A Single Stairway To Heaven? - Honolulu Civil Beat

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?

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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)

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 · 2 days 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 · 5 days ago

Aloha Sterling, great to see you writing on CB again. Most of society, and a debate team champion and Harvard graduate, can read the building code. It's like a word problem. The code explains egress and gives parameters depending on what and how you want to build. Many building materials and configurations are possible. Occupancy loading is one factor. "Double loaded" in your article is inaccurate. Passing legislation is not a cure all. Codes are in fact modified and adopted for use by municipalities, somewhat like the State legislative process, but at the City and County level. Building codes don't appear out of thin air, and are based on historical data like real hurricanes and tragic deaths by fire. I've been out of the loop but I do believe that Honolulu AIA is currently reviewing the latest codes for comment on upcoming adoption unless it's already happened. When I travel to Japan for work I notice the red triangle on a series of windows running vertically. Those are the markers for the first responders as windows for escape on each floor. You gotta have all "pieces" of the fire/life/safety chain in place. Learn more, write more.

BrianCanevari · 1 week ago

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