In the Kingston neighborhood of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a sleek, modern building stands on a one-acre plot where a blighted thrift store had created an eyesore for years. The project would take four and a half unpredictable years to complete, but nothing could stop Brian Hoel, president of Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based BraineTrust Storage LLC, from finishing the storage venture he started in 2018.
Despite scrapping the original concept entirely, losing a lender, a 12-month construction halt, and a bizarre inland hurricane, Storelocal Iowa opened its doors in September 2022. The facility is branded under the Storelocal® Storage Co-Op brand so Hoel can take advantage of economies of scale and be on a more equal footing with large self-storage operators.
Self-storage wasn’t on Hoel’s radar for most of his years working as a real estate agent. Then, he took on a residential rehab and found he enjoyed the process. “I began to look around for commercial opportunities,” he says. “One weekend at home with my family, I went to a storage unit my father had kept for eight years. I looked around and said, ‘Are all of these units rented?’” The answer was yes, and a lightbulb went off. Hoel began looking for opportunities to get into the storage industry.
The site he found was tight, but he says the city didn’t give them much pushback because the existing building was so blighted. Plus, a variance had been granted to the previous owner, allowing them to build on most of the one-acre plot. “We were able to leverage the more advantageous setback requirements,” Hoel says. “We had to use every inch of that site.” In addition, the design would push to the limit a 35-foot height restriction.
Hoel began the journey to build Storelocal Iowa in 2018. “It was a simpler time then,” he says. “No rate worry, no supply chain issues, and certainly no pandemic. Holy hell, was my life about to change!”
Originally, Hoel thought he had a simple and easy-to-execute idea: Buy a blighted building, convert it into storage to prove the concept, and then expand from there. However, soon after taking possession of the run-down building, it became evident that it could not be converted into storage economically. “Somewhere around the $300 per square foot to renovate mark, I had to pull the plug and figure out what to do next,” he says.
Fortunately, he had a feasibility study showing that the market could support a substantial amount of storage. “So, the next decision was easy,” Hoel says. “Let’s build something big.” However, he would run into several roadblocks, and obtaining financing was not the least of these.
Hoel decided early on to work with the SBA to secure construction financing. “The rates at the time and the low down payment, coupled with their willingness to work with a then-novice, were very attractive,” he says. “The paperwork that followed was not.” Obtaining SBA funding took much longer than he anticipated, mainly due to all of the forms and documentation that were needed.
“All the while, we were working to build a first-of-its-kind facility designed around, and built entirely out of, recycled shipping containers,” Hoel says. “The renderings were beautiful, the architects and contractors were all on board, and we were all set to change the storage world forever when the final budget estimates came in. Bust.”
Due to SBA budgetary constraints combined with a less-than-favorable climate with the country that manufactured the containers, the project was $2.5 million over budget. “Then, the lender pulled out,” Hoel says. “Back to the drawing board again.”
Eventually, Hoel was guided toward Teachers Credit Union. “The TCU team was excited about our plans for a smart, tech-based self-storage solution for our market,” he says, “After a couple of meetings, it was clear to us that their experience with the SBA process far exceeded any other lender we had talked to thus far.” With a lender secured, a building designed and within budget, and contractor agreements signed, the construction date was finally set. Then, 2020 hit and everything changed.
A Troublesome Year
“We were about halfway through the SBA process in March 2020 when our local office shut down, and we were informed that the SBA would not be working any pipeline deals forward for the foreseeable future,” Hoel says. “In the meantime, we had demolished the old building that was on the site and completed dirt work. All that stopped.”
In fact, the pandemic created issues for almost everything pertaining to construction. Business closures, work restrictions, government agency shutdowns, and supply chain issues wreaked havoc for commercial developers in every realm.
He says the next few months were a complete blur as he scrambled to find any way to get crews back on site and the SBA process started up again. Although they made minor progress, the only real option was to shut things down and wait. After what seemed an interminable delay, there was good news. The SBA was re-opening their portals and Hoel could move forward to close. “My team immediately sprang back into action,” he says. After a flurry of paperwork, they were back on track in July 2020.
However, more surprises were in store. “On August 10, something totally unthinkable happened,” Hoel recalls. “Cedar Rapids was hit head on by an inland hurricane called a derecho.” This rare storm packed 140 mph winds for 45 minutes, leveling 60 percent of the tree coverage and doing more than $11.5 billion in damage across three states.
All power, internet, and cell coverage were lost. Power wouldn’t come back on for 13 days, internet for another 10 days after that. Although no equipment was damaged on the site aside from some fencing, the city was in a complete state of chaos for the next few months. “All work on the site stopped as we banded together as a community to rebuild our city,” Hoel says. “Luckily, our lender was supportive and was able to help us limp along until our utility services were restored.”
While he was searching for a new SBA lender, Hoel had been meeting with his design and build team as they tried anything they could think of to make the container design work within the given budget. “In the end, we made the extremely difficult decision to switch gears and work with a pre-engineered steel building contractor,” he says.
That’s when MakoRabco entered the project. They were sensitive to Hoel’s design requirements as well as the limited space he had on site. “Simply put, we had no room to store materials,” he says. “Everything had to be used as it arrived on site.”
Project manager Genge Hata with Carlsbad, Calif.-based MakoRabco says since they couldn’t get too much material on the site at once, they brought it out floor by floor. “We used a field across the street to store some materials,” Hata says. The most difficult challenge was carefully storing and moving the exterior siding. These were full-length, Mega-Rib panels measuring approximately 38 feet.
Although Hata liked the contemporary look with its matte black color, he says they had some hesitation because working with black shows all defects. “If you don’t use solid backing behind it or use screw guns properly, you can easily over-tighten it and cause puckering in the metal,” he says.
After getting MakoRabco on board, Janus/Nokē soon joined the project. “The simplicity of the Janus system, coupled with the high-tech ease of use that Nokē provides, fit seamlessly with our ethos: smart, spacious, simple,” Hoel says. The final design would deliver a 42,178-square-foot, climate-controlled building with 486 units.
Early on, Hoel had decided that his store would be unmanned. Nokē’s smart technology for rental and unit access makes the process easy. “Most people rent through the website,” he says. “If someone drives up to the building instead, we have a nice sign with a QR code they can scan and go to the website. You get a text message as soon as the lease is executed. That’s your code, and you’re ready to go.”
Of course, security is an issue at an unmanned facility with no gate. Hoel’s solution was a high-tech Verkada camera system. “Every inch is covered by cameras,” he says, “which has really allowed us to go to the next level of being unmanned.” The exterior cameras feature license plate recognition technology, and indoor cameras have facial recognition. A roaming manager receives alerts when there is activity in any zone.
The facility backs up directly to a residential neighborhood, so light pollution was a potential issue. Hoel installed all LED lighting with minimum lighting on the back side of the building. Although there are only eight outdoor parking spaces, customers can unload in interior garage spaces with 14-by-16-foot doors.
In late October 2021, construction loan closing day arrived with no more surprises and the project was under way once more. In November, the foundations were poured, the first-floor pad laid, and framing had started. Once the second floor was under construction, the site was teaming with various crews and there was no room for materials or vehicles. “We barely had room for the construction trailer,” Hoel says.
When it was time to build the third floor, Iowa was in the dead of winter. “This meant pouring concrete at 15 degrees,” Hoel says. “It takes a special kind of concrete crew to take that job on. Luckily, we had the right team behind us.” The plan began with blowing five inches of snow off the second story deck, then melting ice to get a clean surface.
“After that, the real work started,” Hoel says. The construction crew built a 10,000-square-foot tent over half of the third-floor decking. This allowed the area to be heated so the concrete could cure. He accomplished this by renting two torpedo-style heaters, each firing one million Btu. “The concrete was poured and cured for a few days,” Hoel says. “Then, the tent was taken down, moved, rebuilt, and the process repeated until we finally had a third floor that could be framed.”
Once the framing was complete and the building was wind- and water-tight, the crews began working inside at a rapid pace. The hallways and doors were installed, and the MEP installers worked quickly. “Then, we realized the ductwork interfered with the head height for the roll-up doors on eight units on the first and second floors,” Hoel says. “In the shift from containers to a pre-engineered steel building, the clearance heights of those units were missed. Swing doors to the rescue!”
Although the team was facing various supply chain issues, nothing had come up yet that they couldn’t overcome. “Then, our garage doors did not show up,” Hoel says. “After multiple calls trying to identify the issue, we finally got the bad news. No doors. No ETA. No solution.”
At this point, the main structure of the building was nearing completion; however, without the garage doors, Hoel would not get an occupancy permit. “Plus,” he says, “I was so excited for those sleek and sexy, all-black doors [to] go in to complete the exterior look of the building.”
After about a week of trouble shooting, the team was able to locate a pair of matching doors. The catch was that they were white. “Gross!” Hoel says. “Gross, but necessary. The team assured me they would only be temporary until the final black doors could be procured.” With the white doors installed and inspections complete, the city issued a temporary occupancy permit.
Literally the day after occupancy was granted, a large excavator was dropped off at the opposite end of the street, and the street to access the site was closed down. “The city had decided right now was the perfect time to close the street to replace all sanitary sewer infrastructure,” Hoel says. “You can’t make this stuff up! My team and I worked with the city’s contractors to coordinate access in and out of our site, convincing the city to replace the corner intersection first, then moving past our building in one shot to keep downtime to an absolute minimum.”
However, the city’s contractors would run into the same supply chain issues everyone else was facing. Work stopped, and there was only one narrow lane of traffic that provided access to the building. “We took it all in stride,” Hoel says, “working on punch list items while we waited for the final garage doors and exterior signage to arrive.”
The following week, the exterior signage arrived after a four-month wait. “Finally, people will know what our building is for,” Hoel says. “Only one small problem: They were half the size they were supposed to be.” Thankfully, the correct signs were fabricated quickly and were installed less than two weeks later.
Now, Hoel was only waiting for those beautiful, black garage doors to show up. Two weeks later, they arrived on site. “I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to open them,” he says. “Imagine my thoughts when I opened a box and saw a white garage door staring back at me.” But by this time, Hoel had learned to take setbacks with a sense of humor. “I just laughed, sent a photo to the GC, and went home,” he says.
The next day, the doors were shipped out to be professionally painted. A week later, they were installed. The facility opened for business in September 2022. “Finally, four and a half years later, my first self-storage project was complete,” Hoel says. “I would not take back a single second of the process. After the journey I have been on, I’ve come out the other side a more professional and well-rounded developer.”
Hoel says his first project taught him how to keep a cool head under pressure, when to push his crews, and when to step back and let them do their thing. Clearly, he was not deterred by the obstacles he had to overcome. BraineTrust Storage LLC had two conversions under construction in Iowa at the time of this writing, both scheduled to open early in 2023. A fourth facility, a huge K-Mart conversion, is scheduled to close early in the new year.
Tammy LeRoy is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is a long-time contributor to Mini-Storage Messenger.
Owner: BraineTrust Storage LLC
Building general contractor: Graham Construction
Building provider: MakoRabco
Architect: Neumann Monson Architects
Security provider: Verkada
Security installer: TechZone
Management software: Hummingbird through Storelocal