Rethinking One Rule Could Help North American Buildings be Better Designed

Imagine walking through a charming neighborhood lined with quaint, walk-up apartments, each brimming with character and history. These buildings, often found in cities worldwide, are not just architectural gems but also a testament to urban diversity.

However, in North America, a different story unfolds. Apartment buildings are larger, more imposing, and stretch across entire blocks.

The culprit behind this contrast? A seemingly innocuous architectural element: staircases.

The Point Access Block

In many of the world’s most desirable neighborhoods, a type of apartment building known as the “point access block” is common.

Characterized by a single staircase and elevator connecting all units, these buildings are typically more compact and slender than their North American counterparts.

Each floor houses fewer apartments, creating a more intimate living environment. The design also allows for varied apartment layouts, often with multiple aspects and cross-ventilation, enhancing living comfort.

Moreover, the smaller footprint of these buildings makes them ideal for fitting into the existing urban fabric, preserving the character and scale of neighborhoods.

Their prevalence in cities like Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo underscores a different approach to urban living, where space is at a premium, and efficiency is paramount.

So, why are these buildings a rarity in North America?

The Two-Staircase Mandate & Its Implications

A critical building code in the US and Canada stipulates that all apartments above two or three stories must have two separate staircases. This requirement, much stricter than in other countries, has significant implications.

Accommodating two staircases reduces usable floor space, pushing developers to construct larger buildings. Consequently, North American apartments are generally bigger and wider than their European counterparts.

The Challenge of Building More Housing

This stringent staircase requirement poses a major challenge in building more housing. Larger buildings need bigger properties, often necessitating land assembly – a complex and costly process.

In contrast, single-staircase buildings can be smaller and built on single properties, making them a vital solution for adding housing in densely populated areas.

Limiting Housing Diversity

The two-staircase rule in North American building codes significantly impacts not just the size of buildings but also the diversity of available housing. This regulation necessitates a central hallway to connect the staircases, effectively bisecting the building.

As a result, most apartments end up with windows on only one side, severely limiting natural light and ventilation.

The layout restricts the potential for diverse apartment designs, particularly those with multiple bedrooms.

In contrast, buildings with a single staircase, common in Europe and Asia, often feature apartments that wrap around the stairwell, allowing for windows on multiple sides and more flexible, airy floor plans.

This design enables the creation of larger units with multiple bedrooms, catering to families and enhancing the variety of housing options.

Therefore, the prevalence of the two-staircase design in North America limits the potential for architectural innovation and contributes to a shortage of family-friendly, multi-bedroom apartments in urban areas.

The Historical Context

The two-staircase rule in North America, crucial in shaping its architectural landscape, has deep historical roots in fire safety concerns.

Originating from the earliest building codes in the 1600s, these regulations initially focused on materials for roof coverings and outlawing hazardous construction practices.

By the late 18th century, George Washington advocated for limitations on wood frame buildings, reflecting growing awareness of urban fire risks. The first formal U.S. building code, established in 1788 in Old Salem, North Carolina, further emphasized this focus.

The evolution of these codes, particularly with the National Board of Fire Underwriters’ 1905 Recommended National Building Code, marked a significant shift towards standardized safety practices.

This historical emphasis on fire safety, responding to the prevalent use of wood in construction, led to stringent regulations like the two-staircase rule, profoundly impacting North American building design and diversity.

Rethinking the Rule

While the two-staircase rule was born out of a need for safety, it’s worth questioning its current applicability.

With advancements in fire safety technology and changing urban landscapes, is this rule still serving its intended purpose, or is it hindering the development of diverse, affordable housing?

Some cities, like Seattle, have already started to relax this requirement, allowing for single-staircase buildings under certain conditions.

By reevaluating these rules, we can open the door to more diverse, affordable, and family-friendly housing options, shaping our cities for the better.

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Davin is a jack-of-all-trades but has professional training and experience in various home and garden subjects. He leans on other experts when needed and edits and fact-checks all articles.