Could housing be cheaper and better if we stopped building so many stairs?

Seattle-based architect Michael Eliason has a number of complaints on how America makes its apartment buildings. The components are inferior, he says: The best sliding windows and doors are made elsewhere. Designs rarely accommodate large families. And there are too many stairs.

Too much of what now? Eliason is the founder of Larch laboratory and the lead evangelist of a small group of architects and developers intrigued by the possibilities of making multi-family buildings with a single staircase. And conversely, fed up with North American standards that require most apartments to be accessible by two of them.

Mandate two staircases, Eliason says, produce smaller, nastier, more expensive apartments in taller buildings full of wasted space. He likes to contrast the square North American multi-family building with more nimble designs from South Korea, China, Sweden, Italy or Germany. In these countries, apartments in mid-rise buildings may be served by a single staircase, often circling or adjacent to the elevator. Online, Eliason is the founding father of what he called Floor Plan Twitter, where he shares those alien single-staircase plans with an enthusiasm usually reserved for imports like wine or sports cars.

Of all Eliason’s oxen with American construction practices, which he has described for the environmental news site Treehugger, this is both the most tangible – you don’t need to be an architect to understand the difference between two staircases and one – and the most opaque. It’s a staircase, Michael. How much could it cost?

The answer, Eliason and the One Staircase Brigade insist, can be measured in terms of light, air, space and money.

Most American apartment buildings over four storeys must include two means of egress from each apartment. In Canada, the height limit for a single staircase building is only two stories. The alleged reason for these rules is fire safety, although there is no evidence that Americans and Canadians are any more immune to structural fires than our neighbors around the world, where one-man construction stairs are allowed even in buildings of eight, 10 or 20 floors.

This second staircase is a drag. When we spoke last week Eliason showed me a presentation he gives to convey the building culture that is shaped by the two staircase system. It featured a still image from the movie The brilliant, of Danny riding his tricycle down the long, carpeted hallway of the Overlook Hotel. If you’ve stayed in an American apartment building that is around half a century old, you probably recognize this airless environment, which architects call a “double-loaded hallway” because it has doors on both sides. No one likes these hallways. The double-loaded corridor, architect Frank Zimmerman writing, is a “case study in anti-human engineering”.

Eliason observes that when you ask each apartment to connect to two staircases, you practically ensure that these units are built around a long, double-loaded hallway, to allow all residents access to both staircases. You’re tilting the scales in favor of larger floor plates in taller buildings, as developers have to find room for two stairs and connect them, then make up for the unsaleable interior space consumed by the hallway.

The resulting designs, Eliason argues, are more likely than not to offer smaller cookie cutter units, limited by their position along the long hallway. The apartments should look north or south. Sun or shade. Sunrise or sunset. Busy street or quiet backyard. And no one, with the possible exception of a lucky occupant of a corner apartment, is on the rise.

The Bandeira Building, a 20-story apartment complex in São Paulo, has a staircase and three units on each floor, each with windows on two sides.
Una Arquitetos, via To divide

Cut out one of these stairs and you can cut out the hallway as well. Narrower sites suddenly come into play. Construction costs drop. The ratio of “rental” area in a building increases, which makes development less expensive. This in turn can result in lower rents or more flexible designs. Two or three apartments per floor, it is suddenly more economical, which makes the staircase a more intimate and intimately shared space. Family units. Units where the living room faces south to the sun and the street and the bedrooms face north with calm shade. “In the architectural world, it’s been clear from the start that we need two exits for every space,” Eliason said. “But in most other countries that second way out is the fire department.”

Conrad Speckert, an architecture student at McGill University, is another Twitter fan on Floor Plan who personally takes that required second staircase. “I grew up in a three-story, single-exit building where we knew our neighbors well, the staircase landings were generous and naturally lit, and everyone had gone crazy with their Christmas decorations,” he writes on his master’s website. project, Second outing. “My childhood home in Switzerland reminds me that stairs should be more than just traffic and fire safety, and that there is also a sensuality in them – the tactile sensation of a winding railing. , resistance to sliding steps, washing out light from a skylight or breeze from an opening window. (The classic European single staircase also produces a villainous movie fight scene.)

But such buildings have been illegal in Canada since 1941, when the country passed stricter building regulations. For Speckert, the Second Egress website is the first step towards a petition for a change to the Canadian building code. He collected the maximum heights of single-staircase buildings in various countries and assembled a “Manual of illegal floor plansMore permissive regimes, showing what might be possible.

In North America, stairs generally have to be closed from the hallway, making them isolated and unpleasant spaces. They are also designed this way. But they don’t need to be. “There is a hunch that once a building is more than two stories high, you use the elevator,” Speckert told me. “But when you have a building with a staircase that opens directly onto the landing, you have the option of designing that staircase. Do not concrete it with an aluminum guardrail. Now that you are sharing traffic with neighbors, you may know them.

Floor plan of two units connected by a single staircase
The 14-story Stone Garden building in Beirut, which has a staircase and one or two units on each floor.
Lina Ghotmeh Architecture, via To divide

But the biggest problem with two staircases, the single staircase brigade agrees, is affordability: a second staircase makes it more difficult to build small, mid-rise, multi-family rental buildings. This is one of the many obstacles (zoning, parking, height limits, etc.) that we have lifted over the last century to block the “missing link” housing that defined the beginning of the 20th century.e cities of the century, and are now some of their most beloved and cherished real estate.

The specter of large structure fires – like the Grenfell Tower fire in London, the single-staircase housing project whose faulty facade panels caught fire in 2017, killing 71 people – is what reformers like Eliason and Speckert are confronted. But building fires are much less common than they were when the single staircase rules were codified, as most city dwellers roll their eyes during office fire drills and curse. their hyperactive apartment smoke detectors. World Fire Statistics Center data show Canada, for example, has little to show for its two-story limit.

Another guy who loves a single staircase is Bobby Fijan, a developer in Philadelphia. Fijan calls himself the Bill James of floor plans, a reference to the baseball analyst whose sharp statistical evaluation technique helped change the way players and skills were valued in the sport. “I’m not sure what effect this would have on a 250-unit apartment building near Mill Creek,” he said, citing a large apartment developer. “But it would be particularly significant for urban infill”, one-off apartment projects supported by developers in already dense neighborhoods.

“I have to make more and more complicated arrangements of ‘row houses’ instead of small buildings,” said developer Payton Chung. He places the upper floors of a small building in a multi-story apartment, rather than making them separate apartments, to avoid triggering that second staircase requirement. The International Building Code (which like the World Series is truly an American institution) doesn’t care about having six or 60 units per floor, you still need your two stairs.

A place closer to the world standard? by Eliason Seattle hometown. The city approved simple stairs in buildings up to six stories high. All is well with the Seattle fire department. Could this also work in your city?

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