Land Values: Step into the winding debate around stair restrictions in B.C. buildings

The debate over changing stair restrictions is alive and well, with some local architects arguing that less is more

You’ve probably seen at least one movie where some of the action takes place in the stairwell of a grand old apartment building, a place with a big central hallway and a staircase that spirals up that core. Like Jack Lemmon’s home in the 1960 film The Apartment, which wasn’t meant to be a documentary on housing styles but currently serves as one.

Those stairwells are illegal in all of Canada and most of the United States now.

Since at least 1941 in Canada, longer in some American cities, it’s been the rule that every apartment building has to have two staircases for people to exit in case of a fire. Which has led to the ubiquitous floor plan we now know—a long, windowless hallway with apartments lined up on either side and a staircase at either end.

But things are changing! As YIMBY activists in both countries have gone on a crusade to reform a long list of problems with housing construction and supply (zoning restrictions, NIMBY opposition that kills projects, building-code complications, lengthy permitting times), one target they’ve lavished a lot of love and attention on is that staircase requirement.

If you have a friend who’s a housing nerd, just say the words “single-stair egress” or “single-exit buildings” or “point-stair exit” (different groups prefer different terms) and watch their eyes light up and the words tumble out of their mouths to explain all the benefits of changing building codes to allow that kind of design again for lower-rise apartment buildings. They will talk at length about how this will make building design so much more flexible—and therefore better—because architects won’t be locked into having to line up apartments with windows on only one side against that central corridor. It will provide for more living space inside any given building where the point-stair exit is allowed and make them more affordable, they say. (That last one is debatable.) Yes, you will feel like you are being bombarded with incomprehensible technology terms at times. But the nerds are winning.

To the south, various cities and even states are looking at changing their codes to allow smaller apartments to be built again as single-exit buildings. Seattle, which has permitted them since 1977 in buildings up to six storeys, with a max of four apartments per floor, is getting a lot of phone calls as other jurisdictions reconsider this policy. Virginia is currently looking at changing its laws to allow single staircases in buildings up to six storeys instead of the current three. Washington is also consulting on whether to expand the Seattle idea state-wide.

In Canada, there’s even more interest because the code here is so restrictive. According to Conrad Speckert—a graduate of the McGill University architecture program, the project manager at LGA Architectural Partners in Toronto and a researcher who has dedicated several years of his life to studying the issue—the only country more restrictive than Canada is Uganda, which requires double staircases in any multi-unit buildings over one storey. In Canada, it’s over two storeys.

“It’s a 1941 code, based off U.S. codes in Philadelphia and New York, written in the late 1800s, when a lot of things had burned down,” he says. “When this was introduced in 1941, it made a lot of sense. But everything today is so much different.” There are sprinkler systems, new materials used in walls to slow down the spread of flames and spring-loaded doors to cut off smoke spread, to name a few.

Given stair restrictions in B.C., this is a rendering of what single-stair design would look like in a building on Victoria Drive in Vancouver

B.C. is currently exploring whether to change its building code, as part of the efforts by Premier David Eby’s government to tackle housing issues on about 20 different fronts. Speckert’s research, which informed a recent BC Housing study by Public Architecture in collaboration with GHL building code consultants, is something decision-makers are looking at carefully.

Toronto-based firms LGA Architectural Partners and David Hine Engineering Inc. have submitted a request to the Canadian Board for Harmonized Construction Codes, asking it to consider a change to the National Building Code of Canada to allow single-exit designs for small multi-unit residential buildings, as a housing-supply priority for the next five-year update.

As well, LGA Architectural Partners has been shortlisted for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s “Housing Supply Challenge” competition to develop solutions to the country’s supply problems. One of Vancouver’s more innovative architects (also a UBC architecture professor), Inge Roecker, will be collaborating with LGA on a single-stair design for a six-storey building on Victoria Drive in Vancouver to demonstrate how it would work.

Both Speckert and Roecker emphasize that the idea is not just to get rid of the second staircase and hope for the best in case of a fire. “I’m not asking for unsafe buildings,” Roecker states. Any buildings with the point-stair exit need to achieve the same outcomes that the two-staircase design was aiming for: maximum safety for residents in case of a fire.

Given stair restrictions in B.C., this is a rendering of what single-stair design would look like in a building on Victoria Drive in Vancouver

That, in general, means ensuring that a fire can’t spread from room to room easily (a one-hour safety cushion is what everyone aims for) and that there are measures in place to protect people from smoke, which is the most common way that people die in buildings that burn. There are new, fancy techniques to help with that. One, for example, is “pressurizing” the stairwell—using an HVAC-type device to make the air denser than in the hallway so that smoke is repelled and the stairway remains a safe way to exit.

Roecker says that point-stair-exit buildings can actually be safer than current-style buildings with their long, dark, windowless hallways, where residents sometimes have to travel a considerable distance to get to the stairs. “If you’re stuck in a smoke-filled hall and nobody sees you, it’s unsafe,” she explains.

She, like many others, is convinced this move would unlock huge potential in the housing-construction world for something beyond the current choice of modest fourplexes on one end and land-assembly-for-towers on the other. It’s an especially important change for larger, older cities that are trying to encourage infill construction, often on fairly small lots where the demand for a second stairway can make buildings physically and economically unworkable. “I call it the missing link to the missing middle,” says Roecker.

But there are some hurdles to overcome yet. Firefighters in general are wary about the change. They want to know what the specifics are because, for them, the two-staircase model has always provided a safety valve. “If the one stairwell becomes compromised, that blocks the only way out,” says Jason Cairney, Surrey’s deputy fire chief and a rep for the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C.

In Washington state, fire chiefs are also concerned about allowing the single-exit design everywhere, saying it might not be suitable for rural communities that rely on volunteer fire departments.

But none of them are arguing that there is evidence that people are more likely to die in fires in single-exit buildings than in double-exit ones. Speckert, the firefighting officials and everyone else say that no data like this exists. So it’s going to come down to who makes the best theoretical argument for safety. Or someone could try to argue that, if we want great films like The Apartment again, it won’t work if the nebbishy Jack Lemmon character has to rent a place in a place with grim, dark, double-loaded corridors and no beautiful single entrance. Who knows what arguments will work in this rapidly  evolving world.