Space Squeeze Solved? BC Considers Single Stairwell Designs for Increased Design Flexibility

Space Squeeze Solved? BC Considers Single Stairwell Designs for Increased Design Flexibility
July 2, 2024

The BC government is poised to introduce a major update to the building code this fall, potentially revolutionizing the way residential buildings are constructed in the province. The change? Allowing buildings up to eight stories to be built with only one stairwell, a concept known as single egress stair (SES) design.

Current Challenges

Under the current BC Building Code (BCBC) and British Columbia Fire Code (BCFC), most buildings exceeding three stories require a minimum of two egress stairwells per floor. This requirement, coupled with the need for windows in all habitable rooms, can significantly limit design flexibility. The result? A prevalence of mid-density buildings with primarily small, one- and two-bedroom units.

The Promise of Single Egress Stairs

The introduction of SES designs holds the potential to address several key challenges in the BC housing market:

  • Increased Design Flexibility: With just one stairwell, architects gain significant freedom in their design layouts. This could lead to more efficient use of space within buildings, potentially allowing for larger units, more natural light, and improved resident amenities.
  • More Family-Sized Units:  A 2023 report by the Canadian Centre for Housing Information (CCHI) found that only 18.4% of new rental units in Canada were three-bedroom or larger. SES designs could free up space currently occupied by secondary staircases, enabling the construction of more three-bedroom and larger units, a much-needed shift for families struggling to find suitable housing in BC.
  • Potential Cost Savings: Eliminating a stairwell translates to reduced construction costs. Estimates suggest a potential cost reduction of 5-10% per unit, which could be passed on to renters and buyers in the form of lower rents and purchase prices.
  • Improved Energy Efficiency: Single egress designs may allow for more compact and efficient building shapes, potentially leading to better thermal performance and reduced energy consumption.

Source: BC Gov News

Balancing Innovation with Protection

While the potential benefits are enticing, public safety remains paramount. The BC government is actively seeking public input to ensure that SES designs adhere to the highest fire safety and accessibility standards.  Here are some key considerations:

  • Fire Safety Measures:  The single stairwell in SES designs will need to be equipped with advanced fire safety features, such as fire-resistant construction materials, sprinkler systems, and robust smoke evacuation systems.
  • Occupancy Limits:  The maximum occupancy for each floor in an SES building will likely be lower compared to buildings with two staircases. This ensures that all occupants can safely evacuate in case of a fire.
  • Accessibility Considerations:  Provisions will need to be made for individuals with mobility impairments. This could include readily available accessible exits or the installation of a chairlift system.

Impact on Affordability

The impact of this change on housing affordability is complex and depends on several factors:

  • Municipal Implementation: How municipalities choose to implement the new code within their jurisdictions will significantly influence affordability.
  • Market Demand: The actual impact will depend on market demand for various unit sizes and types. If the demand for larger units increases significantly, developers might choose to focus on building more three-bedroom units, potentially pushing up prices in that segment.

Looking Ahead

The introduction of SES designs represents a significant shift in approach to building code regulations in BC. While the potential benefits are significant, careful planning, robust public input, and ongoing collaboration between the provincial government, municipalities, fire safety experts, and the construction industry are crucial to ensure the safety and success of this initiative.

Additional Resources:

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