Can fewer stairs improve housing?

Some American municipalities want to ditch a long-standing rule that requires two staircases per apartment building.


Europe has sidewalk cafes, great public transit, and — according to some housing advocates — the correct number of staircases. Per Slate:

  • In Europe and parts of Asia, apartments often have one staircase, and perhaps elevators for accessibility.
  • Across North America, most multistory apartment buildings are required to have two — one at either end.

This is largely done for fire safety, yet data shows residential fire deaths are higher in the US than in countries where single-stair buildings are common.

Why do people hate on double stairs?

They result in “double-loaded corridor” buildings with units on opposite sides of a hallway.

They’re often aesthetically boring and big — if you’ve gotta build two staircases, you might as well get your money’s worth.

But advocates like architect Michael Eliason say that single-stair buildings:

  • Use space more efficiently
  • Provide units with more natural light and cross-ventilation, reducing energy costs
  • Are cheaper to build, and make it cost-effective to develop smaller buildings with larger, family-sized units
  • Have more interesting architecture

But would it be a game changer?

Architecture critic Kate Wagner has a more reserved take, doubting this single change would fix problems deeper than design.

Still, we may get a chance to see. Seattle already allows single staircases for buildings up to six floors, and a new California bill could open the door for buildings over three floors by 2026.

BTW: If you’re curious about what a single-stair design looks like, Eliason frequently posts them on Twitter.

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