How allowing single-staircase buildings could change Virginia’s housing market

May 5, 2022 12:03 am

An apartment with a double-loaded staircase building in Charlottesville. (Lyle Solla-Yates)

Given the decades-long decline in new housing construction and the resultant skyrocketing of rents and home prices across the commonwealth, the need for more homes has become a consensus position in Virginia. However, even those who support increasing housing construction have mixed feelings about the dominant design of the times: 5-over-1 buildings — so named for the number of wood-framed residential floors over the concrete, often retail-filled ground floor.  

Such massive, boxy apartment buildings are all too often the only type of structures developers are interested in erecting due to the demands of the state’s building codes. A proposal to alter such standards heard before a Department of Housing and Community Development building code stakeholder committee last month may soon offer alternatives.  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.

Older than building codes

After the approval of a new comprehensive plan for Charlottesville, Planning Commission chair Lyle Solla-Yates realized much of the plan’s ideas for equitable infill and missing middle housing weren’t allowed under the statewide building codes. That’s why he petitioned the DHCD technical subcommittee in charge of the codes to authorize single staircase buildings up to six stories late last year. The proposal has been under review ever since. Should DHCD’s stakeholders board come to a consensus in favor of the change, the building codes could be amended as soon as the start of the next calendar year.

Allowing double the number of stories to be served by just a single staircase is actually incredibly common. 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. Indeed, much of the iconic architecture of Paris, Berlin and beyond would today be illegal to build had other countries adopted similar standards.

The decision on whether two internal staircases are needed for buildings over three floors or whether one internal staircase and an external fire escape suffices may come down to the judgment of the Virginia Department of Fire Programs. 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.

Andrew Clark, vice president of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Virginia, is confident that all parties can come to a consensus. “It’s important we hear the fire professionals out, but this is not a new concept that hasn’t been explored anywhere else,” he said. “Other cities, states and countries already do this, and it’s not like they value fire safety any less. We need practical building codes that allow builders and architects to put needed designs onto the ground. There’s a way we can do this to address everyone’s concerns.”

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.  Such construction also demands a lot of land — something in short supply in Virginia’s older cities where the housing crisis is at its most acute.

“Charlottesville is older than zoning or building codes so our city was not laid out for double-loaded staircases,” explained Solla-Yates.  “Good stuff is not allowed under the state code so good stuff doesn’t get built. Instead of letting land owners do small parcel development, we only allow wealthy people to amass many parcels and build one giant set of apartments.  We’re forcing that type of sudden, shocking change to our city blocks.”

Community through compactness

When developers can’t buy up enough parcels to make a double-loaded staircase structure financially feasible, they often have to abandon their plans for the site and leave the lot empty instead of building something smaller.  If DHCD approves the six-story single staircase code change, many of those narrow potential infill sites in older cities like Richmond, Alexandria and Norfolk could become viable again.

“This has the potential to unlock some really challenging sites in cities and built out areas that are trying to figure out how to do infill right,” said Clark.  “Removing one staircase can really change the equation on what housing can be provided more affordably.  Once you start opening up square footage from the staircases and corridors that eat up so much space you can create more of a communal feel for new buildings.”

Instead of the long, dark corridors demanded by double-loaded staircases, single staircase buildings create community through their compactness. “In a double-loaded building you may never know your neighbors,” said Michael Eliason, architect and founder of Larch Lab.  “In a single staircase structure with four units per floor and six stories, that is 24 units total. Humans can know 40 people, so these buildings are really at a scale that you can feasibly know all of your neighbors.”

Besides single staircase buildings’ social benefits, such construction also offers architectural advantages. 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. In America where we force most multi-family development onto busy corridors, single staircase buildings also allow residents a reprieve from street noise if they can simply walk to the other side of their apartment to escape the ruckus and pollution of heavy traffic.

A single-staircase structure in Charlottesville built before modern codes. (Lyle Solla-Yates)

Changing the equation

The final big benefit of single staircase construction is the flexibility of the floorplans and the potential for cost savings.  “In a double-loaded corridor building if you have a three-bedroom unit it takes up the real estate of two to three units, so they become prohibitively expensive,” Eliason said.  “Single staircase buildings offer a mix of units and a diversity of unit sizes, creating housing for various forms of living so that people have choices besides a single-family house or a one-bedroom unit.”

Given that a second staircase eats up about 400 square feet per floor, over six stories a second staircase can waste around 2,400 square feet across the entire building. If no second staircase is required by the building codes, that space can be turned into additional housing units, shared spaces for residents like music practice rooms, or it could just not be built at all saving developers (and future tenants) construction costs ranging from $465,000 in Richmond to $852,000 in Alexandria.

Increased living space and lower construction costs translate to more affordable rents without any state subsidy required — exactly the outcome Solla-Yates and others in Charlottesville are hoping their new comp plan will produce. It’s incredibly rare for affordable housing advocates to attack their issue via the building codes, but it’s an approach that Clark hopes to see more of going forward.

“Land use, parking minimums, and zoning are all important, but there is this whole building code process that is overlooked because it’s super technical that is also increasing the upfront costs of development,” he said. “Every single year there is stuff that gets proposed and adopted in the building code that adds costs onto new housing, but you don’t get a lot of affordable housing advocates that get involved, so things can sometimes inadvertently compound costs and make denser development impossible.”

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network.