The self storage industry got its start in the United States in the 1960s and the United States is still home to the vast majority of self storage facilities.  Self storage caters to a mobile population and the US population has always been one of the most mobile in the world.  From the pilgrims to the settlement of the West, from the Gold Rush of 49 to the rush into Alaska, and from the huge movements of men after WWII to the opening of the Interstate system, Americans always seem to be on the move.

It is more mundane movements that drive the self storage business today.  

  • Job transfers
  • Military deployments and reassignments
  • Moving in together, marriage, separation, and divorce
  • going to college
  • retirement and second homes
  • the desire to store recreational toys

These are all reasons Americans like to store their stuff.  

In addition, small and medium enterprises use self storage for records, samples, construction tools, inventory, seasonal decorations and supplies, and many more reasons. A typical mini warehouse facility will attract a mix of consumer and business clients, with the proportion dependant on the facility's marketing and location.

From the perspective of the self storage facility owner, investor or developer, these are the main types of self storage facilities:


In rural and suburban areas, the traditional mini storage facility predominates.  Typically a series of single level buildings with exterior roll up doors opening into maneuvering aisles, the traditional building may also have some interior access units  (usually smaller units).  

Sometimes developers manage to build a traditional mini storage facility on a slope so they can stack units two high while maintaining grade level access to all units. Often the traditional facility will have an onsite manager residence in the building (perhaps on a second floor) or detached in a mobile home or some existing house that was on the property at time of development.   If space permits, most traditional self storage facilities will offer outside secured parking for rent as well.  

Grade level direct access storage is the easiest, most flexible space to sell.  If the complex includes multiple buildings, the property can be built our over time as the units fill up.  This is easier on the cashflow, spreads out the investment required and allows for subsequent buildings to be configured based on actual experience with the unit sizes that sell best in the early buildings. 

Some storage facilities with good traffic past the front door may position leased commercial space or perhaps small bay industrial space at the front of the facility.  The property is usually fenced and gated in larger towns but left open access in smaller communities where crime is less of an issue.

The biggest disadvantage of the traditional design mini storage is the amount of land it eats up.  In a rural area, land is cheaper and customers expect grade level access, but in urban areas, more density is required to justify the land dedicated to storage. 

Urban Conversion

Obsolete multi-story warehouses and factories can make great self storage facilities.  If the neighborhood has gentrified and there are now a lot of apartment dwellers in the area, or a lot of small businesses in nearby converted warehouses, than a urban conversion may be the answer to the area's storage needs.  The structure is already existing.  The elevators may also exist, along with a loading dock.  The construction can focus on dividing the space, on a floor by floor basis as the facility fills up.  

Urban conversions are flexible. Historic zoning may be in place already for a warehouse use.  The mini storage facility can preserve the look of the historic building with minimal changes - far fewer exterior changes then might be needed for an office or condo loft conversion.  Neighbors will love the quiet storage facility next door and the City will appreciate the heritage preservation aspects.    

Urban conversions can be blended with other uses - commercial, residential or office easily.  Some storage facilities even share buildings with schools or factories on other floors.

Urban Purpose Built

In areas where the land cost does not justify a traditional single story self storage design, but there are no existing multi-story buildings to convert, it is common now to build a three or four-story dedicated storage facility with elevators.  The office often goes on the front and a loading area is provided along with doilies for clients to use.  

Purpose build urban facilities often go to great lengths to emphasize security. They usually limit tenant access to the floor they rent on, and use security cameras and motion detectors.  Access will be by punch code, which management can easily change if the rent is not paid on time.  Some building even alarm every individual storage unit so that only the unit's assigned code will grant access to the unit.

 Hybrid Facilities

In suburban areas it is common to find a hybrid facility offering some combination of traditional mini storage space on the ground level and one or more buildings with 2 or 3 stories and interior units.  This arrangement allows for phased construction and caters to the larger market that prefers drive up space while still benefiting from the economics of site densification.

Zoning restrictions may drive the decision to do a hybrid of single and multi-storey buildings, where the access driveways are part of keeping down the overall site coverage.  The elevator access units will be smaller sized and the drive up units larger.  

Upper levels of the multi-story building may include a manager's suite and an operation's office, although the front office is usually by the front access on the ground floor.    

Mobile Mini Storage

A blend of self storage and the way that moving companies use containers to store and transfer household goods, the mobile mini storage operator will generally deliver a storage bin to be filled off site, then retrieve the bin and return it to the warehouse for storage.  Because storage bins can be stacked up and stacked deep this is a pretty efficient space arrangement.  

Customers that are moving love the ability to pack and unpack a storage bin right at the house and avoid the need for a truck of their own. However, mobile mini storage is not good for a customer who wants long-term storage with regular access. Because the bins may be stack in inaccessible places behind other bins, the customer must request a visit in advance to access their bin, which is a pain for both the customer and the self storage operator. 

Some mobile self storage operators use wooden bins that are basically a cube.  Others work with various standard and non-standard sized steel shipping containers.  Shipping containers, or C-Cans) are also popular for construction sites and other places that temporary storage is needed on the actual site rather than in a dedicated storage building.

Shipping Container Collection

An inexpensive and modular way to create a mini-storage project is to arrange ocean going shipping containers in a yard.  Some containers can be used whole with the double doors as the access point.  Other containers might be broken into smaller spaces and new doors added on the sides.  For consistancy, the operator may want to paint all the visable sides of the containers a unified color. The advantages of this type of facility include:

  • speed of construction (prepare site, place containers), 
  • modular nature of project,
  • ,site can be disassembled and containers sold or moved,   

Which Type of Storage Facility to Build?

The type of building is clearly going to depend on the economics of the location targeted. You want to go as dense as you can, which means as high as you can go, within reason.  If the cost of going higher is more than the cost of staying with low buildings because the land cost is low enough, it is an easy decision to stay at single storey buildings.  Phasng can be accomplished in any type of building, but it is hardest in a multi-storey building because the main structural costs are all required to open the doors, only the cost of dividing up the units can be foregone until those units are required by demand.