Trends In Self-Storage Design
By Judy Colbert
“When the last recession hit,” says Ken Carrell, principal of ARE Associates in Lake Forest, Calif., the city of Escondido, Calif., had “about 32 square feet per person in self-storage when the national average was eight feet per person. The units were 92 to 96 percent full.” One would understand anyone thinking it had reached a saturation point. “Since then, we’ve built even more. Today, it’s 36 to 38 square feet per person.”
Self-storage design is not a subject in architectural school. A one-hour-long class might be dedicated to the concept, but, in reality, constructing a new storage facility (or enlarging an existing one) involves a plethora of elements, including the architect, plumbing, electric, landscaping, security, and weather (snow, sun and heat, hurricane, tornadoes, etc.). In almost every case, a zoning board or commission factors into the build, regardless of the location.
Carrell is a former planning commission for the City of Lake Forest, so he has unique insight into the design process. “Self-storage facilities are frequently a CUP [conditional use permit], so you have to go before an approval board of some type. They’ll have different conditions, perhaps limited operating hours, and the board gets to tell you what can and can’t be included. If it’s a permitted use, they can’t say anything about it. Most jurisdictions don’t like them because they don’t generate sales revenue.”
“Jurisdictions have come to understand storage facilities more than they did 20 years ago,” says Bruce Jordan, president of Jordan Architects, Inc., of San Clemente, Calif. “They’ve decided on parking requirements for self-storage, agreed on more upscale buildings that look like office buildings with glass walls and other attractive elements.” Jordan adds that about 80 percent of their business is in self-storage, “probably more than any other architect on earth”. They designed about 4,000 facilities.
“The one thing we harp on now,” he says, “is user-friendly design. Sixty percent of our customers are female. We treat it very much like a retail business. Instead of Louis Vuitton bags, we’re selling 10-by-10 units. We make the design very clean, organized, and upscale. The offices have lots of clear glass, and it’s bright and cheerful with a heavy emphasis on security.”
Today, the exterior may be screened with trees or the building covered with brick or some other acceptable material. With an improved appearance and visual impact of storage units, the relationships between the zoning community and storage properties have improved. They’re losing the reputation of being ugly and a blight on the community.
When self-storage facilities first started, “lots of jurisdictions wouldn’t allow them,” says Carrell. “Storage was built on property that was out in front of the residential development because property was cheap, so they were one story. Not that that doesn’t still occur; we’re seeing a lot more infill projects in the urban areas and more central to the city core. The land is more expensive, driving buildings into multi-story configuration. We’re seeing more metal exteriors that are nice looking. They have painted finishes and you can take a hammer to the silicon polyester finish and not damage it.”
Clark Edgecomb, president of Edgecomb & Associates in Houston says, “There is a trend to improve the appearance of self-storage, make it more appealing to the general public than just the multiple doors in a long narrow building, just a function of the facility itself. We’re seeing a lot more multi-story designs that don’t look like a bunch of spaghetti buildings.”
Carrell says landscaping has always been a big issue. Usually, zoning regulations require a certain percentage of the land be dedicated to landscaping. “If you plant a tree inside a storage facility area, 99 percent of the time someone will run into it, knock it over, or kill it,” he adds. “I will heavily landscape the front of the facility” to make it look attractive.
He started in the business, almost by accident (as do many storage architects) in 1998. “I have a knack for it,” says Carrell. “I can take a plot of land and I can squeeze every last drop of build out of it. A customer in Lancaster had a proposal from another architect that would produce 45,000 square feet of gross building area. I looked at it and said I could do 65,000, so he gave me a shot. I finished with 82,000 square feet.”
“Design is now a factor in storage wars,” says Carrell. While smaller homes and downsizing has led to some of this growth, to some extent, specialty facilities are leading a large share. One specialty type is wine storage, with a small percentage—maybe two to three thousand square feet of an 88,000 square foot project—dedicated to this niche and incorporated into the design.
“The wine storage is in a separately zoned area with its own air conditioning and humidity system (generally about 55 percent humidity),” says Edgecomb, “with a generator for a power backup. You don’t want people’s wines being destroyed.” Wine storage can be a site-specific thing, with some projects being very successful and always full and others wishing they’d never done it.
Edgecomb has been in the business since 1972; self-storage represents the majority of his work. As a young architect, he decided it would be fun to work for a developer to see how projects come together financially. One development was a self-storage project, and that’s where he’s been ever since.
Another element that may need to be factored into the design is RV storage (including recreational vehicles, campers, dune buggies, motorcycles, and boats). “We did one in Anaheim that was strictly RV storage because the property was under Edison Electrical lines,” says Edgecomb. “We couldn’t put buildings under the lines, but we could put the vehicles there. In one property, we put a wash rack and a septic dump, so the RV owner could clean the RV and then park it until the next time.”
Offices And More
Perhaps the biggest changes have been in the office area. “It’s not just a counter with someone standing behind it,” says Carrell. “There’s a 10-by-20 conference room, a 10-by-15 space dedicated to a post office, a 5-by-5 area for toys so children can come in and play, and a 10-by-10 hot spot where four people can come in, sit down at a desk with a laptop and Wi-Fi, and do their office work. A drug representative will have a climate-controlled storage unit. He or she will come in in the morning, do some paperwork, pick up drugs, do their visits, then return to finish the paperwork instead of waiting until they get home. This requires operators to offer extended hours, maybe opening as early as 7 a.m. and staying open until 7 or 9 at night.”
Another variation of the office concept, says Carrell, “is an office/warehouse combination where we have a 10-by-20 or 10-by-30 that opens to the exterior and then there’s a 10-by-10 or 10-by-15 with a door, like an office with an attached warehouse. People who run a small business can have the little office in front with Wi-Fi, have their laptop, and other office equipment with them. They may receive products from a manufacturer in bulk and then sell individually, pack it, and ship it from the post office in the front of the building. One plus is they can rent on a credit card and sign a one-year lease. Most don’t need to be in the office all day.”
While some units are using solar power, there hasn’t been a big demand to go green. “New energy codes are forcing us to build with thicker insulation or more insulation,” says Edgecomb. “It can save money in energy costs, but it depends on the location and the utility rates.” In addition, there has been a move toward using LED fixtures instead of incandescent.
One factor that’s becoming more important is for the design to meet ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements. According to Jordan, elf-storage is a relatively new industry, “and the law never took in mind this business as such”. “We have to meet slope requirements with a ramp, not a step up,” he says. “You don’t get to place the accessible unit closest to the office. They have to be distributed around the facility. There has to be one or more accessible units for each size unit, depending on the number of units. The door lip, which would protect the unit from water, can only be a maximum of a half an inch.”
Jordan goes on to say, “We’ve eliminated the requirement of an accessible path from the office to the unit because people come in vans or cars, so the path has to be accessible between the vehicle and the unit. There has to be a certain number of accessible parking space by the office and the business counter has to be accessible to someone using a wheelchair. The units and restrooms have to be identified in Braille. ADA compliance is a civil rights issue, but we’ve been talking about building codes. They aren’t civil rights codes.”
Whether designing to meet jurisdictional requirements and/or better compete with the facility down the street, self-storage developers should ensure that the architect they choose for their project has enough experience under their belt to create a plan that will exceed the expectations of its community.
Judith Colbert is a freelance writer and editor based in Glen Burnie, Maryland. She is also the author of several books.