Little changes can lead to more housing

If we want to find ways to lower the cost of housing in our state, we might have to take the stairs. Or, to be more precise, take away a set of stairs.

Believe it or not, that small change in construction design could help homebuilders produce more efficient buildings in Hawaii, which would lead to lower costs, better use of land space and more options for people seeking affordable housing.

At this point, you might be wondering how a staircase could be so significant. That’s where Stephen Smith, my guest on this week’s episode of “Hawaii Together” on ThinkTech Hawaii, comes in.

Smith is the executive director of the Center for Building in North America, an organization based in Brooklyn, New York, that researches how regulations and building codes in the U.S. have made constructing small apartment buildings more expensive and less efficient.

One of its areas of focus has been the double-staircase requirement that is found in most municipal building codes for multistory apartment buildings.

What is a double staircase? In terms of design, it means there are staircases at both ends of apartment building hallways.

Smith explained to me that this often leads to inefficient building designs, especially when it comes to building on smaller lots, since a significant amount of the building’s area must be used for the second staircase.

“One thing that architects target when they build,” Smith said, “is they try to get to an efficiency ratio of 80 to 90%. … That means 80 to 90% of the building is going to be apartments and not, you know, stairs, elevators, hallways that can’t be sold. So the savings come from having more efficient layouts within the apartments — more efficient overall floor plans allowing you to build on smaller lots, and then the small cost savings from the lack of a second staircase.”

But that can’t happen unless we liberalize our building codes to allow for single-staircase buildings. Smith said this is something that has been done effectively in New York and Seattle, and is common internationally.

“I think it would be great to look to other countries, and especially when it comes to designing apartments,” Smith said. “The United States is a nation of single-family homeowners, and if you’re trying to build anything else, I think sometimes there are better lessons to be learned from, you know, Korea, Japan, China, Switzerland, than [from] within our own country. I would say, expand your mind and look abroad and look at places that have more of a culture of multifamily living, have more of a culture of using land more efficiently. … I think there’s great lessons to be learned from Asia and from Europe.”

Smith told me the double-stair requirement is a holdover from the early 20th century, when fear of fires led to strict regulations in building construction. However, improvements in building materials, design and fire safety have negated the need for double staircases, and single-stair construction has been proven safe for decades around the world.

Smith said the other reason the requirement still exists is because America’s building codes are tilted toward large developers of single-family homes and high-rises.

“Small apartment buildings [get] sort of left behind,” he said. “But when you don’t have a lot of land, like Hawaii, … and you want to build something that’s more affordable than a high-rise, you’re sort of stuck in the middle. And our codes don’t really [address] that very well.”

Smith said that to change that situation, “small developers need to speak out for themselves. … They need to speak out when they encounter hurdles in regulation. … Talk to your local politicians.”

As we neared the end of our conversation, it became clear to me that with regard to policy, we too often look at things from a very broad perspective. But in fact, making seemingly minor changes, one after another — such as transitioning to single staircases — can add up to some big savings and possibly result in a significant expansion of our housing supply.

The key is to be open to new ideas. Then, if they make sense, we need to be flexible enough to adopt them. And the sooner the better.

This commentary was Keli‘i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for August 5, 2023. If you would like to have his columns emailed to you on a regular basis, please call 808-864-1776 or email info@grassrootinstitute.org.

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