A small six-unit condo project planned in a quiet corner of downtown’s west end could represent a subtle, but significant design milestone for Austin. Known as Ashram, the building now approved for construction at 707 West 14th Street by local developer Jay Reddy features a striking modern design from architecture studio McKinney York, with an open-air central stairwell as the focal point of the building from the street — and it’s worth paying close attention to those stairs, since this project is the first permitted under a 2021 adjustment to the city’s building code allowing the construction of three-story residential structures with only one stairway.
If that all sounds wrong to you, you’re not alone — conventional wisdom in architecture dictates that every multi-unit residential building rising several stories needs at least two exits, or means of egress, to comply with fire codes. But this isn’t really the case outside North America, with multifamily buildings rising eight floors or more with only a single interior staircase exceedingly common in European countries — and the fact that fire-related fatality rates in Europe are significantly lower than anywhere in the United States suggests that a combination of modern firefighting techniques and structural materials chosen for passive fire protection make single-stair buildings a safe and desirable infill development option.
I wrote about one neat trick to give America the more slender, pleasant, and affordable apartment buildings we deserve https://t.co/25sTAWcGid
— Henry Grabar (@henrygrabar) December 23, 2021
Believe it or not, the city’s code agrees. Austin’s technical regulations for buildings are based on the International Building Code (IBC), a set of standards developed by a nonprofit called the International Code Council (ICC) which forms the foundation of building codes for nearly every city in the country, with cities then applying amendments to the ICC’s base code to fit the needs of a given jurisdiction. The council issues a new edition of the IBC every three years, and although it’s not necessary for cities to keep up with every version, the City of Austin successfully adopted the 2021 version of the code last summer with a few amendments of its own.
— Treehugger.com (@Treehugger) April 27, 2021
Under the base 2021 IBC, single-stair buildings of up to four stories are allowed — albeit with requirements for sprinkler systems and a maximum of four units per floor — but Austin’s modified version of the code drops this down to three floors. According to developer Jay Reddy, the Ashram project is the first in town he’s aware of that actually takes advantage of the code provision. That’s not surprising, since this building style is somewhat unknown to developers unfamiliar with construction in other countries, but there’s a notable exception leading the way: Seattle, Washington.
There, a single-stair structure with the proper fire-resistant construction materials and sprinkler systems can rise up to six floors — and while the style is still fairly uncommon, these types of infill buildings could provide efficient, lower-cost housing to the “missing middle” so underrepresented in Austin’s current new construction. While the lack of an elevator raises some accessibility concerns, it’s worth noting that the two units on the bottom floor of the Ashram project are completely wheelchair-friendly from the street, representing a full third of the building’s total residences.
. . . when you require every apartment to connect to two staircases, you all but ensure those units are built around one long double-loaded corridor, to give all residents access to both stairways. You tilt the scales in favor of larger floor plates in bigger buildings, because developers need to find room for two stairways, and connect them—and then compensate for the unsellable interior space consumed by the corridor.
Cut out one of those staircases, and you can cut out the corridor, too. Narrower sites are suddenly in play. Construction costs go down. The ratio of “rentable” space in a building goes up, which makes development cheaper. That in turn can translate into lower rents or more flexible designs. Two or three units a floor is suddenly more economical, which makes the stairway a more intimate, closely shared space. Family-size units. Units where the living room faces south to the sun and the street and the bedrooms face north to the quiet shade.
It might also raise your eyebrows that the Ashram project’s 4,400-square-foot property wouldn’t even be large enough to legally build a single home under the minimum lot sizes of Austin’s most common residential zoning category, let alone six residences. And they don’t look particularly cramped, do they? Kinda makes you think.