In Praise of Single-Staircase Construction

U.S. building codes mandate two staircases in multi-story buildings, but some argue this requirement reduces affordability and encourages wasteful, uninspired design.

1 minute read

January 2, 2022, 7:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

A group of architects and developers led by architect Michael Eliason is arguing against building codes that mandate more than one staircase in apartment buildings, saying that the requirement "produces smaller, more unpleasant, more expensive apartments in larger buildings full of wasted space. As Henry Grabar notes in an article for Slate, "Most American apartment buildings over four stories are required to include two means of egress from every apartment" for fire safety purposes. But Eliason argues that buildings in other countries that permit one-staircase construction are no less safe from fire.

Eliason observes that when you require every apartment to connect to two staircases, you all but ensure those units are built around one long double-loaded corridor, to give all residents access to both stairways. You tilt the scales in favor of larger floor plates in bigger buildings, because developers need to find room for two stairways, and connect them—and then compensate for the unsellable interior space consumed by the corridor.

Single-staircase advocates argue that second staircases hinder affordability and construction of "missing middle housing," while building fires are much less common than when the rules were put in place. Currently, Seattle is the only U.S. city that permits single stairs in buildings as tall as six stories.

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