Knuppe’s first consideration was to being a good neighbor in the city. He cites as an example the project in Moraga, Calif., in which the location is part of the gateway to the entrance to the city. “The theme of the city is California mission with mission tile roofs,” he says. “To address the concern with the client of the facility being part of the gateway, we developed a design concept replicating an arch, clock tower, and tile roof.”

The result was a retail component to the streetscape that was highlighted by other nearby retail. Other features at that facility included incorporating a lot of glass, trellises, and landscaping into the design. “This is just one example of how 5A Rent-A-Space have been trend setters, by adapting self-storage to their surroundings and being good neighbors,” says Grant.

At Foster City, the challenge became turning the existing non-descript long buildings of yesteryear into eye-popping, welcoming modern self-storage structures. The stucco exterior and flat roofs had no design theme. “The design concept was then to retain the existing structures and overlay the skin of the exterior, creating a new building,” says Grant.

The result was using strong ribbed metal panel concept over part of the stucco, which added articulation to the façade and using the accent colors on the new roll-up doors. Instead of having all stucco buildings, more reminiscent of the 20th century, the metal ribbing on part of the buildings now portray a higher tech 21st century feel.

The new seamless rib roof was also of very high quality. “The roofing was 24 gauge, which most companies will order a 26 gauge,” says Gerald Aubert, owner of GT Aubert Construction in Fairfield, Calif., who has been working with the Knuppe’s so long he says he almost feels like a part of the family. “We put up 24 gauge so the building will withstand time.”

One of the high-tech advancements added to the exterior includes solar panels, which now generate 90 percent of the facility’s energy usage. “We really believe in solar power,” says Knuppe. The company had already converted its Hawaiian location to solar, which is generating all its own energy and selling the extra energy it generates to the local utility company.

In Foster City, 65 percent of the installation costs of the solar system was paid for with federal and state tax incentives and rebates. “Our site energy bill went from $1200 per month to $60,” says Knuppe. “We will have the whole system paid off in five years from the energy savings.”

Solar has been growing, thanks to tax incentives and lower costs of installation. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, California still leads the nation in solar use, with 44 percent of all solar energy in the country generated in that state. However, federal tax incentives have helped reduce the cost of solar across the country, making it a more attractive and cost effective alternative for businesses to traditional energy. The SEIA reports the average cost of a commercial PV project has dropped 30 percent in the past three years.

One of the main challenges when embarking on the exterior remodel included notifying current tenants of the changes, which included installing all new exterior roll-up doors. “When we started, we had 600 hundred doors that had to be replaced,” says Roxanne Porter, co-manager of the facility. “We had to contact each tenant to gain access to their units.”

Some of the tenants live out of town, and, in those cases, the locks had to be cut and the management then had to take photographs of the units as each door was removed and replaced.

The final touches to the exterior remodel was installing all new security systems, which included replacing all the outdated door locks and gates with keypads tied into software updates through Self Storage Management. “Lighting and security cameras are a very important key component,” says Grant. “There are cameras all over the perimeter that monitor the site for the managers 24/7.”  

A Brightened Interior

Women make up approximately 50 percent of the total population, but they comprise about 84 percent of people who rent self-storage units, which makes them a very important industry demographic. Surveys have shown that women prefer clean, brightly lit facilities in which they feel safe.

Therefore, the new interior design of the buildings in Foster City was planned to attract that demographic. Thus, Grant added windows in key spaces of the building into the design, which helped bring in natural lighting. The interior hallway lighting was upgraded with brighter fixtures as well. New, diamond plate flooring added to the clean, bright element of the hallways.

“All of the finishes were changed in the hallways,” says Grant. “The walls are white with steel panels.” New roll-up doors were installed and lighting is on motion detector activation. “The result is a very crisp, pristine, and attractive look that conveys safety,” he adds. Janus International provided the hallway systems and new roll-up doors.

The Foster City facility didn’t need just a face lift, per Knuppe, it literally also needed a lift system. “We formerly used fork lifts to get items into the second floor, like old warehouses use to do,” says Knuppe. “Today’s customers demand elevators, so we installed AJAY lifts.”

Retrofitting a building for elevators presents its own unique challenges. The first challenge being where to put it. Since Rent-A-Space is known for using every available foot for rentable storage space, it meant eliminating some units and relocating the customers who were in the units slated for the elevator shaft.

Porter says the tenants occupying the spaces where the elevator shaft had to be built had to be notified, and reaching all of them and relocating them made he process of installing the elevator a long one. “We had to move some 10-by-10 units and give those customers larger units at the same price, but it all worked to our benefit,” says Porter.

Aubert, whose company built the shaft, says the main challenge was getting it into the relatively tight space. “We also had to take the concrete out and pour new so the elevator would be level with the existing parking outside,” says Aubert. Once the shaft was built and the site was clear, AJAY installed the elevator.

A “New” Facility

One of the unique design systems at the Foster City location is that it is built with wooden frame trusses, which allows the managers to essentially redesign the size of units based on current needs. For example, the site currently had 38 different sizes of units. This flexibility helps the facility address the needs of students during the summer, who need smaller units, and the facility makes some of those units larger in the other seasons to accommodate businesses that need to store inventory.

That hasn’t changed with the remodel, but what has changed is the occupancy. Knuppe reports that the facility has increased its performance, recording average occupancy in 2012 at 70 percent. As steps to the renovation were completed, the occupancy also increased to 81 percent in 2013, 82 percent in 2014, and 85 percent in 2015. Occupancy is currently at 93 percent.

Knuppe is happy with 85 to 95 percent occupancy. “We don’t like to be one hundred percent occupied at any facility,” he says. “We spend so much in advertising that I think the worst thing that could happen is that people call and we can’t accommodate because we’re filled up.”

Still, the remodel has led the Foster City facility to concentrate more on community relations. Knuppe says that Porter and her co-manager, Marisa Boldt, who have both been with the facility over 15 years, have been increasing their presence in the community. The purpose of remodeling the facility was to keep up with the growing and changing landscape of Foster City, so the managers have been networking with other businesses in the community, including apartment and condo associations.

They also sponsor quarterly recycle events, “treasure hunt” type yard sales, the local concerts in the park series, the Senior Showcase, the art and wine festival, and are members of the chamber of commerce. “We also donate units to local non-profits including the Red Cross,” says Porter.

Personal service has always been a cornerstone of 5A Rent-A-Space, but Boldt says the remodel has helped the facility also retain existing customers. “People come in and they tell us they love the way the facility looks and how much brighter it is in the office and in the hallways,” says Boldt. “We’re very proud of the facility.”

Although the facade of 5A Rent-A-Space is shiny and new, the Knuppe’s and its management team are still proud of the long history the facility has had in the city. A testament to that history is one of its longest tenants: Lucy Hupp Williams, who has lived in Foster City since its inception in 1969, has rented at 5A Foster City for the past 25 years, and is the founder of the Foster City Historical Society. Fitting for a facility celebrating 40 years of history and a renovation that will take it blazing into the future!     

QUICK FACTS

Owner/President: H. James Knuppe, Michael J. Knuppe

Architect: Galen Grant

Management Software: Self Storage Manager

Security/Gate Systems: Tyco / Storlogix

Roof: Seamless Rip Roof

Doors: Janus International

Interior Floors: Diamond Plate Flooring

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is a freelance journalist based in the Ozark Mountains. She is a regular contributor to MiniCo’s publications. Her business articles have also appeared in Entrepreneur, Aol.com, MSN.com, and The Kansas City Star.

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