Do you remember when self-storage facilities were basic? In the industry’s infancy, they consisted of rows of single-story metal “sheds” with roll-up doors surrounded by a chain link fence. The rental offices were plain, resembling gas stations of the time, with driveway bells that notified the property manager of a customer’s presence. Oftentimes the offices had little more than a desk and chair for the manager to sit down and handwrite the customer’s contact information onto a ledger card and/or provide a handwritten receipt for their cash or check payment.
Nowadays, many customers would consider that kind of office setup to be sketchy. Indeed, customers as well as planning committees have higher expectations for businesses, and their expectancies are primarily responsible for the evolution of self-storage facilities. Of course, as is the case with most things in life, expectations continue to change.
Shrinking Offices Think back to the early 2000s, when self-storage was not quite as commonplace as it is today. Back then, from start to finish, the rental process took much longer to complete. Why? There are two main reasons: Potential renters were not as familiar with the product, and the rental process was not as streamlined.
There were no virtual tours on the facility’s website, so tours were done on foot at the property. There were no online size calculators, so managers needed to ask more questions and possibly show various unit sizes to customers to get them one that fit their needs. There were no online leases to e-sign before arriving on site. Instead, there were numerous forms that tenants and managers needed to review and sign in person.
All of those situations, as well as others not mentioned, meant that more folks may be visiting the office at the same time. Therefore, many of the self-storage facilities developed at the turn of the century were built with spacious rental offices and sprawling countertops to accommodate multiple customers at once. High-end offices even featured separate lounge areas with plush furniture to keep customers comfortable throughout their wait; some also offered play areas to keep their children entertained during what would be considered a lengthy process compared to today’s standards thanks to shorter attention spans and the need for instant gratification.
While customers undoubtedly appreciated those thoughtful office amenities, according to Bruce Jordan, AIA, president of San Clemente, Calif.-based Jordan Architects Inc., and the owner of several self-storage facilities, they are quickly becoming passé. Jordan, whose company currently has 192 active projects under its wing, has noticed a new design trend for self-storage facility offices: They are being downsized.
“Most are 1,200 to 1,500 square feet now,” he says. “Even the REITs are decreasing the office space at their facilities.”
Online rentals may be responsible for the slash in square footage, as he points out that there is “less activity” in self-storage offices these days.
Jordan also mentions that the long countertops for completing rental paperwork have been replaced with more of a “platform like rental car companies” use in their offices. This switch is likely the result of more streamlined rental processes. With time being of the essence, self-storage companies are continually seeking ways to condense the rental process. Much to the delight of time-crunched customers, some have actually managed to squeeze it down to three swift minutes.
Speaking of office designs, Jordan notes that glass is great for gaining acceptance—both from cities and the public. He’s had “good success” with “using lots of glass in the front façade.”
“It’s more inviting,” says Jordan, who warns developers to avoid dark glass. “The office should be bright and cheerful.”
He goes on to say that the more retail-like look of a glass façade appeals to security-conscientious customers, as it provides a clear, well-lit view of the office interior before they enter the building. “About 60 percent of customers are female,” Jordan says, adding that it is beneficial to design a safe and secure atmosphere for them.
Going Up! In addition to shrinking offices, the parcels on which self-storage facilities are built have continued to dwindle. Though multistory facilities are not new, Jordan states that they are becoming the norm, especially as land costs keep escalating due to a general lack of availability.
He estimates that approximately 70 to 75 percent of the self-storage projects his company designs are three stories. While many developers attempt to stick with three stories to avoid the more stringent building codes that arise with four or more floors, as well as the additional costs associated with their increased fire-resistance ratings, Jordan notes that he has been seeing more five- and six-story self-storage buildings in dense urban areas such as San Diego.
Obviously, the goal of any self-storage development is to maximize the coverage of the parcel, which is the reason many developers are choosing to build vertically rather than horizontally. Although multistory facilities take better advantage of the land than single-story buildings, a substantial amount of net rentable square footage can be lost to elevators, stairwells, hallways, and poorly planned unit mixes.
To reduce the loss of rentable space at multistory self-storage facilities, Jordan offers the following design tips:
Place the elevators at the center of the building. This will reduce the customers’ travel time to them, “making the experience a lot friendlier.” Having centrally located elevators also eliminates the need for multiple elevator shafts and mechanical rooms throughout the building—both of which take up rentable space.
Avoid “oddball” unit sizes when possible. Jordan attempts to adhere to multiples of five and 10 to achieve a 50/100-sqaure-foot unit mix layout. He looks at it with a discerning eye. “I’m designing revenue,” he says, “not just creating a unit mix.”
Be mindful of the hallways. Jordan suggests thinking about the layout and how the hallways will connect to avoid losing space. He tends to select five-foot-wide hallways.
Create with cubes. To maximize net rentable square footage and achieve a unit mix in multiples of five or 10, Jordan says to build a rectangular or square site.
Stay in step. Even though multistory facilities have elevators, stairs are required as well. For space-saving stairwells, Jordan recommends modular stairs.
While not exclusive to multistory facilities, Jordan also mentions that many newer self-storage designs are including enclosed or covered loading areas. These customer-focused design details are greatly appreciated, especially when tenants must move in the midst of unfavorable weather conditions. Another option that is resurfacing, according to Jordan, is an area with covered access that allows customers to pull in and unload. “This was being done 10, 20 years ago,” he says, “but developers are doing it again.”
Moreover, when space permits, some developers are opting for drive-thru loading areas as an enhanced customer convenience. Perhaps the need for dollies and handcarts will become a thing of the past at self-storage facilities that enable each tenant to drive directly to his/her unit door.
Certainly, when it comes to design, as Jordan notes, there are plenty of “new opportunities to increase the attractiveness and effectiveness of self-storage.”
A Welcome Trend Overall, no trend is more welcomed than the increased acceptance of self-storage by the majority of cities and municipalities across the country.
“Because of the architectural changes, it is much less difficult to get them approved,” says Jordan, who is licensed in every state and hasn’t had a self-storage project denied in 15 years. “Now there’s a high approval rate.”Erica Shatzer is the editor of Mini-Storage Messenger, Self-Storage Now!, Self-Storage Canada, and MiniCo Publishing’s annual Self-Storage Almanac.