When the owners of Brickhouse Self Storage began envisioning their dream, they didn’t have a cookie-cutter facility in mind; they had a dream of bringing self-storage into the future, and with the help of Universal Storage Group, their dream became a reality.
Brickhouse Self Storage, located at 6855 E. Highway 16 in Senoia, Ga., is the 2020 Overall Facility of the Year Winner for its design, state-of-the-art amenities, and forward-thinking multi-purpose uses.
The $4.5 million project includes climate-controlled and non-climate-controlled storage, office suites, office/warehouse suites, and leasable retail and restaurant space at the front of the property. And the all-brick exterior and opulent interior design scream “luxury” to the surrounding affluent community.
An Idea Formed From Obstacles
In 2017, Dr. Thomas Humber, a chiropractor who also does property development, and his partner, Glen Howell, came up with the idea of developing a self-storage facility. “I had developed a retail center several years ago,” Humber says. “Living and working in the Senoia area, I knew the city was just going to explode with growth.”
Humber recalls speaking city leaders who were vehemently opposed to self-storage within the city limits. “I spoke with a friend, Jeff Lindsey, and he had a prime piece of land outside the city limits,” says Humber. “He asked if I wanted another partner, and Jeff contributed the land to the project.”
However, when Humber had a feasibility study done, the income was there, but rooftops and traffic weren’t yet enough to justify the project. “I knew it was just a matter of time, and so we continued trying to find a way to do the project,” Humber says. “I did my research and found Universal Storage Group.”
Universal Storage Group (USG) is one of the industry’s leaders in management, consulting, training, and developmental services. The company is a result of the combination of Universal Management Company founded in 1993 and RES Management, which was founded in 1977 as Heyward Companies. When the two companies merged in 2013, it brought two of the industry’s most experienced teams together.
USG is continuously listed among the top operators in the country and has won numerous awards for its third-party management and training.
Humber had an abstract design in mind, but was sure M. Anne Ballard, USG’s president of marketing, training, and developmental services, would come up with the perfect design. “Between offices and office-warehouse combinations, conference room, business center, and climate- and non-climate-controlled self-storage, we re-worked the feasibility study, and it was a moderate go,” Huber says.
The Senoia area had been growing for quite some time. It had also become a tourist hot spot, best known for where Hollywood filmed the series, “The Walking Dead.”
With Huber’s knowledge of the area, the growth expected, and the fact the land sat on the main road leading into town, he was confident enough to move forward.
Humber knew the facility would have to fit in with the mostly affluent area. “Higher end clients demand a higher end product with all of the state-of-the-art amenities,” says Humber. “We also had Sarah Beth at USG shop the other sites in the area to see what the needs were and ensure we provided the correct unit types.”
Although the land sat outside city limits, local officials still didn’t want typical storage on the road at the front of the property. They wanted a retail strip mall. Officials also wanted a lot of brick on the buildings, giving them a higher end appearance.
“The first drawing I saw was pretty boring,” says Ballard. “It was just retail at the front with two single-story buildings. I thought we needed to mix it up to pull from different areas.”
Working with Benjamin Showalter, architect and principal at Showalter Architects in Peachtree City, Ga., Ballard designed the facility with incubator offices, office/warehouse suites that allow commercial customers to have office space with an adjoining warehouse to store their inventory. They also designed a state-of-the-art conference center, as well as a beautiful sales office with retail space to sell packing supplies. “Mixed together, it gives it a really unique feel,” says Ballard.
Showalter Architects is a full-service design firm that has worked on high-end residential, as well as self-storage. Showalter had worked with Humber on a previous project. “It was an interesting project because we had to design more detail and character along the road,” says Showalter, adding that when Ballard became involved, she really knew what she wanted to help make the project work. “My favorite projects are the teams and working with the people.”
Planning and zoning in some areas are more restrictive than others. “We had a lot of guidance with how the front of the property would be seen and restrictions for setbacks and roof heights,” says Showalter. “You get to a point you just hope you’re detailed enough to make it work, make it look interesting, and that it functions well.”
When they first started designing the retail, they only had one tenant, but at the project grew, so did the list of tenants. “Some knew what they wanted with regards to their space and others didn’t, which is good, but can present challenges,” says Showalter.
After the retail space was designed, it was time to move forward with the design of the self-storage, which would be located behind the retail mall. Humber wanted to have an upscale design with a sophisticated and high-tech, yet traditional and comfortable, feel.
One of the things Ballard made sure to incorporate into the design was wide drive aisles, which allow customers to access their units with ease. “This helps keep busy Saturdays productive and allows for excellent traffic flow management,” she says.
The single-story buildings house the drive-up climate-controlled units, non-climate-controlled units, office/warehouse spaces, contractor bays, and parking areas. The site also includes 12 offices spaces that can be accessed any time of the day by using a separate entrance at the front of the building with the customer’s personal code.
“We know that if a storage facility is easy to access and easy to use, then one can attract a broad customer base, from all types of residential customers to the highly sought-after commercial customers,” says Ballard.
One of the things Showalter needed to do was ensure they made good choices while designing the facility so the project would pencil out as well as stand out. “Curving cost is very important; we have to make good choices while maintaining the character of the project,” says Showalter. “I think the whole team was really smart in where they put the resources.”
Any project will have challenges, and when asked about the challenges faced on this one, Humber laughed. “Yes, there were so many obstacles, but we were bound and determined to make this project work,” he says.
The first obstacle was designing the retail center into the project. Next, the site was designed for septic, which would have added $150,000 to the budget due to the retail center. “We approached the city to tie into the sewer,” says Humber. “Thank goodness they allowed that to happen.”
Finally, the city decided they wanted Humber to build excel and decel lanes of 600 feet in and out of the property. “At a cost of $800,000, that would have killed the project,” says Humber. “We ultimately got them to set that aside, and we did not have to have them built.”
When the construction team broke ground, they ran into rock, which had to be blasted out at a cost of an unplanned $144,000.
Weather is unpredictable and can cause significant delays on almost any project, but Humber says they had an enormous amount of rain. “When we started, the weather was beautiful, but it rained for six months straight. We got very little accomplished in seven months. This pushed our timetable back and had us opening during COVID.”
However, once the brick started getting laid, the project seemed to go pretty fast. “I went many times to the job site to follow construction,” says Showalter. “One of the things that really impressed me is that Dr. Humber was really hands on with the project.”
Showalter is very proud of the project’s design and says his favorite part of the project is working with the people. “When you can engage the clients and exercise design thought, it really makes it fun for me,” he says.
With the cost of steel rising 15 to 20 percent during the project, the project went over budget by approximately $400,000—$200,000 of which was covered in the contingency plan.
The Interior Design And Security
Not many self-storage developers put a lot of thought into every detail, right down to the bathrooms, but Ballard says a bathroom says a lot about what kind of property is being managed. “Customers will judge a facility based on the bathroom,” she says. “We were going after an affluent residential base, as well as professionals for the office hubs, so we needed to go above and beyond.”
Solid surface counters, porcelain tile on the floors and walls, as well as Bluetooth, back lit vanity mirrors make tenants feel like they are in a luxury hotel rather than a self-storage facility. “It really doesn’t cost that much more to put these touches on,” says Ballard. “And it adds a lot.”
The conference center is open to tenants, as well as the public. Outside of the room is what Ballard describes as an “al fresco dining area.” “We wanted this to look like a big activity center,” she says. “It works nicely to have the restaurants located in the retail center cater events and gives them business. We promote their deliveries promoting them and print up fliers for them to help us.” There is currently an Italian restaurant open and a Mexican restaurant planned.
Of course, state-of-the-art security was installed at the facility. PTI Security Systems, which offers many products for self-storage facilities and features the EasyCode tenant mobile app system, was hired for that aspect. “Tenants can interact with the facility in a touchless way, which has become very popular due to COVID,” says Thomas Brooks, managing director for PTI Security Systems in Marietta, Ga.
Brooks adds that recent data shows 40 to 45 percent of self-storage customers visit their unit on a monthly basis. “That’s a lot of key pad touches,” he says. “If they have the mobile app, they can access touch free, which gives less opportunity to spread the virus.”
Access Control Technologies in Salisbury, N.C., installed the PTI security system. In addition to EasyCode, the facility has 22 cameras and six keypad cameras, which are always recording. “Once tenants come past the office, there is a vertical lift gate for entering and a separate one for exiting,” says Scott Underbrink, president of Access Control Technologies. “There are apex keypads on the long building that has the suites; it’s really pretty cool.” They also installed music in the climate-controlled hallways.
One of the unique services Universal Storage offers is providing a finished materials book with multiple copies given to contractors, along with material samples, colors, etc. “You’d be amazed how often everyone refers to this during the finishing process,” says Ballard.
Branding And Marketing
Stacie Maxwell, vice president of marketing and training at Universal Storage Group, says the branding process began in June of 2019, but it wasn’t a long one. One of the first things she does is give the owners a questionnaire that asks them things such as, “What is your favorite thing in the world?” The long questionnaire is designed to give Maxwell and her team an idea of the type of branding the owners want on the property.
“Dr. Humber wanted a bold but simple brand,” says Maxwell. “We decided to go with Brickhouse due to all of the brick on the front building.”
Maxwell created several logo designs and determined that a darker red and bronze would work well in the color scheme. “That was on June 18, and two weeks later, we had a logo,” she says. “They picked one of the first designs, and we had final approval by July 4. It made it very easy for me.”
Maxwell’s team worked with Automatit Inc. to design the website, which was launched in September with “Coming Soon,” notices. Social media and promotional items were also ordered, and everything was completely ready two months prior to opening.
The facility officially opened in May 2020. “Our goal was to design and set a new standard for use of self-storage properties so they will lease up,” says Ballard. Despite the challenges of the COVID pandemic, non-climate-controlled units are already at 80 percent leased; climate-controlled units are 70 percent leased; drive-up climate-controlled is 40 percent leased; hub offices are 100 percent leased; office/warehouse spaces are 50 percent leased; and furnished office spaces 30 percent leased. Overall, the facility is already over 70 percent leased.
“We were really quite amazed at how fast it leased up, and due to the different things we offer, we’re drawing tenants from as far as 46 miles,” says Ballard. “Based on the lease-up rate, there is a good internal rate of return, which is over 20 percent.”
Everyone who worked on the project is proud of the end product, especially Ballard. “This really was a fun and beautiful project,” she says.
Phase II Planned
Phase II of the project will include 44,000 more square feet in a 220-by-220 square foot building with a mix of climate-controlled and non-climate-controlled units.
Thanks to the surprising success of Phase I, Phase II is scheduled to start as soon as possible.