A Single Stairway To Heaven? - Honolulu Civil Beat

Power local, independent journalism with a gift today and help us reach our goal of $250,000 by December 31.

Thanks to 738 donors, we've raised $108,000 so far!


Power local, independent journalism with a gift today and help us reach our goal of $250,000 by December 31.

Thanks to 738 donors, we've raised $108,000 so far!


About the Author

Sterling Higa

Sterling Higa serves as executive director of Housing Hawaii’s Future, a movement creating opportunities for Hawaii’s next generation by ending the workforce housing shortage.

Single-stair construction is an idea that Hawaii should consider implementing.

I’m going to be honest.

I can’t read the building code.

And odds are, you can’t either.

But the building code controls what we can and can’t build.

So it’s worth our attention.

What’s in a stairwell?

Decades ago, the United States made it illegal to build multistory buildings with a single stairwell.

If you’ve been in a condo building in Hawaii, it probably looked like this, with two exit stairwells and a hallway between them:

Larch Lab/2023

This is a “double-loaded corridor.”

But most of the world builds single-stair buildings, like this:

(Larch Lab/2023)

These are “point access blocks.”

They cost less to build.

They fit on smaller parcels of land.

They allow a greater diversity of unit mixes (studios, 1-bedrooms, 2-bedrooms, 3-bedrooms).

And they’re just as safe as double-loaded corridors.

If you’ve been to Europe or Asia, you’ve seen point access blocks.

They’re the building blocks of modern cities.

Why don’t we have them in Hawaii?

Because decades ago, the United States made them illegal.

And until recently, everyone assumed that double-loaded corridors are the only way to build.

The Single Stair Evangelist

One architect, Michael Eliason, has called that assumption into question.

Eliason is the foremost advocate for single-stair construction.

His Twitter account @holz_bau is an incredible resource.

And his studio, Larch Lab, is leading the way toward single-stair bliss.

The Larch Lab policy brief on point access blocks is a short read defining point access blocks.

And Eliason explains the benefits of point access blocks in an excellent article for Architect’s Newspaper.

Single-stair construction:

  • Allows for better ventilation, reducing cooling costs by up to 80 percent (!!!).
  • Lets daylight shine on two or three sides of a building.
  • Allows building on a smaller floor plate, making room for courtyards, trees, and amenities.
  • Reduces materials used for construction.
  • Breaks larger buildings down into smaller ones, allowing neighbors to get to know each other.
  • Allows a variety of unit sizes and types, promoting economic and social diversity among residents.

Single-stair construction is an idea that makes sense, period.

So it’s no surprise that lawmakers are taking notice.

This year, Washington state passed Senate Bill 5491.

SB 5491 legalized single-stair construction up to six stories.

I pride myself on concision in writing, so let me put it simply:

The Hawaii Legislature should legalize single-story construction up to six stories.

Let’s do it next session.

Are you down?

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

Read this next:

Participatory Budgeting Paves Path For Community-Centered Energy Planning

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Sterling Higa

Sterling Higa serves as executive director of Housing Hawaii’s Future, a movement creating opportunities for Hawaii’s next generation by ending the workforce housing shortage.

Latest Comments (0)

One of the many tragedies of our housing crisis is the huge amount of double-loaded apartment buildings we are stuck with. It is a crime that residents suffer in hot, stuffy apartments, when we have some of the best breezes possible with our trades. It was all about greed, cramming as many units into a tower as possible. Now many are forced to use window a/c, which is wasteful and not very effective.With separate access stairs/elevators, three units can be on each landing, with apartment windows opening on both sides of the building, letting the breeze blow, even on Kona days.

denniscallan · 6 months ago

As we continue to live longer and have an aging population, we should require elevators not stairs in any building three or more stories.

Keala_Kaanui · 6 months ago

Thanks for drawing attention to this issue!Two notes:1. "Double loaded corridors" refers to there being doors on both sides of a corridor, not to 2 staircases.The economic effects of a long corridor (connecting 2 staircases) are that tons of space is wasted and that it’s way harder to fit in more bedrooms (with windows) to make family-sized units.2. The greatest benefit is that dropping a second-staircase requirement allows more affordable housing to be built on smaller lots.With 2 staircases required, 20-25% of the space on a smaller lot is wasted in corridors, if it’s even possible to build.With 2 staircases required, mostly all that can be built today is luxury highrises, because it requires (a) land assemblage from multiple lots, and (b) additional height (from concrete/steel vs wood construction) to make up for the lost square footage in long corridors.But with a single staircase serving 6 units to a floor… a building can be built on one small lot by one owner without land assemblage… Thereby fitting 24 affordable 2BR units (or a mix of 1BRs, 2BRs, and 3BRs) in a 4-story wood-framed building on a single small residential lot currently only fitting 1-2 families.

joeyaloha · 6 months ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.