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Building less expensive family-size apartments
Single-stair vs. hotel-style layouts
When we talk about adding low-rise apartment buildings to Vancouver, one of the common questions is how to include apartments that are large enough for families, instead of just studio and one-bedroom apartments.
The city of Vancouver mandates that at least 35% of new apartment buildings include two- or three-bedroom apartments.
Rezoning applications that include any residential strata housing are required to include a minimum of 35% family units (units having two or more bedrooms):
A minimum of 10% three-bedroom units
A minimum of 25% two-bedroom units
Rezoning applications for secured market rental projects are required to include a minimum of 35% family units with two or more bedrooms.
It turns out that without this requirement, you won’t get many family-size apartments. Why?
In North America, most low-rise apartment buildings require two separate exits, rather than a single central stairwell, as is common in the rest of the world. Stephen Smith explains that this makes it more expensive to build family-size apartments. It’s typical to have a hotel-like hallway with apartments on each side, and the apartment tends to be long and narrow, with 30 feet from the hallway to the window. Adding another bedroom with a window, maybe 10 x 10, probably requires adding 300 square feet of expensive floor space. (In Vancouver, at $1200 per square foot, that would be $360,000.)
In the United States, to add an extra bedroom - let's imagine your typical new-construction apartment. There's a long hallway in the middle of the building and then perpendicularly arrayed off of it there's apartments. And you enter one of the apartments, and if it's a two-bedroom apartment it's designed in what someone once called a bowling-alley configuration.
You enter in the kitchen, you're about 30 feet from the window, probably. There's not actually a whole lot of window space in the apartment and it's 30 feet away from you. You go forward and then you see a living area, and then on the left you have a bedroom, on the right you have a bedroom, and those are by the window. But what do you fill all that other space with? There's a ton of this space that would not exist in Europe or in Asia, mostly, because the building is much much thicker than it would be in another country.
When we think about what a family wants, they want another bedroom. And a bedroom typically by codes and customs has to have a window. So you want to capture that extra window space, but then you need to fill all this space, at least in the United States. And this is square footage it costs money to build, it costs money to maintain. You have to fill it with something. You're probably going to fill it with bathrooms. If anyone's ever done a home renovation, they're the most expensive part.
So in the United States when you add an extra bedroom to a two-bedroom apartment or a one-bedroom apartment, you typically have to build about 300 square feet of extra space. The bedroom itself is only about 10 by 10, 100 square feet, but then you need to fill all that space in the middle. Whereas in other countries, in Europe, Latin America, or Asia, to add the extra bedroom, in some cases you can just add an extra 100 square feet, maybe you'll add another 150, 200, but you're adding much less space to add that bedroom.
Conrad Speckert is proposing that low-rise apartment buildings up to six storeys be allowed to have a single exit. This would allow apartment layouts with greater flexibility, efficiency, and livability compared to the hotel-style layout, and it would make it possible to design apartment buildings for smaller lots.
The code change would include the following fire-safety measures:
a total occupant load of 60 people on any storey served by the single exit, similar to 188.8.131.52.(2)
no more than 4 dwelling units per storey, based on Seattle SBC 2018, 1006.3.3.7 Single Exits
a maximum floor area of 150m2 per dwelling unit, based on Table 184.108.40.206.-B
Note: sprinklering is not a proposed measure for the Part 3 CCR, given the code already requires such buildings to be sprinklered throughout (NFPA 13-R up to 4 storeys, NFPA-13 exceeding 4 storeys, as required by 220.127.116.11.)
requiring positive pressurization of the exit stair, based on the requirement for smoke control measures in high-rise buildings above 18m in building height (18.104.22.168. Limits to Smoke Movement and 22.214.171.124. Venting to Aid Firefighting) and based on the pressurization requirements of the Seattle SBC 2018, 1006.3.3.7.
increased minimum fire-protection rating of dwelling unit entrance door closures from a 20 min rating to 45 min rating, similar to the closure ratings required by several European jurisdictions
requiring a fire alarm system without exception, and requiring automatic monitoring of the fire alarm system in conformance with 126.96.36.199. Signals to Fire Department.
He points out that there's a number of fire safety measures, like sprinkler systems and fire-resistant materials, that didn't exist when building codes were first being developed, and that European countries (which don't require two exits for a small apartment building, like Canada and the US do) have a good fire-safety record.
I find it particularly interesting that Seattle allows a single exit for buildings up to six storeys. This goes back to 1977.
(7) Not more than 5 stories of Group R-2 occupancy are permitted to be served by a single exit under the following conditions:
(7.1) The building has not more than six stories above grade plane.
(7.2) The building does not contain a boarding house.
(7.3) There shall be no more than four dwelling units on any floor.
(7.4) The building shall be of not less than one hour fire-resistive construction and shall also be equipped throughout with an automatic sprinkler system in accordance with subsection 903.3.1.1. Residential-type sprinklers shall be used in all habitable spaces in each dwelling unit. ...
Montreal keeps the two-exit requirement, but allows for what's basically an external fire escape.
Montreal is one of the few chartered cities in Canada with the power to draft municipal bylaws that contravene provincial and federal regulations. The “Montreal triplex” is a form of missing-middle housing made possible by these powers: it consists of three or more stacked dwelling units that share a curved exterior staircase on the front and a spiral stair at the rear of the building. The National Building Code requires any curved or spiral stair that serves more than one dwelling unit to have “an inside radius that is not less than twice the stair width,” which translates to such stairs being so inefficient as a measure of floor area that they are only used for monumental and processional spaces like a theatre or grand entrance. However, Article 29 of Montreal bylaw 11-018 includes an exception to the National Building Code to allow for tight-radius spiral stairs as a shared means of egress for two dwelling units per storey in buildings of up to three storeys.
For a more concrete illustration of what a single-stair layout looks like, here’s the beginning of a fight scene (shot to look like a single take) from the Charlize Theron movie Atomic Blonde, set in Berlin:
secondegress.ca, a website by Conrad Speckert.
Article by Stephen Smith, with layouts by Michael Eliason: Why we can’t build family-sized apartments in North America, May 2023.
Along the same lines, a post from Simon Vallee (Urban kchoze): The midrise obesity crisis in North America, January 2020.
In Slate: The Single-Staircase Radicals Have a Good Point, December 2021.
Larch Lab report on point access blocks for the city of Vancouver. Michael Eliason, December 2021.