When designing a self-storage project, it is extremely important to understand the necessary steps and the team members involved before moving on to the final construction or authorized drawings. A typical development can involve more than a dozen advisers, consultants and contractors. Without a clear understanding of each person’s role in the process or when is the right time to engage each party, an owner or developer can find themselves over budget, behind, or at risk of losing the whole business.
A little time spent at the start of a plan can save a lot of time, energy and money, not only on the design process but, more importantly, on your construction budget. Here are some guidelines to make sure everyone is working seamlessly towards the same goal.
Identify your team
Identify your consultants before you need them, not when you need to hire them. Seek recommendations from construction and development professionals in your local or target market. Interview at least three of the following people before starting any design work:
- Civil engineer: The company can offer readings internally.
- Geotechnical engineer: The company can provide environmental services.
- Architect: Ideally, he should take care of the structure and mechanics, electrical and plumbing.
- Lawyer in zoning / land use planning
- General Counsel
- General contractor : The level of engagement depends on how you decide to contract, but their contribution is essential.
- Property manager / feasibility consultant: While he’s probably less involved in the ongoing design process, his contribution can be invaluable along the way.
Interview these people as if you were hiring an employee. Consider asking these questions:
- Have you ever worked on a self-storage project? If yes, which ones?
- Do you know the jurisdiction in which I intend to develop? (This may include the local city as well as the county and the transportation department.) If so, what was your experience: good / bad / other?
- Do you have the capacity to manage my project?
- Who will be my “contact person” in your office?
- How long from the moment we execute a deal before the various stages of the design process are completed?
- How are your fees structured? Are they invoiced upon delivery of the different phases and broken down by scope? What will you charge if we have to deviate from the defined scope?
Also, ask them if they know or have opinions about any of the other professionals you are considering. I am not talking about their direct competition, but about the other disciplines with which they will have to work during the project.
Communicate your goals
Clearly define and communicate team goals along the way. It might sound simple, but if you don’t clearly define your specific goals, in your mind and with the members, chances are someone will miss the mark at some point in the process. While goals may change along the way, it’s your job to make sure everyone is focused on doing the same things.
For example, let’s say you are in the zoning entitlement phase, with the goal of getting approval from the local jurisdiction. Unfortunately, your architect was late in getting you the elevations to submit as he was working on optimizing the mix of units, which has no impact on zoning approval. If you are the owner, you lead the design team to make sure everyone is walking towards the same target at some point.
Engage in the right order
Engage your team from the ground up, not from the roof down. The design process can be expensive and time consuming. You can avoid wasting resources by thinking from scratch, starting with the ground and the site. For example, it doesn’t make sense to involve an architect first if they don’t know how the building will be placed on site – information that comes from your civil engineer.
Everyone will want to make sure that your soils can support the improvements you are proposing, so have a geotechnical engineer perform soil tests depending on the layout. A civil engineer cannot fit out the building without a reliable study.
Design for approval
Unless you are in a jurisdiction with zoning by law and no site plan or design elevation approvals, you will need to obtain some level of approval from your local jurisdiction before submitting your construction drawings. Have a clear understanding of the design documents you need to submit to get zoning / land use, utility, access, or site approval. Now is a good time to hire your zoning / land use attorney to make sure your civil engineer and architect are drafting the design documents in accordance with the submission requirements, arranging meetings with any officials or staff public to discuss preliminary plans and concepts, and ensure all rolling submission deadlines are met.
When should the design team review their progress? Early and often! As a project progresses, the opportunities for value engineering (construction cost savings) diminish, so different members review and comment on each other’s work along the way. While one may always have done something in a particular way, another may see an opportunity to accomplish the same task in a more cost effective or faster manner.
This overlap should generate healthy dialogue within the group, but ultimately you are the decision maker. It’s impossible to be an expert in everything, but in most cases you can determine the correct answer by asking:
- Will it cost more money?
- Will it take longer?
- Will this have a significant positive or negative impact on the performance of my project?
Obviously, this is a simplistic approach, but it can come in handy when you don’t have a clear idea of the technical pros or cons of a solution being discussed.
Understand the steps
The design life cycle of a typical project consists of the following stages. Getting off on the right foot is essential. It is also strongly recommended that you take the time to review the drawings as a team after each step. This little extra step and time can save you a lot of money down the road.
- Programming / Scope Meeting: This is an opportunity to confirm that there are no ‘scope gaps’ in the team, where one person thinks another is in charge of something they should. even do. It is also the ideal opportunity to define the expected deadlines for the work and the various deliverables for each member of the team, and to establish a clear and coherent communication method for the project. This can take the form of a simple conference call or a weekly or bi-weekly meeting, or regular updates of a “living” document that all members can access.
- Conceptual design: This usually includes the preliminary site plan, floor plans, and possibly elevations or building sections, as needed. (Stop: have the team review and comment on the plans.)
- Schematic design: This involves schematic plans that document the dimensions and relationships of various elements. It should include the proposed locations for utilities and systems, but may not include final sizing and sizing. (Stop: have the team review and comment on the plans.)
- Design development: This involves more elaborate plans and elevations; most dimensions, specifications and details have been included, but not all. (Stop: have the team review and comment on the plans.)
- Construction plans: Complete drawings and specifications are ready to be submitted for a permit or to obtain a final construction quotation.
- To allow : It’s likely that the permissions review will require some revisions to your plans as submitted, so make sure your team communicates any required revisions to you and that you understand their implications.
- Construction: A good general contractor will have ongoing communication with your team to ensure that the fieldwork meets or exceeds the designer’s intent. They can also identify cost savings that you can approve or deny. This is usually handled through a “request for information”.
- Closure of the project: Have your team members walk through the project at close and help you build your list of highlights.
An effective design team is essential, and although these are third-party groups, you should treat them as business assets. It can be difficult to find good consultants and advisors, especially during hot development cycles like the one we are experiencing right now. The more you build a solid relationship with them, the more they will want to do a good job for you and the more you will be able to identify their strengths and weaknesses. This will allow you to plan accordingly on the next project.
Jim Berry is a managing member of RRB Development LLC, which develops self-storage facilities in the South East. His experience includes mixed-use communities, “new town planners” projects and a variety of commercial and residential properties. He applies his experience to the development of urban self-storage assets. For more information, call 404.643.8245; visit www.rrbdevelopment.com.