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Custom Site Planning
The Right Layout And Unit Mix For Your Facility
By M. Anne Ballard

aving completed hundreds of site plans, this issue is definitely on the forefront of the industry now and occupying lots of energy to conclude with the correct answers. I hear arguments for maximizing density of units with no consideration to user experience or operations and see proposals for just duplicating what others have done or what the architect showed them from another project with no diversification of unit types and/or no layout or consideration of the office or retail area, even in ones that are remote managed in their set up. All of this leads to changes and issues down the line.

The goal is not to build the cheapest and fastest, most common plan. The goal is to arrive at a product that is easy to use, much sought after within its market, fills a void that existing competitors don’t or won’t supply, commands premium rates, and has the attributes the market wants, such as upscale, high-tech, retail, and solid or stable in its image.

There are lots of ways to layout a site and do a unit mix. Before you begin this critical process, a little background and research is necessary to provide the data you need to meet the goal.

First, we need to know the topography and buildable amount of the land; showing where the changes in elevation occur is critical to many parts of the plan like water run-off and retention. Can you have two-story buildings with access on two sides (called an over-under building with no elevators), or is there a portion that is unbuildable due to steep inclines, wetland restrictions, overlay districts restrictions, or easements? Once you have determined the buildable area, then the real work begins.

What are the setback requirements? This shows how close your buildings can be to the road or side yards. Some even require certain landscape buffer areas that can range from 10 to 50 feet depending on your zoning and neighbors.

Check for any easements running through or alongside the property, i.e., gas or utility lines, sewer easements, or other special easements shown on the survey.

Once you have confirmed the buildable area you can begin site planning. While completing the tasks above, you must also study your prospective market for information to assist you in compiling the correct unit mix for your site in your market. There is no such thing as a standard unit mix! I’ve seen most of my competitors’ feasibility studies, where there was no customized unit mix shown, only a hypothetical unit mix, which results in only hypothetical results. You need a unit mix and site plan customized for your piece of property in your location to forecast an accurate lease-up rate and accurate income per month with rental rates based on the current supply and/or lack of supply for each type.

We love to do a fortress style layout. This is using the backs of the buildings as the perimeter of the site; this cuts down on fencing needs and is perceived as a safer way to serve customers as there will be limited access to the site. This is especially good for long, rectangular sites. See Figure 1, a site plan for one of our clients in Florida. With units down both sides, and only one entry and exit point, it becomes easier to control on-site activity.

Perhaps you have wide building setbacks impeding your buildable area; in this case you may want to use the setbacks as driveways to increase use on the site. Figure 2 is a recent example of this use, where the driveways are on the exterior of the buildings and a one-way traffic pattern is used with two gates (one inbound and one exit).

site plan showing central entry, exit point, and buildings
Figure 1: This site plan shows a central entry and exit point with buildings down each side of the perimeter.
site plan showing the driveways down each side
Figure 2: This plan shows the driveways down each side within the building setback areas so that the traffic flow is one way with an entry and separate exit gate.
As each physical site is unique, so is each site plan.

Driveway widths are a critical component to having a good site plan and user experience. In general, we like 30-foot-wide drives on 40-foot end caps to accommodate all sizes of trucks on the site and make turning easier for each user. Where we will have angled spaces in RV parking, we use 45- to 50-foot-wide drives to accommodate those users. Most engineers can provide a truck turn overlay as is used and required for fire truck access. In the past we saw sites with drives as narrow as 15 feet, which makes access impossible for rental trucks and tractor trailers. We stay with 30-foot drives for the most part, but we’ve used as narrow as 24 feet in a few instances. The more restrictive the driveway widths, the more necessary a one-way traffic pattern becomes.

20-by-40 drive-thru contractor bay
Figure 3: A 20-by-40 drive-thru contractor bay
If the lot is very small, such as in an urban corridor, you may only have access on one or two sides of a building. Remember, however, customer resistance to long distances between loading and unloading. We don’t really want to see anything over 100 to 120 feet between point of loading and unit. This also applies to elevator use, as it is often necessary to add an elevator due to long distances that must be travelled. Elevators can be set into the building up to 40 feet to lessen the distance traveled and reach more units.

Unit mix for your site should, as previously mentioned, be customized to your site and market demand. We have shown that a diversified unit mix of product types tends to lease up more quickly than single product type properties (i.e., all climate-controlled or all non-climate-controlled properties). To me, this is logical, yet few utilize this process.

Common unit types we are using today include non-climate-controlled, climate-controlled, drive-up climate-controlled, contractor bays, incubator offices with storage backs, office suites, open parking, covered parking, enclosed parking, and shed type parking (three sides covered, open faces parking). We have seen from recent data the huge demand for RV and boat parking of all types and the need for contractor bays (600 to 1,000 square feet).

Using a study of all current and planned competitors will tell us which units the market is missing or needing more of that type. For example, almost every large unit we have is full across the portfolio; the same is true for all the contractor spaces and offices, both standalone office suites and incubator offices that come with a storage unit in the back, as well as covered and enclosed RV/boat spaces.

Contractor bays need exterior access with a large roll-up door approximately 12-by-12 and a 3-foot man door. These would include one outlet and lighting and may be a drive-thru unit, such as the one shown in Figure 3.

RV units are best angled in the building such that a 40-foot-deep building yields a 45-foot parking space. Many times, we do these as sawtooth buildings with a man door on the side and may be drive-thru units. In this configuration, a minimum 40-foot drive is required (see Figure 4).

site plan showing 15-by-45 angled RV spaces
Figure 4: This building has 15-by-45 angled RV spaces with a side door on a sawtooth design.
Most non-climate-controlled buildings are typically 30 feet wide, as this allows for almost any configuration needed.

You can have two door 10-by-30s, 10-by-10s backing up to 10-by-20s, and 10-by-15s back to back. To get smaller units, hallways are used and should be 5 feet wide with 4-foot man doors that are half glass leading inside. Additionally, we like to diamond plate those entry doors on both sides below the hardware to get longevity and reduce maintenance, as customers will be banging carts and dollies into those doors constantly.

Figure 5 is an example of a non-climate-controlled building with contractor bays on the exterior and traditional units on the interior. It illustrates how key it is to arrive at a custom unit mix perfect for your site in your market.

Climate-controlled buildings have different requirements and can be single-story or multistory (see Figure 6). Keep in mind that the largest units need to be close to the entry and on the ground floor. Typically, ground-floor units also bring in a premium price as the most desirable location.

site plan showing contractor bays
Figure 5: This building shows contractor bays on the exterior and non-climate-controlled units inside.
site plan showing the first floor of a multistory climate-controlled building
Figure 6: This building shows the first floor of a multistory climate-controlled building; notice that exterior climate-controlled units and elevators are set into the building.
Upstairs units will be the smaller unit sizes to balance the overall mix. Even though the small units bring in a higher price per square foot than the larger ones, loading up the site plan with small units is the wrong move; they will not lease up in suburban sites. In urban and college markets, they will want smaller unit sizes. So, studying the market prior to drawing the site plan or doing the unit mix is mandatory. Seek help from an experienced operator or consultant to ensure your project perfectly fits its market and the current demand.
M. Anne Ballard is the president of marketing, training, and developmental services for Universal Storage Group (USG) in Atlanta, Ga. USG is the winner of 12 Facility of the Year Awards and Anne has designed the last six of those for their clients. USG is an award-winning third-party management and consulting company and consistently listed as a Top Operator. You may reach them at (770) 801-1888 and www.universalstoragemanagement.com.