One of the biggest mistakes self-storage owners and developers make on their first new build is to walk into their engineer’s office without a sketch of their site plan. In many cases, they simply tell the engineer to do what makes sense and gets them the most profitable square footage. It’s a bad idea unless you don’t mind racking up billing hours and wasting everyone’s time.
It may happen that the municipality does not even require an official site or a drainage plan from an engineer. That doesn’t mean you should give up on establishing a clear vision of how your facility should be located on the property. Although professional help is not required, I strongly recommend that you pay an engineer to draw a plan.
But before you approach that person, it’s always a good idea to take ownership of the design of self-storage and understand a few key principles that can streamline the process and help you get the best results. Here are five important steps to evaluating your property and sketching out a site plan.
1. Browse and map the site
Physically survey the site with a topographic map, if possible, as well as using a smartphone app with GPS tracking. If you are building on vacant land, it is often difficult to determine the exact boundaries, so this will give you a real overview of the land. Google Earth and onX Hunt are two mobile applications that allow you to see your position on a plot while discovering elevation changes with topographic maps.
As you walk around the boundaries, you may notice things such as encroaching buildings, wells, septic systems, utilities, and other features that are not identified on the survey or parcel map. Although your engineer should do this as well, sometimes it’s best to discover any obstacles beforehand.
For example, I once found a septic field on a neighboring lot that encroached on our plot. It was 30 feet from where the survey indicated. Relocating her was a necessity and an additional cost that we had not anticipated. In fact, we had to delay our site plan until the problem was resolved, which was probably an even greater cost, as it delayed our municipal approval by almost a month.
2. Place the driveway
Determine where you will put the driveway. This is important, especially since the most logical location from the standpoint of maximizing square footage isn’t always the one the municipality, health department, or transportation department wants. Managers often want your driveway to be directly across from another driveway, even if that means it will pass through the middle of your lot.
Aisle location can make a huge difference because if you are forced to build shorter self-storage buildings versus fewer longer buildings, your construction costs can increase significantly. It can even make the site unworkable. If this happens, you must request a waiver. In some jurisdictions, permitting is separate from zoning, so you really need both before you can start building. There is no point in placing buildings without knowing where customers will enter the property.
3. Locate Utilities
It is important to know where all utilities are, including utility poles and fire hydrants. These can be difficult to view on a computer, which is why it is important to view the property in person. You may need to move them if they get in the way of what you want to build. Cost may also require you to relocate your buildings or driveways to accommodate utilities.
For example, I have a construction site where a utility pole was in the middle of the driveway we wanted to build. When we asked the city if we could change the site plan and move the driveway, the only other location they would have approved would have required us to split the buildings in two. It would have cost a lot more than paying $10,000 to move the utility pole, so we opted for the latter.
4. Understand site drainage
A reputable engineer who knows your market should be able to tell you the floor structure of your self-storage property in advance. It’s important to know this early because the composition of the soil will largely determine the costs to help it drain properly. If you see many areas where water is pooling and it hasn’t rained in days, you could have poor drainage or, worse, the presence of wet areas on the site.
You want to see for yourself how well the site drains on its own before you start digging. In my experience, assuming you don’t need to import or export a lot of soil, you can usually dig a site with a lot of sand for around $40,000 to $60,000 per acre. On a site with a lot of clay or elevation, you can pay up to $150,000 per acre, so understanding and identifying drainage issues early can determine if your site is feasible.
5. Orient buildings to site conditions
Your goal should be to position your self-storage buildings to optimize drainage and sunlight. If you’re in a cold climate, you almost always want to place them so they face north-south to reduce ice buildup on the north face.
Of course, sometimes the topography of the land, the dimensions of the property or the orientation of the existing structures will not allow you to arrange the facility as desired. If so, try to consider all of these items discussed to maximize drainage, sunlight, and the amount of storage you can fit on the site.
Sketch a layout
Once you have completed the above steps, print out a plot map and try to draw a sketch of the self-storage layout as close to scale as possible. When determining the size of buildings, it helps to have an idea of the combination of units you want and the percentage of each size you plan to include. In a traditional design we try to make buildings 40 feet wide, but sometimes 30 foot wide structures are required as market demand dictates smaller sized units.
Unit sizes. When planning the mix of units, I try to keep all units on both sides of each building in as few spaces as possible. This makes it easier for the labor force to eventually erect the steel. For example, if I have a building 40 feet wide by 200 feet long, I could do all 10x20s on both sides. On another building, I might do all 10x10s and 10x30s, then plan 10x15s and 10x25s for another structure.
If I need to incorporate smaller units I try to use the sprockets for additional 5×10 or 10×10. In these cases, I try to use a single gable for the units, so I can have the electrician install a box on that end wall. If that doesn’t work, a workaround is to convert a 5×10 unit into an electrical room, but keep in mind that this will result in lost revenue.
Drive the aisles. The industry standard for drive aisles is 30 feet wide, but if you have high land costs and smaller units, you may need to go less. As a general rule, go no narrower than the total depth of the units on both sides of the aisle. I prefer to be 25% to 50% wider than the depth of the unit unless you are building boat/RV storage. In this case, you want to be twice as wide as the units depth. For example, if my unit depth is 30 feet, the narrowest aisle you should go with is 30 feet. However, if land and construction costs permit, I would recommend pushing the width to 37.5-45 feet.
The reason is that someone can store a 20ft boat or car in their unit, but they can tow it with a 20ft truck. They need space to maneuver around your facility in order to fit items into their unit. If space is tight, there’s a good chance they’ll run into your buildings, so don’t put customers in situations that increase the likelihood.
When plotting driveway width and building length and width in a sketch for your engineer, you do not need to include the unit mix breakdown. However, you want to make sure that the actual measurements of the building are correct, as this is how the engineer will plan the drainage.
If you can provide a scaled sketch to your engineer, you’ll save him a lot of time, as he will at least have a good idea of what you’re looking for and can use it as a launching pad for formal site planning. . . Once you’ve completed all of these steps, you’ll be well on your way to developing an optimal floor plan for your new self-storage property.
Charlie Kao is the director of Capital of the Twin Oaks, a Michigan-based commercial real estate company specializing in self-storage and multi-family assets. Services include real estate brokerage, asset management, feasibility studies, consulting and building construction management. The company and its affiliates own, operate or plan more than one million square feet of self-storage space. Charlie also owns the House of Kaos Real Estate School, which offers continuing education credits to licensed real estate agents. He can be reached at [email protected].