Abundant light? Gotta be single-stair. (Shutterstock)
If you’ve been around architecture and urbanism circles for the last few years, you might have heard about something called “single-stair” layouts. While not a new concept (it’s been present in European multifamily buildings for a very long time), single-stair apartment buildings have, like upzoning before it, become the latest concept to gain “it will fix our cities” panacea status among a certain type of pragmatic liberal urban pundit. If we build using single-stair, it could lower rents! It could make better streetscapes! It could make America more like Blessed Mother Europe! Wow, the housing crisis is suddenly solved, thanks to this one weird trick!
To the unfamiliar, single-stair is exactly what it sounds like. Most multifamily buildings in US cities are required to have two forms of egress, which is to say, two stairwells that can be used as exits in case of a fire. This more often than not forces architects to design buildings around what’s called a double-loaded corridor—a long central hallway with apartments on either side, rather like the hallways found in hotels. Not only is this an inefficient use of space per unit; it also keeps architects from being able to create more flexible and interesting floor plans—part of why so much new multifamily housing looks the same. Many of you are familiar with those blocky, awkward five-over-ones (five stories of residential over one story of retail) without green space, setbacks, terraces, or, well, anything interesting about them whatsoever. Part of the reason for such lackluster developments is the two-staircase requirement.
Single-stair, then, is a change to local building codes that essentially removes the need for the second staircase. This allows buildings to be designed around, say, a central atrium or stairwell—a type of plan known as a point access block—with greater variance in access to light and fresh air, and more diversity in floor plans and thus modes of living. This is essentially the mode of construction in most of Europe, which means all of those balcony-rich, light-filled Viennese apartment blocks are, you guessed it, single-stair. Sounds pretty good, right?
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Well, yes. But there are two points I want to tackle here. First, I think single-stair solves a very specific problem, which is that most apartment buildings in the United States are architecturally homogeneous and could be made much better looking and much more pleasant to live in, perhaps even on a smaller budget. However, I think this is the only problem single stair will fix, which is to say, it fixes an architectural problem. There is little evidence as far as I can see that the schema will do anything to lower rents or fix urban inequality or anything else that would be so deeply transformative.
Second, some well-meaning people describe single-stair as “deregulation” because it modifies the fire code and strips buildings of one form of egress, thus making them more unsafe. I think it’s important to distinguish between a change in the building code and the rolling back of the building code. Like I said before, single-stair buildings are de rigueur in much of Europe, in places like Switzerland, which have much lower rates of fires than the US does. Compensation for the loss of egress can come in many forms, like compartmentalization of units to keep fire from spreading or increased fire suppression measures like sprinklers. Essentially, the change in code would substitute one safety feature for another rather than remove fire protection altogether. Theoretically, single stair-buildings are no less safe than those built using double-loaded corridors.
However I’m not going to write off these concerns altogether, for beneath them is something of real substance. It may be a pain in the ass for architects and developers, but the building code exists, fundamentally, to keep us safe. In Chicago, for example, building codes were developed in the 19th century in response to excessive fires and expanded throughout the years to include everything from “hey, there are bricks falling from your cornice” to “hey, you need to cut your grass” or “hey, your tenants are without heat and that’s not acceptable.”
It’s not just that building codes exist; it’s that they also need to be enforced. Grenfell Tower in London, for example, was a single-stair building. But the reason the 2017 fire that claimed 72 lives proved so deadly was because of years of negligence and mismanagement, as well as the use of a particularly flammable material chosen (despite explicit instructions otherwise) as cladding during exterior renovations. In short, the deadly results of Grenfell were caused by naked exploitation and greed. That same greed is always present in a housing market that is completely financialized and inherently predatory. I would posit that rarely are buildings architectural failures—more often, they are social and political failures. A similar lesson can be gleaned from Pruitt–Igoe, the short-lived Minoru Yamasak–designed St. Louis public housing complex that became the scapegoat for the failures of modernist architecture. The project’s problems had everything to do with racist housing policies and purposeful negligence and nothing to do with architectural style. We build in a society that is profoundly unequal, especially when it comes to class, gender, ability, and race. Even the cleverest architects are no match against that.
There’s another problem here. As things stand now, departments of buildings in cities are often understaffed and overworked, and it’s almost impossible for them to address every problem property. Sociologist Robin Bartram’s new book Stacked Decks: Building Inspectors and the Reproduction of Urban Inequality paints a nuanced and colorful picture of building code enforcement in Chicago. Bartram’s inspectors often see themselves as pillars of justice—lenient on poor homeowners of color and punitive toward the rich, a reflection of the working-class status of the job itself. (One colorful anecdote has an inspector dreaming of sending an offending property owner to “landlord hell.”) However, the end results of code enforcement are also unequal, despite these inspectors’ best intentions. She describes cases where, when landlords are forced to make repairs, they use this as an excuse to raise rents or evict existing tenants, as well as instances where condo owners are loaned city money to fix up their buildings and, unable to pay back these debts, end up with underwater mortgages. Even when the code is enforced—and those responsible theoretically punished and the situation rectified—in our capitalist housing system, it is still those living in these buildings who often lose.
The key problem, then, is not double-loaded corridors. It’s capitalism, It’s exploitation. That exploitation manifests architecturally in scenes ranging from horrific, visible negligence to fresh paint and quartz countertops in the deconverted two-flat on my block, where two working-class families once lived. Single-stair is not going to fix the housing crisis, because the housing crisis stems from an economic system in which housing is a commodity and a money-making scheme instead of a human right to shelter. I find that in my columns, I’m always delineating what is a design problem and what is a political problem. Single-stair construction solves a design problem; it makes for more lively apartment building layouts and more interesting and flexible buildings. Making sure those buildings are and remain safe, equitable, comfortable, and stable is a political struggle waged against the landlord and developer class on behalf of the commons. If you think single-stair is going to liberate housing design, imagine what severing the connection between shelter and profit could do.
Kate WagnerKate Wagner is an architecture critic and journalist based in Chicago, Ill., and Ljubljana, Slovenia.
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