When you think of a self-storage facility what do you immediately visualize? Is it rows and rows of one-story buildings with large doors? Or maybe big metal boxes in the middle of nowhere? For many, these images are top of mind even though they don’t represent the best of today’s storage industry.
“There is definitely a preconception that storage is not a good use, is boring, or not an economic contributor. People think it’s okay to put it back by the industrial areas but not appropriate for the retail part of the town,” says Chris Michalek, Associate Partner at SGW Architecture & Design. “However, when we present an interesting design, it smooths the approval path and shatters the myth that these buildings have to be plain boxes.” he added.
SGW’s new storage facilities are designed to be vibrant, visually appealing buildings – often located in central shopping districts and residential neighborhoods. Though this category of work is not usually considered “high design,” the firm sees each project as an opportunity to use building design to best represent the client’s brand. This combined with a teamwork approach has helped immensely in their stellar track record of entitlements approvals, according to Michalek: “It’s not just the architect. It’s the owner, contractor, civil engineer, and the community. It’s really about coaching that team across the finish line.”
Longtime SGW client Stanley Bonilla, Senior Vice President of Development at Safeguard Self Storage, knows all too well the value of working with the community: “The most important thing I’ve found is sitting down and listening to what their concerns are because it’s rare that there’s an obstacle we can’t overcome. Balancing what the town is looking for while maintaining my brand identity is really where we can get creative and push it,” Bonilla explained.
Michalek added, “Given the diversity of work we have and the talented designers, we have a good grasp on ways to create really attractive buildings that please all parties.”
Safeguard Self Storage Larchmont (pictured above) is a recent project that was the direct result of SGW and Safeguard’s commitment to working creatively alongside a local municipality. The 4-story, 60,000 sq. ft facility was one of the biggest buildings reviewed in the town of Mamaroneck in nearly 20 years. With multiple levels of approval needed from zoning, planning, and the architectural review boards, the teams were confronted with varying – and sometimes opposing – input and concerns.
SGW and Safeguard first presented to the zoning board for approval on the variances to build the envelope they wanted. The initial look of the property was also defined in this first round of approvals. “The board had some very strong ideas about what they wanted and what they didn’t want, and we made a big ask. When you make a big ask you have to be prepared to give a lot also,” Bonilla revealed.
The teams then met with the planning board to acquire site plan approval. “They actually wanted the building to look even more refined, so we went through another round of design revisions. At that point we added a lot of windows, new materials, and added a setback on the building so it wouldn’t look so big,” said Michalek.
The site was also in a flood zone, which called for both teams to work with the environmental board. “Working with SGW and the board, we came up with some great ideas on the fly. We were within 3 minutes of this multi-million-dollar project going down the tubes,” Bonilla admitted. “Because we were able to be flexible enough and think on our feet together, we were able to save the job, so that was a huge win.”
Remarkably, the feedback from the final architectural review board hinted that the design was now too sophisticated for a storage building. “Someone said ‘this actually looks like a hotel not a storage property.’ They thought people in the area might be confused,” Bonilla recalled.
SGW and Safeguard were ultimately able to tap into years of experience to give the board what they were looking for.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as providing some street trees, a seating area, or butterfly bushes for the monarch butterflies. In the scheme of things, it buys so much good will with the community that it makes approval oftentimes unanimous,” said Bonilla.
“It’s very important that we come in as not only a neighbor but a great neighbor, and that includes design, great service, and working with the community before and during construction, and once we open,” he concluded. “The pleasure about working with a client like Safeguard is that they do their homework as well. It’s really a team, and that’s when the best buildings come about. This project was definitely a successful evolution.” Michalek remarked.
As self-storage facilities continue to advance beyond their ugly duckling reputation, the expectations of consumers and municipalities also rise. Mundane, cookie cutter storage buildings are becoming a thing of the past, and the possibilities are endless when architects and owners approach each project with the communities’ unique needs in mind.