Editorial: Code Shift

Graphic by Conrad Speckert. secondegress.ca

When North America’s building codes were first drafted in the late 1800s, they had strict measures to prevent the spread of fire—a reaction to conflagrations that consumed New York, Chicago, and other cities built quickly from wood. That legacy has repercussions to this day, including in Canada’s requirement for two exits from any multi-unit dwelling above two storeys. 

This turns out to be the world’s second-most restrictive multi-unit residential exiting requirement (Uganda requires two exits in all multi-unit buildings above a single storey). In Hong Kong, single staircases are allowed in buildings six storeys in height; in Norway, Australia, and New Zealand, the limit is eight storeys; Sweden and France allow single egress in buildings up to 16 storeys; China up to 18 storeys.

The stringency of Canada’s requirement is outdated, says intern architect Conrad Speckert, who works at LGA Architectural Partners, and who has spent two years researching the issue full-time. Now, over a century of building performance and fire mitigation measures provide more effective tools for fire safety. Moreover, says Speckert, updating the code would unlock the possibility for greater housing density and affordability. “After zoning reform and revisiting parking minimums, it’s the next most obvious barrier to building small multi-unit buildings,” he says. This is primarily achieved by freeing up more space, he notes: “A staircase is roughly the same floor area as an extra bedroom on each floor.”

In April 2022, Speckert and fire protection engineer David Hine submitted a code change request to the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes (since restructured as the Canadian Board for Harmonized Construction Codes)—the body in charge of maintaining and updating the National Building Code. Speckert also petitioned Ontario’s Housing Affordability Task Force, in a letter co-signed by some four dozen local architects, planners, and developers—a who’s who from Shirley Blumberg of KPMB to Mazyar Mortazavi of TAS. 

Speckert emphasizes that the requests are based on maintaining—and in many cases outperforming—current fire safety standards. The proposal sets out the possibility of single stair access in buildings up to six storeys, with a maximum of four dwellings per floor, sprinklering throughout, and stringent fire separation and positive pressurization of the exit stairwell.

British Columbia’s architects are advocating for a similar change. Public Architecture recently completed a report with grants from BC Housing and the City of Vancouver studying how point access blocks could transform Vancouver. BC’s Ministry of Housing just closed an RFP asking for a policy and technical options report for single egress stair buildings up to eight storeys in height, paving the way for possible changes by this fall. “It’s a political priority—the province is sold on the benefits of this,” says PUBLIC senior associate Jamie Harte, who led the report.

The Canadian research is also helping to catalyze state-side pushes for reform. In the United States, single egress is allowed in buildings up to three storeys high—only a single storey higher than in Canada. Seattle, New York City, and Hawaii are exceptions: in these jurisdictions, a single stair is possible in buildings up to six storeys. Now, other West Coast areas experiencing housing shortages—including Oregon, Washington state, and California—are showing an interest in going higher.

Beyond creating more room for housing, the potential code change creates more room for creativity. “It makes all kinds of small apartment buildings more high quality,” says Harte. “Everything gets a little bit more flexible and more creative when you don’t have to drive a corridor through the middle of your plan.” 

What kinds of things would be possible with the change? Vancouver’s Urbanarium is running an ideas competition for mid-rise buildings that challenge the double-egress requirement and other existing policies. A comprehensive design studio at U of T’s Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design also allows for a single egress stair in its program for a 200-unit building “There are really good benefits for that typology,” says studio coordinator and SvN principal Sam Dufaux. “With more cores and more stairs, you get small communities within a building. You can put a lot more design ambition behind the project, and think about making great living spaces. It opens up a whole new world of possibilities.”

As appeared in the April 2024 issue of Canadian Architect magazine