Designs Of The Day: Will The Changing Economy Impact Self-Storage Architecture?

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Recent architectural trends in self-storage appear likely to continue in 2021, some industry experts say.

These trends include contemporary exterior designs that meet municipalities’ growing demands that new projects fit with surrounding architecture and embrace energy-efficiency and other “green” elements; smaller lots requiring multi-story facilities; more landscaping; high-quality and natural materials such as stucco, stone, brick, metal, and glass; a larger number of smaller units; high-tech security; and interior features such as office space for tenants.

While the architectural trends proceed, the self-storage industry faces a new year that continues to bring more uncertainty than usual, nationwide and worldwide. Financial markets famously hate uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic left an outsized package of it at every doorstep. And the controversial presidential election and possible changes in the new administration’s economic policies bring even more of it. This uncertainty could prompt operators and lenders to pull back on some of the more expensive elements of architectural trends in the industry in 2021.

Clark Edgecomb, president and principal architect with Houston-based Edgecomb & Associates Inc., says the increased uncertainty probably won’t affect self-storage much more than it did in 2020. Developers are active, taking advantage of lower rates. The industry “is in pretty good shape.”

Drafting Designs
Self-storage architectural trends have changed a lot since basic buildings were the norm when Edgecomb started designing for the industry. Customers “appreciate a project that looks clean and neat and well designed,” he says. More multi-story facilities are being built on less land and in inner cities where zoning boards use restrictions to require projects to conform to surrounding architecture. The flip side is that demand is increasing, so cities and towns are approving more projects in formerly off-limits areas.

Jeffrey Dallenbach, managing partner of San Antonio-based Dallenbach-Cole Architecture, sees that multi-story trend sweeping bigger cities nationwide. Secondary and tertiary markets are seeing a combination of drive-up, climate-controlled, and non-climate-controlled facilities contrasting with big box, mostly climate-controlled facilities in big cities.

The trends Edgecomb mentioned make facilities more expensive to build, but the hope is that down the road these features will attract more tenants, putting operators and developers solidly in the black. He quoted the late architect I.M. Pei: “Good design is expensive.”

Dallenbach says government policies that foster a strong economy will lead to good architecture and a strong self-storage industry, counteracting the increased uncertainty. But a better balance between more expensive and less expensive design elements may be ahead.

“You’re always going to work within project budgets, but higher quality and better design occurs when there is better job and population growth,” says Dallenbach. “Higher end architectural design elements used in the past five years may be limited and used more as a focal point on the development, and then economize otherwise.”

Edgecomb notes that the internal aspects of building design “are pretty straightforward.” He says, “Exteriors are what is left to change. And two key questions always remain: What can we afford? And how can we make it look appealing within those price limits?”

Tracking Trends
Energy conservation has been emphasized the past five years and may continue, Dallenbach adds. Green design increases costs and could limit the number of projects that can meet budget, so every developer must decide whether green elements will lead to the other kind of green.

Dallenbach goes on to say that keeping up with architectural trends is very important for staying competitive, because design is “primarily your first impression of the product.” “People who store products want to feel like they’re putting them in a safe place,” he says. “They want self-storage that reflects where they live.”

And many places where people live are expensive. Ken Carrell, principal of Lake Forest, Calif.-based ARE Associates, says expensive land requires maximizing sites, which means multi-story construction. His firm recently designed a multi-story facility with 59,000 square feet of leasable space on less than an acre in Whittier, Calif.

Specialty storage, such as for wine, and high-security and climate-controlled storage are continuing trends, per Carell. Climate-controlled units tend to stay cleaner; outside units’ doors are not always airtight. Storage facilities sometimes offer small offices connected to storage units for tenants, provide printing and faxing in managers’ offices, and provide mail services.

Thermoplastic polyolefin, or TPO, roofs are becoming more popular as an alternative to standing seam roofs, which municipalities sometimes dislike. TPO roofs require less maintenance than screw-down roofs, whose bolts must be inspected for leakage. “This is all not the norm yet, but I think we’ll see more of it,” says Carrell, who thinks President-Elect Joe Biden’s administration will help the economy and the self-storage industry because Biden will want to stimulate the economy to ensure money is available so banks can lend. He knows of at least three banks that want to fund as much self-storage as they can, and they have willing investors, which is “highly unusual.”

Starting in late 2020 and moving into 2021, most of RKAA Architects Inc.’s clients have more often been choosing automated check-in systems for customers’ ease and to help meet COVID-19 restrictions, says Robert Kubicek, the Phoenix-based firm’s president. Projects are including newer lock systems for easier access using phone apps. Facility layouts have stayed the same and emphasize maximizing rentable space, but municipal energy-efficiency codes are increasing project costs.

Though it is unknown how the Biden administration’s economic policies will affect self-storage, Kubicek thinks more pandemic-related restrictions, including short-term lockdowns, could increase the need for smaller storage spaces for those downsizing their living arrangements. The time required to get city construction permits has increased in the past couple of years, and more so because of pandemic restrictions. Rezoning approval for a project site can take a year or longer, whereas it formerly took six months or less, depending on the city. Another trend is rising constructions costs and longer construction times, which have increased about 20 percent to 30 percent because of a lack of skilled labor. Construction materials costs rose steadily throughout 2020.

Innovative design continues driving self-storage architectural trends, says Bruce Jordan, president of Jordan Architects Inc., based in San Clemente, Calif. This means integrating different materials into projects and creating “bolder” architecture by using new materials, such as metal panels with corrugations and flat panels; building towers above the office and sometimes at the building’s ends; and using big vision glass and faux units.

“If you have a predominant roof level at 30 feet but a higher limit allowed, we take advantage of that,” Jordan says. “It’s noticeable from a greater distance.”

Jordan sees a trend toward smaller offices. His firm has been designing offices from 1,200 to 1,500 square feet for a lot of REITs. That’s down from 2,000 to 2,500 square feet. He has also been designing kiosks instead of long service counters in offices to create a more personal connection with customers and using clear vision glass for a brighter atmosphere. And some clients want a ground floor drive-thru, covered loading area, and easy access to elevators.

Keeping Pace
Uncertainty in the marketplace could prompt a slowdown on expensive architectural elements in self-storage projects, which Jordan saw some of early in the pandemic. But many of his developer clients “took advantage of it while others were slowing down.”

“We’ve had some of our strongest months in our 35 years in business,” says Jordan. “More-aggressive developers are saying, ‘I’m going to jump in while my competitors contemplate their next move.’”

Change is inevitable, though it typically happens slowly in self-storage architecture. When changes do occur, “everyone wants them incorporated into their next self-storage project,” Kubicek says.

At the end of the day, as Jordan points out, keeping pace is “pretty important” to staying competitive. Therefore, developers should do their best to stay abreast of the latest design elements and emerging options.

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