How a Staircase Requirement Can Impact Housing Affordability

Critics of the double-staircase mandate for multi-story buildings argue that it does little to improve fire safety while raising the costs of housing construction and limiting community interaction.

2 minute read

May 9, 2022, 5:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

View looking down a multi-story apartment building staircase

photobeps / Building staircase

“If a rule to allow new construction to have a single staircase up to six stories is approved, then smaller buildings that better foster community among residents could begin popping up in cities and towns across the commonwealth [of Virginia],” reports Wyatt Gordon for The Virginia Mercury. “Although the United States and Canada lowered the height limit for such construction to three stories nearly a century ago, the rest of the world never allowed fears of fires to hinder such housing.” In fact, many of Virginia’s older buildings were constructed before the double-staircase rule was put into place.

“Modern American building codes mandate double-loaded staircases if a building exceeds three stories, inevitably leading developers to build the big, bland 5-over-1s” and forcing buildings to take up more real estate. “Efforts to present fire experts with the facts on single staircase structures are already underway giving advocates hope that fire officials’ support can be secured before DHCD comes to a final decision later this year,” notes Gordon.

Proponents of single-staircase buildings point to several advantages. “Instead of the long, dark corridors demanded by double-loaded staircases, single staircase buildings create community through their compactness.” Additionally, “When there is no cavernous hallway going straight through the middle of the building apartments can stretch from one side of the building to the other, enabling cross ventilation and sunlight on both sides of the unit.”

Like parking minimums and other building code requirements, the double-staircase mandate can have a powerful impact on housing affordability and construction costs. “Increased living space and lower construction costs translate to more affordable rents without any state subsidy required,” making it easier for private developers to build more affordable housing.

Thursday, May 5, 2022 in The Virginia Mercury

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