Zoning and Density

I just saw a video that reminded me of this important design change that’s needs to be legal in Raleigh, single stair residential buildings taller than 3 stories. I’m not sure if it’s already legal but it should become legal before the TOD overlay is fully executed. @JonathanMelton

The video: https://x.com/acbowen/status/1755701579024613761?s=46


Life safety is no joke, and assuring that someone doesn’t die because there’s a fire between them and the only vertical exit route is something that shouldn’t be summarily dismissed.
Ever wonder why there are all these external stairs attached to sides of buildings in places like NYC? It’s because they only have one central staircase that usually isn’t even fire protected.
Even if we were allowed to build taller buildings with a single stair, just imagine the lawsuits should someone die for that reason. I doubt that an apartment developer would want that sort of liability.

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I get the concern but given all of the other sprinkler and fire safety requirements, 4 and 5 story condominiums shouldn’t be required to have 2 staircases, etc.

People often complain about the design of new buildings and praise older buildings, most of which are illegal to build given this design standard.

Also, when apartments/condos are better compartmentalized, the fire could be contained to that apartment and instead of spreading quickly through a centrally (hotel-like) designed hallway.


You can have smaller/slimmer/interesting buildings with 2 exit stairs. While having 2 (or more) stairs enable large, full block buildings, the code certainly isn’t the causation of the buildings being large.

We need some help from General Assembly


To put it in perspective, auto related fatalities are 10x fire related fatalities in the US per year.

It’s roughly 12.9 auto deaths per 100k and 1.2 fire deaths per 100k

If single stair missing-middle buildings reduce vehicle miles traveled per capita, the assumed increase in fire risk would be outpaced by assumed decreased risk from auto fatalities. Also if it results in more houses per capita at lower cost, we’d see a net reduction in deaths related to homelessness


It’s not just about the building size, it’s the floor plan efficiency of point access building that make them superior. Much more of the building can be living space as opposed to (relatively) unusable common space. They also allow for units with better natural lighting and ventilation. This report does a great job of explaining the benefits of point access blocks:


Well that was an interesting read.

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Not economically, which is the entire point – just because it’s technically possible doesn’t mean that it’s feasible in most cases. And if it’s not broadly feasible, it won’t get built – and all the benefits that we expound over and over for “missing middle housing” will remain theoretical.

Yes, I see people selling $1M flats in 2-stair low-rises, but a lot of things are affordable on a $1M budget. But people on $500K budgets deserve the benefits of living in those locations!

All of your concerns and many more are addressed here:

Something that’s not mentioned there, but which I’ve reiterated here, is that we have to maintain some perspective around how rare new-apartment fire deaths are in the 21st century, and that building codes add a lot to the cost of new apartment construction.

  • Building codes have advanced a lot in the century+ since second stairs were required, in ways that are much more effective than just stairs (stair enclosures, fire extinguishers, compartmentalization). Only the US and Canada have second-stair requirements – except Seattle and NYC.
  • Apartment fire deaths have declined 60% in the past 40 years – proof that those codes are working.
  • Households living in apartments are 30% less likely overall to die in a fire than households living in houses: 20% of residential structure fire deaths are in apartments (3+ units in structure), while 30% of American households live in apartments.
  • 100X more Americans die in car crashes every year than in apartment fires, and apartment-dwellers are less likely to drive and die in car crashes.

By making new apartment construction costlier in the name of safety, we reduce the number of new apartments – and steer people to live in houses or old apartments (both of which are deadlier than new apartments in fires), and to drive more (and therefore to risk death in car crashes).

Narrowly focusing on individual elements of safety, without considering the entire system, often leads to worse outcomes. As an analogy, well-meaning activists know that bike helmets save lives – but compulsory bike helmet laws don’t seem to reduce head injuries, while they definitely reduce cycling, with negative impacts on the population’s overall health.


I don’t think that this should be an either/or conversation. We should have both road safety and building safety. Why would we go backward on safety of buildings? Would we do the same for cars?


It’s just shocking to me how many people want to blame a life safety staircase for missing middle issues. Sorry, I am not buying it. I’ve lived in an affordable 3 story multi-family building where there was a secondary outdoor egress that connected to each unit’s deck in the back of the building. These things can be solved within the existing code and not put people’s lives at risk.

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It’s true… Stairs are not income producing. They add tens of thousands of cost and actually reduce the leasable square footage, driving up the lease rates


To give a specific example, We are in permit on a 12,000 ft² 3 story mixed use building near downtown Cary, and we designed the building with a central stair and elevator core specifically so that the entire building could meet fire code with a central stair. Had we made the building 500 ft² larger it would have triggered the second stair to meet egress, and each square foot would have to be leased for more even though the building is larger. We also just didn’t have room on the site, even though it was 3/4 of an acre, because of parking requirements.

I agree that we shouldn’t make buildings less safe, but we need to make buildings less expensive to build. A three-story building full of egress windows right next to a Central fire department should not be required to be sprinkled or two stair, IMO. It just kills too many projects to be worth the extra safety


My humble impression is that if the building is less expensive to build the developer makes more money. It doesn’t reduce the price to the buyer.


What is hard to see are the buildings that never got built because they would not pencil out for a developer.

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So have I – this is most of Chicago. But the stairs in those buildings are not up to current code. The front stairs were open, not compartmentalized & pressurized. The rear stairs were wooden back porches attached to the building; exterior stairs under code must be way more complicated – e.g., noncombustible construction and separated from all buildings by 10’.

For middle-class buyers of new homes, a 4-story single-stair building is a fire safety upgrade over current offerings.

Again, I could profitably build 3 large flats with two stairs, one elevator, and sprinklers… if I can sell each unit for maybe $750K in Raleigh. With the same two stairs, one elevator, and sprinklers on a large site, I can profitably build a lot of small flats, too.

I could also build 3 3-story townhouses on the same site for considerably less (like $400K); I have to build 3 stairs, but they’re not fire-rated, and they’re all salable square feet. I also don’t need sprinklers. This is arguably less fire-safe than a single-stair, sprinkled, compartmentalized 3-flat, but it’s not just legal, it’s what our code encourages!

Another example of what gets built instead of flats is stacked townhouses. Because each unit has its own staircase to the ground, there’s no need for a corridor and a “second stair” from upstairs. The “two-over-two” is not incredibly optimal; it’s a whole lot of stairs, it’s very aging-unfriendly, and it’s a whole lot of square feet (the upper unit’s often 2500+ sq ft), but it’s what our codes get us.

To see the price implications, here are two $500K condos in new 4-story IBC (w/ sprinkler) buildings in NoVA. Above is a stacked townhouse (100% “efficient” = salable square feet), below is a corridor bldg (~85% efficient).
The stacked townhouse sold for $310 PSF and has a monthly fee of $270. (The upper unit above is 2,579 sq ft and sold for $224 PSF, with the same $270 fee.)
The flat sold for $399 PSF and has a monthly fee of $600.

A single-stair flat could be sold in the low $300s PSF, so a downsizing empty-nester couple can enjoy single-level living without having to squeeze down into a 2BR or pay more for their condo fee than for groceries.

That’s not really how development works. Instead, if it doesn’t make money, it won’t get built in the first place – because there’s no money to be made.


That’s the argument, in a nutshell

That’s true in some cases, but the same could be said for any business.

IT managed services start using AI to cut staff, costs, but don’t lower prices…

Until a competitor begins using the same competitive advantage and lowers prices to win new customers. Now original company has to lower prices to compete…

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Really cool day by day videos in this thread of someone building a single stair (and elevator) building in the Bronx. https://x.com/aussieflya/status/1572119769192488962?s=20

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