Staircase proposal could be small step toward more housing

Can single-stair construction actually reduce building costs and contribute to alleviating our housing shortage?

That was among the questions host Keli‘i Akina asked guest Stephen Smith on the most recent episode of “Hawaii Together” on ThinkTech Hawaii. 

Smith, founder and executive director of the Center for Building in North America, based in Brooklyn, New York, basically answered yes, because, he said, requiring apartments and condos to have two stairways —  one on each side, with a hallway in between —  adds to construction costs and makes building on smaller lots more difficult. 

“If you can slim down the area that isn’t inside of the apartments, then it can be viable to build on smaller lots,” Smith said. “You save the money from the second staircase, but that’s not really the major savings. Some of the major savings actually come from … more efficient layouts within the apartments. More efficient overall floor plans allowing you to build on smaller lots.”. 

He said in the U.S., “single-family housing is sacrosanct, so we’re not building on a lot of small lots. But as the housing crisis gets worse, there’s more talk about developing some of these single-family smaller lots.” And that will mean building more multi-family dwellings that might involve two, three, four or more floors of living space.

“If you can slim down the area that isn’t inside the apartments, it can be viable to build on smaller lots,” he said. “You don’t end up with all of this dark, dead space in the middle that has to be filled with bathrooms and walk-in closets and double vanities — all stuff that is nice to have in a luxury building, but not when you’re trying to solve a housing crisis.”

Smith said a major objection to the use of single-stair construction has always been fire safety. But most building codes now require sprinklers in multi-family buildings, while many Hawaii buildings in particular have open stairways, which has resulted in Hawaii having one of the highest fire safety rankings in the country, according to Smith.

Smith said when it comes to designing apartments, Americans should “look abroad at places that have more of a culture of multi-family living [and] of using land more efficiently. … I think sometimes there are better lessons to be learned from, you know, Korea, Japan, China, Switzerland, than there are always within our own country.

To see the entire program, click on the video below. A complete transcript follows.

 8-1-23 Stephen Smith with Keli‘i Akina on “Hawaii Together”

Keli’i Akina: Aloha and welcome to “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network. I’m Keli’i Akina, your host and president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. 

Well, if there’s any problem we’re talking about today in Hawaii, it’s the shortage of housing. And there are lots of ways of approaching it, in terms of finding solutions. But have you ever heard of the idea of single-step stairs? That’s something we’re going to talk a bit about today. 

It’s certainly an idea we should throw into the mix and I’ve got an expert on hand who’s going to inform us as to how we might apply that to Hawaii. 

Single-stair construction. You know how most apartments and condos in Hawaii and the rest of the U.S. have two stairways on each side, with a hallway in between? Well, that makes buildings very expensive, and changing it up might be one of the little solutions on the pathway to solving our problem of housing in Hawaii.

Join me today in welcoming to the program Stephen Smith. He’s the executive director of the Center for Building in North America. He’s in New York City now, as we speak. Stephen, welcome to the program. 

Stephen Smith: Thanks for having me on. 

Akina: Well, I look forward to your visiting us out here. You have some background here in Hawaii, right? 

Smith: Yeah, when I was a kid, we used to. . . you know, my dad used to have a job out in Hawaii every summer and we’d spend every summer on Oahu for a month or two.

Akina: Great place to live. And we just wish that more people could stay here and afford to live here. 

Now you work for an organization, you’re the executive director, called Center for Building in North America. What does the Center do? Just give us a little bit of background. 

Smith: That’s right. So I founded it about a year ago and the goal is to, you know, do research and some advocacy on the U.S. construction industry with a focus on policy, building codes and other sort of construction-related policies. And with a strong focus on a global perspective. 

So the United States has a very unique way of building and the rest of the world does things a little differently. So the goal is to sort of introduce Americans to, you know, concepts of how things are built abroad, how codes are written, what the consequences of our changes are and how things might be different if we adopted, you know, sort of other practices.

Akina: Well, let’s get started right from the top. Explain to our audience what single-stair construction is, precisely, and how that differs from our traditional two-stairway approach that’s commonly used in apartments all across the country. 

Smith: Right. So in most of the world, an apartment building will typically have a single staircase. They’ll have one staircase, perhaps an elevator, maybe not. 

And, you know, whether we’re talking, you know, talking about Asia, Japan, Korea, China, or whether we’re talking about, you know, Europe, or … think about those, like, beautiful blocks in Paris or, you know, some of the slightly taller ones in Spain or Italy — you will find a single staircase, and there will be a small number of apartments arrayed off of it. There’ll generally be a small landing, which is to say sort of a tiny little hallway. 

In the United States, historically, the United States has built out of a lot of light wood frame construction. I know it’s been getting more popular in Hawaii in the last couple of years. And this is generally more flammable. The United States had a lot more urban fires in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is something that Europe had sort of largely solved by then by building out of concrete and other materials. 

So because of this reliance on wood, and because of the massive urban fires in New York in the early 19th century, or Chicago in the 1870s, or, you know, San Francisco — the earthquake and then the fire in the early 1900s — we started developing stricter and stricter rules around staircases. And we, you know, we generally require two of them. 

After 9/11, it became not only two, but sort of two on opposite ends of the building, which means there will generally be a hallway in the middle.

I know in Hawaii, historically, you had what was called “gallery access apartments,” where there’s sort of a single hallway, and then apartments on one side of it, and it’s sort of exterior. 

But, you know, at least on the mainland — and I’m guessing, you know, increasingly in Hawaii — the traditional American way of building involves a long corridor — it’s called a “double-loaded corridor” because it has apartments on either side — and this is what in the rest of the world they might think of as like a hotel, really, like a hotel-like design. Doesn’t make for the most … 

Akina: No, go ahead. 

Smith: Oh, it doesn’t, you know, these sort of hotel-style corridors, they don’t make for the best … they don’t make for the most livable units. I mean, something that’s not that relevant in the mainland — because there’s air conditioning everywhere — but I know is really important in Hawaii, is the idea of cross-ventilation. You know, you open windows on opposite sides of your home and you get the nice breeze.

And this isn’t really possible with a double-loaded corridor layout, because typically you only have window on one, sort of one side of the wall. So in the mainland you just crank up the A/C, but I know that’s quite expensive in Hawaii. So this sort of traditional way of building is really important to be able to, like, create a breeze.

So you can’t get that. You can’t get views on multiple sides. The apartment layouts can be a bit inefficient, because they sort of lack a lot of windows. 

And it can also be a difficult way to build when you’re building on a small lot. And in the United States, you know, single-family zoning, single-family housing is pretty sacrosanct, so we’re not building on a lot of small lots. 

But as the housing crisis gets worse and worse, there’s more talk about developing some of these, you know, single-family smaller lots. And it can be really difficult to do it if you need these two staircases and then the hallway between the two stairs. 

And so, there’s sort of a push on a couple of West Coast states to liberalize these rules, bringing them a bit more in line with where they are in the rest of the world.

Akina: What do you think has been some of the major opposition to the use of single-stair construction? 

Smith: So, I mean, yeah, it’s all about life safety; it’s all about fires. Like I said, there were huge fires in the, you know, 19th and early 20th centuries. But things have changed a lot since then, and I think Hawaii has some particular circumstances that make it a bit unique in this regard.

Some things that have changed is, for one, now we have sprinklers everywhere. Sprinklers are required in all multi-family buildings. 

Something that’s unique about Hawaii is that you have a lot more, like, open stairs; sort of, like, open to the air. And I looked it up before the show, and actually, as a result, Hawaii has some of the best fire safety in the United States. You guys are No. 49 out of 50 in fire deaths per capita. 

So we’ve encountered opposition — I wouldn’t say opposition; concern, and wanting to do sort of a full analysis of the issue — from fire services and, you know, from some people concerned with fire safety. So that’s really the challenge.

You need to make these things safe. Safety always has to be No. 1. You can’t sacrifice that for anything, not even affordability. So, you know, that’s the opposition that needs to be overcome. 

Akina: Good. How do you make the case that single-stair construction can actually reduce the building costs and contribute to alleviating our housing shortage?

Smith: So reducing the construction costs … I mean, for one, you just save a little bit of money from not having to build another stair. But one thing that architects target when they build is they try to get to an efficiency ratio of 80[%] to 90%. 

What does that mean? 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 you want as much of the building as possible inside of the apartments. When you have these two stairs, and when we especially have this requirement to have them remote from each other — so, you know, a big hallway in the middle — you have to really increase the size of the building to sort of hit this efficiency ratio, to build in an efficient way. 

And this is not just private developers, but even, you know, even like after World War II, communist governments in Eastern Europe still needed to hit this efficiency. Whether you’re building with private money or public money, you want to build efficiently.

So, if you can slim down the area that isn’t inside of the apartments, then it can be viable to build on smaller lots. You save, like I said, you save the money from the second staircase, but that’s not really the major savings. Some of the major savings actually come from the apartment designs. 

If you have an apartment that has windows on both sides, you can design it with more bedrooms. You don’t end up with all of this dark, dead space in the middle that has to be filled with bathrooms and walk-in closets and double vanities and the stuff that is nice to have in a luxury building, but if you’re trying to solve a housing crisis, it doesn’t really add much.

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. 

Akina: Are there any municipalities or states that have gone through the process of converting from the old traditional way to single-stair development, and have had some measure of success in doing so?

Smith: So there are two that currently … So currently the codes in the United States are based on a sort of odd system called the “model code system,” where there’s a nonprofit body that writes a code, and then it generally is adopted in states and cities across the United States.

And it’s called the International Building Code. The “international” is a bit of an exaggeration. It’s pretty much the U.S. building code, but it’s called the International Building Code, the IBC. 

The IBC allows a single staircase up to three stories. There are two jurisdictions in America that will allow it up to six: and that’s New York City, where I’m coming from right now, and Seattle.

New York changed its laws well — I’m not exactly sure when, but a couple of decades ago — and I’m actually sitting in a single-story building now that’s five stories that couldn’t have been built without it. It’s sort of built on a very small lot, and they would have never been able to fit two staircases in here.

And then the second one is Seattle. And Seattle … I don’t believe Seattle ever liberalized its rules, they just never sort of made them tighter. So anyway, the current rules in Seattle date from 1977. In both of these places, I’m not aware of any fire deaths in a building built after the advent of sprinklers, which are sort of a non-negotiable at this point.

So I think there’s a good track record in both of these cities. New York City builds everything in concrete. Seattle builds everything, at least at this height, in light wood frame. So, you now, depending on with what you’re building; I know Hawaii uses both materials to build apartments.

So, you know, there’s precedent for it. Nothing bad has happened; there’s no controversy over this in New York City or Seattle. You know, those are the two places. 

Akina: Do you know whether in Seattle or New York City there’s been any correlation between switching to single stairs and increasing the availability or bringing down the cost of housing?

Smith: You know, in terms of large-scale correlation, like, you know, there isn’t. We don’t really have this data to sort of come up with us. But I will say that in New York, there is sort of an industry of people who build sort of small — relatively, at least for New York — affordable condos. And these are all in single-stair buildings.

So, for example, when I was looking to buy, you know, the apartment that I’m in, the condo that I’m in, I wasn’t looking at all in these two-stair buildings. They, along with the staircase, along with some other things, they just were too expensive. So it’ll definitely get you in at a lower price point.

In Seattle they also tend to be a little cheaper than the larger buildings because they don’t come with as many amenities. So in terms of, like, rigorous economic econometric analysis, I wouldn’t say there’s anything like that. But just anecdotally, you look at the buildings, they tend to be more affordable.

Not to say they’re overall affordable, you know, New York City is an extremely expensive market, but they’re certainly cheaper. The monthly fees are cheaper, you know, the actual apartment itself tends to be a little cheaper. So, you know, I see it anecdotally. 

Akina: You know, are there any potential drawbacks or limitations to this approach of conversion to single stairways?

Smith: I mean, something at a certain height, like everywhere in the world — well, I wouldn’t say everywhere — most places in the world generally limit them above a certain height. 

So if you’re talking about a 20-story building, that’s probably never going to be a single-stair building in the United States. Although, interestingly, in South Korea and Switzerland, they do allow these. I think it’s kind of unlikely to come to America though.

So there’s a certain height limit to them. Above a certain size, it doesn’t save you a ton, given the sort of geometry of sort of like a fixed — you know, the second staircase imposes sort of a fixed cost — so as the building rises, as the building grows, the relative cost sort of falls. So when you’re talking about large buildings, there’s not going to be a ton of savings. 

So I would say, you know, they work best for smaller buildings. You know, at a bigger building, it doesn’t, it tends not to make a ton of sense, or at least it’s not going to save you that much.

And then I guess another drawback is simply that it’s something new that needs to be studied. Our current building codes are sort of trial-and-error. Now we apply much stricter standards. We don’t just say, “All right, let’s just try it. It feels right.” 

So there will be sort of an extensive study of the issue oftentimes involved. So there can be a little bit of a hurdle in convincing people.

But, you know, once they’re built, like I said, there haven’t been any fire deaths in New York City or Seattle. In other countries, for the most part, they’re relatively uncontroversial. In other places, it’s just an apartment building. It’s just what they call an apartment building. There’s no, not a special word for single-stair in Germany or France, it’s just how the buildings are built.

Akina: You mentioned hurdles. From a regulatory perspective, what kinds of hurdles or adjustments are needed to support the adoption of this alternative? 

Smith: The building code needs to be changed, and the process of changing building codes in the United States can be difficult. They come from a model-code organization that is quite responsive to fire services, quite responsive to materials manufacturers who are trying to sell a new type of drywall or a new sprinkler head or something.

And nobody makes stairs. There’s no contractor that makes stairs. There’s no company that makes stairs, or makes one stair, two stairs. So, the constituency is not always there. 

Sometimes states don’t have the … each state in the U. S. can be relatively small and sometimes doesn’t feel confident enough changing the code without the model code changing.

So I would say the process of changing codes is understandably — you know, these are important life safety rules — so it can be a little difficult. So there is quite a lot of, you know, bureaucracy involved in it. And it can be an onerous task, but I think it’s totally worth it in the long run.

Akina: What can the construction industry or private developers do to promote the implementation of single-stair construction? 

Smith: I would say, first and foremost, small developers need to speak out for themselves. I think larger developers are typically pretty well-heard. 

You know, the single-family homebuilders have the National Association of Homebuilders that really will speak out quite vociferously if you try to do anything to increase the cost of a, you know, sort of a McMansion built on the fringe of some major Texas city.

On the other hand, large developers, you know, who build buildings with hundreds of units, they’re large employers, they have relationships with unions, they can make themselves heard.

But the small developers, often people who aspire to be larger developers — but for the moment don’t have the capital to do it — they’re not often heard. 

So I would say small developers need to make their voice heard. They need to speak out when they encounter hurdles in regulation, and they think they’re unduly onerous. Talk to your local politicians. If you see something that you think no one else is talking to, talk to me and I’ll, you know, I’d like to look into it. 

But I think, in general, smaller developers need to organize better. Because ultimately these small developers build the most affordable housing and in some ways, you know, scale the most. Like you get the most scale from small sort of properties. You know, like most Hawaiians and most Americans live in small buildings. 

So I would say that the small guys need to speak up for themselves … stick up for themselves. 

Akina: Well, talking about stairwells is certainly one tiny piece of the solution toward the better housing availability. But let’s take a 10,000-, 20,000-, 30,000-foot view of the issue. I found an interesting statement on your website. Let me read it to you and then I’d like to ask you to explain that. 

Smith: Yeah. 

Akina: It says, “Building codes are oriented towards sprawling single-family houses and luxury apartments for singles and childless couples and little in between.” What are you trying to say here? 

Smith: I mean, I guess what I’m saying is, you know, sort of what I just said about these respective lobbies is that our building codes are … if you look at some of the safety features in an American apartment building of really pretty much any size, it looks like what a European would do in a skyscraper.

So there’s sprinklers, which aren’t going anywhere. There’s the, you know, very large elevators. There’s the two staircases. The staircases are often sort of in their own shaft. 

And so they’re sort of designed like little skyscrapers, and that works great if you’re building a big skyscraper. If you’re building a smaller building, to build it like a little skyscraper doesn’t always work. 

When I talked about singles and childless couples, this is about the efficiency of the apartments. Apartments in the United States — I mean, I sort of, I tried to explain it a little earlier, but if you don’t have a lot of windows because you need these two stairs and the hallway in the middle — so it sort of bisects your building in half — you end up with a lot of windowless space. 

And you know, who wants a lot of bathrooms and closets? Probably, you know, people in their 20s and 30s.  Little kids can’t use the bathroom by themselves, they don’t need walk-in closets; it’s not as of use to them. 

Families want rooms, they want bedrooms, want a three-bedroom apartment, you know. And maybe it’s not that important that it has, you know, three-bedroom and three-bath. Maybe a three-bedroom, two-bath, three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath is fine for them. 

On the other hand, this is a country — the mainland and in Hawaii — where the single-family house is really sort of important in our, you know, sort of national culture. And as a result, it can be quite cheap and easy to build one. 

Often, you know, when there’s a severe housing shortage, a single-family house turns into a multi-family house. Just multiple families sharing the same home that’s really designed for one. 

But, you know, our codes — our zoning codes, our building codes — make those relatively easy to build. That’s sort of who they’re designed for. And the sort of middle — some people call it the “missing middle” — of small apartment buildings gets sort of left behind. 

But when you don’t have a lot of land, like Hawaii does, and, you know, 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 do that very well.

Akina: In addition to single-stair construction, what are some other innovative ideas that can work toward building more affordable housing structures? 

Smith: So, you know, there’s a lot of things about American construction that’s a little weird and different. But one of the things is elevators. 

The United States has quite few elevators. And the entirety of the United States has about as many elevators as the nation of Spain, despite the fact that we have about seven times the population as them. 

It’s quite common in the United States to build three-[story], four-[story] — in Hawaii I’ve even seen some five-story new buildings without elevators — and poses some issues. I mean, certainly it’s cheaper to build them without an elevator. 

But, you know, an elevator, it’s important for an aging population. I know Hawaii has some of the longest-living people in the United States. It’s important if you’ve got kids. It’s important if you’ve got disabilities. It’s important if you want to just move out of your apartment and not, you know, break your back hauling the couch upstairs. 

The problem is elevators in the United States are extremely expensive. And I’m working on a report about this right now: Elevators in Hawaii are wildly expensive. I’ve heard, I don’t know if I want to … I’ve heard quotes upwards of over $300,000 for a six-stop elevator, which is about twice what you see in most of the mainland, and up to five to 10 times as expensive as what you’d see in a country like Switzerland, which has, you know, really high incomes, really high wages.

As a result, you don’t get a lot of elevators. I know that in Hawaii, you guys are now starting to build five-story buildings without elevators. I don’t want to say that nobody should be allowed to, you know, build something like that, but in my opinion, developers should look at the cost, look at the benefit and decide it’s better to build the elevator. And the way to do that is to bring the cost down.

So I’m going to come out with a report that’s going to go into more details, but things that are different about elevators in the United States.

>> Our elevators are very large — which is great if you’ve got one. But if you don’t have one, it doesn’t really matter how big they are. So they’re very large. 

>> We have entire separate safety codes in the United States around elevators that make it quite difficult for foreigners sometimes to enter the market and sell, you know, cheaper models. 

>> And then we also have a very challenging labor situation. 

So I would like to see the cost of elevators come down because I think more people deserve them. And I think in smaller apartment buildings especially, the cost of an elevator can really be a problem and you’ll often just end up without them, which I don’t think is a great outcome. Especially once you get up to these four- or five-story buildings. 

Akina: Your organization is committed to lobbying, and, I’m sure, to education as well. What kinds of education efforts do you think have to go forward in order to increase the acceptance and the implementation of single-stair construction? 

Smith: Well, actually I should correct you. Don’t tell the IRS we’re lobbying. We’re a 501(c)3. We do research and sort of provide technical assistance to anyone who is looking to take another look at their codes. 

Akina: You educate the public and our guys. 

Smith: Yes, yes, yes, yes. So, OK. So, I think I would like to see architects in the United States take a … the more prestigious the architecture school in the United States, the more sort of esoteric the education becomes.

I think we sort of strayed from like a nuts-and-bolts focus on how to build a building, how to, you know, keep the mold out. How to, you know, build it safely. How to do it cost-effectively, how to build design efficient layouts and things. 

Most architects, they go to architecture school, they learn about all these sort of high-minded ideas and abstract concepts, and then they end up designing houses and bathrooms. 

And nothing wrong with designing a house and a bathroom. And I think our … the architecture schools should sort of acknowledge what architecture is. And I think there should be a stronger basis for technical education there. 

I would also just encourage Americans to sort of look outside of this country. Hawaii obviously sits between the mainland — you know, North America — and Asia, and I think there’s great lessons to be learned from Asia and from Europe.

And so, you know, I think it would be great to, like, look to other countries, and especially when it comes to designing apartments. And the codes around apartments to look abroad because 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 there are always within our own country.

So, 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 and, yeah, that’d be my advice. 

Akina: Well, thank you, Stephen. This has been a fascinating conversation. As I mentioned to you before, we usually look at things from a very broad level, policywise. But, to look at something as minutiae as a stairwell, that’s interesting. 

It’s these little things that we can change, one after another — perhaps do some things with elevators — that can add up to some big savings and some great expansion of our supply.

I want to thank you for being available to us to talk and share a little bit about your experiences, and I want to wish you the very best in all you do. Glad you’re here today, Stephen. 

Smith: Thank you, and I wish you all as well. 

Akina: And I want to say to all our viewers, you have been watching Stephen Smith, who is the executive director of the Center for Building [in North America]. He’s in New York City. And I look forward to seeing you again next week. I’m Keli’i Akina. This is ThinkTech Hawaii’s “Hawaii Together.” Until we see each other again, aloha.


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