British Columbia’s next building code will allow single-staircase buildings: a design element common in much of the world, but banned in Canada for decades.

The building types are touted as a simple design solution that allow for denser housing on smaller lots, which could help bolster “missing middle” housing stock (multiplexes, townhouses, and apartment buildings less than five storeys) while delivering climate benefits.

A report commissioned by B.C.’s Ministry of Housing and released last week provided research and recommendations on how the buildings could be safely allowed in the next provincial building code, due this upcoming fall, explained Minister of Housing Ravi Kahlon in an interview with Canada’s National Observer.

“We are going to allow them. We're moving forward. We're going ahead,” he said. “What we have to finalize is the specifics of the code. What are the parameters within the code that we need? That work is going to happen all through summer, and we'll make public the new code this fall.”

Currently, low- and mid-rise apartment buildings in the province (and most of North America) require two staircases. The rule dates back about 80 years ago to building codes largely based on what American cities, such as Chicago, were doing at the time. In the 1940s, buildings were built mostly with flammable timber, and two staircases were required with evacuation in mind.

A report commissioned by B.C.’s Ministry of Housing and released last week provided research and recommendations on how the buildings could be safely allowed in the next provincial building code, due this upcoming fall.

The province has decided to allow the builds primarily because they allow for more family-friendly units, said Kahlon. Instead of apartment buildings mostly made up of studios and one-bedrooms, single staircase buildings – also called point access blocks – typically include three-bedroom units that can accommodate families and other living arrangements.

“Right now, when someone goes to build housing, they have to assemble so much land because of the structure of the building, and it takes years for housing to get built,” explained Kahlon.

“Having the ability to have a smaller lot, and a smaller building, I think not only will be appreciated more in communities, it will also build the type of units that we need more of in our communities.”

There are also important climate adaptation benefits, explained Kahlon, such as buildings being more livable during extreme heat because their layouts allow for cross breezes in units: something now reserved for those living in single-family homes or townhouses.

While the province is confident they will find a way to allow the builds, what specifically will be required by builders and developers in the code isn’t set in stone.

As a prime example for the province to look toward, Kahlon points to Seattle, which has allowed single-stairway buildings up to six storeys since the 1970s, with a limit of four apartments per floor with requirements around sprinkler systems. It’s also the style of building frequently seen in older parts of cities like Montreal, and dense European cities like Paris or Berlin.

Graphic courtesy of Conrad Speckert

Fewer units means less people who need to evacuate in a fire. Kahlon also highlighted wider staircases and pressurized hallways as notable fire safety solutions presented by the report.

He said those solutions address concerns from fire safety officials, including the elevated fire risk Chicago-style restrictions originally set out to prevent. But it’s not a solution for every building type. The report noted “representatives of BC fire services organizations expressed their opposition to the concept of allowing larger [single staircase] buildings.”

While single staircase buildings will be allowed in B.C., there will likely be exceptions. Namely, any jurisdiction without a professional fire fighting service “probably isn’t the best place for it,” said Kahlon, noting “the majority of our large communities have professional fire service.”

Now, building code officials will take the report, and “do a little bit more consultation on the fine points of the code” before implementing single-stair buildings into the province’s code this fall.

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Climate and affordability are two critical factors to consider on thus issue. So is land use planning.

Western North America contains cities that were built outwards in a decades long spree of sprawl. Short term urban economics supported this low density form of living by subsidizing long, costly runs of roads and utilities and underpinning emergency services and schools where the population's tax base didn't support them on their own.

The Missing Middle refers to low and mid-rise development not prevalent in the sprawl-encased tower clusters of today's cities. Low and mid rise buildings are not as dense as high rises, but that's not the central issue at hand regarding addressing climate and housing affordability. Converting low density highly inefficient and economically unsustainable suburbs into self-sufficient walkable and transit rich communities would focus on the core key components needed to move forward.

Urbanizing the suburbs would entail deep regional land use planning using two main tools, transit and zoning. While EVs and heat pumps would help immediately decrease the demand for fossil fuels, it is the conversion of sprawl into efficacious urbanism that will have the most powerful and beneficial result, even though it takes generations to implement.

Suburban land is less expensive to assemble, and the cost savings should translate into lower unit prices. The presence of transit and nearby stores would lessen the demand for building underground parking spaces at $60,000 per stall. Mass timber framing using wood from sustainable sources with precision, climate controlled factory assembled wall, roof and floor panels designed to Passive House standards of energy efficiency. Super efficient sound attenuation measures with the above building tech would help keep building costs down, drastically reduce outdoor construction times, make individual units more desireable and offer residents and businesses very low operating costs over the building's lifespan.

If a neighbourhood was built with these principles, and if excellence in architecture and urban design were also guiding principles, including the preservation of existing heritage buildings and trees, and if the zoning permitted a wide mix of market and rental residential, stores and continuous sidewalk retail on arterials served by excellent transit, then the future will be brighter. And that is achievable without resorting to skyscrapers.

Governments need to step up their involvement in building affordable rental housing. It is now necessary to offer a significant counterweight to the market that has become unaffordable. Co-ops, subsidized social housing for seniors and families, non-profit good quality rentals and other kinds of public low and mid-rise housing developments are easily interspersed into the community.

We'd all be better off for it.