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Colo. fire chiefs challenge plan for single stairs in large apartment buildings

Bill the the Colorado House would allow single-stair developments to reach up to five stories


This recently constructed apartment building in east Denver was developed around a single-stair model, photographed Feb. 22, 2024. Apartments in each section of the building have access to just one stairwell. Current codes allow up to three stories to be built with apartments accessing a single stairwell, with taller buildings requiring two stairways. But the Colorado legislature is considering a bill that would allow as many as five stories with single-stair access.

Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

By Seth Klamann
The Denver Post

DENVER — As Sean Jursnick traveled through Europe, he marveled at its buildings. The Denver-based architect was particularly struck by a type of development that’s largely illegal in the United States: taller apartment buildings with just a single staircase.

Such buildings often feature apartments or condos situated around a central flight of stairs, with front doors opening directly onto landings. The layout allows flexibility and new development options in tight urban spaces, but it runs counter to decades-old fire-safety rules here that require housing developments rising higher than three stories to have at least two stairways.

The result has been that larger apartment buildings typically follow a standard, hotel-like model that calls for construction on big lots and, on the inside, long central corridors with units on either side. Often, each unit gets sunlight through its windows from just one direction.

“It’s a wild discrepancy between what we can do in the U.S. and what the rest of the world does,” said Jursnick, who works primarily in multi-family housing.

Under a bill introduced in the Colorado House this month, Jursnick and a growing group of single-stair evangelists see reason for hope. The measure would allow single-stair developments to reach up to five stories in the state’s cities and counties, potentially making Colorado the first U.S. state to do so.

The measure, backed by Denver Democratic Rep. Alex Valdez, is part of a broader effort by state legislators to embrace denser development and to pursue nontraditional policy avenues to solve the state’s housing crisis. The shortage of apartments has been estimated to run into the tens of thousands statewide.

Valdez called single-stair development the “anti-slot home” — referring to the boxy, sideways-facing townhomes that proliferated in Denver in the 2010s — because it allows more apartments or condos to be built on similarly sized lots. But for now, that layout is available only up to three stories for new construction.

Jursnick, after seeing so many taller structures of that type in Europe, traveled to Seattle, one of the few U.S. cities that have legalized mid-sized single-stair buildings. He looked at that city’s unique housing types, the use of smaller lots and the fire safety rules modified to allow them.

He came away determined.

“I wanted to bring that back to Denver and create something that good in Denver,” he said.

Can bill overcome concerns about fire danger?

But before Jursnick’s dream of taller single-stair buildings in Denver can be realized, supporters have to address a frequent gut-reaction to the idea — a concern that’s shared by wary fire chiefs: What happens if the building catches fire and there’s only one way out?

“When the bill was first discussed, my comment at that time to the sponsor was, ‘We’re starting from a position of no,’ ” said Garry Briese, the executive director of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs. “And the reason is because we’ve had too many fatalities in this country, over decades and decades of time, because of bad exiting.”

So far, Valdez’s bill, HB24-1239, is opposed by fire chiefs and marshals. They fear Colorado’s various fire codes aren’t ready for such a change and say legislators should instead focus first on getting those regulations right.

Briese’s organization, along with South Metro Fire Rescue, has formally filed to oppose the bill. The Fire Marshals Association of Colorado wrote in a statement that the bill was too broad and also would apply to other types of buildings, including hotels, motels and dormitories.

The marshals, along with the fire chiefs, said they supported forming a study group that could draw up language allowing single-stair development in some settings. Lawmakers in California, Oregon and Washington State, where Seattle’s loosening of the rules hasn’t been adopted statewide, recently passed laws requiring officials to study their codes and make recommendations for single-stair buildings.

Colorado, though, does not have a statewide building or fire code that could be neatly studied or changed.

Supporters of the new bill argue that codes can be updated to account for single-stair development and that those buildings, with modern fire-prevention systems, are just as safe as their larger, two-staired American cousins.

They point to federal data from several years ago that show the U.S. had more fire-related deaths than several European countries, including Germany.

Jursnick and other supporters of single-stair development, including the Colorado chapter of the American Institute of Architects, tick off the benefits: Buildings can be designed to fit tighter lots, meaning more infill development potential in older parts of the city and more density.

Structures also can accommodate larger apartments for families, with better ventilation and more sunlight coming through windows facing different directions as the unit wraps around a central building stairway. The long corridors common in traditional apartment buildings, which take up space and require lighting and air conditioning, wouldn’t be the only layout option.

A handful of cities — also including Honolulu and New York City — allow single-stair buildings up to certain heights.

Supporter sees big potential in Denver According to research that Jursnick has pulled together, Denver alone has more than 14,000 lots that he argues are underutilized and could benefit from single-stair development.

Peter LiFari, an Adams County affordable housing developer, is another single-stair enthusiast. He praises the approach’s potential to improve livability for, and interaction among, renters and condo owners.

Regarding safety concerns, he said buildings could be required to maintain short distances from units to the stairs and that stairwells could be pressurized to keep smoke out. With sprinklers and other fire-prevention systems, LiFari and Jursnick said, buildings are also safer now than they were when the double-stair requirement was implemented.

But Briese, of the fire chiefs group, said the bill as drafted wouldn’t require changes to local regulations to mandate those types of prevention.

“We understand what they’re doing. We understand why they’re doing it,” he said. “We just want them to do it safely and follow the existing codes — or get in, modify the codes and come up with what’s required to do this.”

Valdez, the bill’s House sponsor, said he was working with fire chiefs to make changes. The bill’s first committee hearing is set for mid-March.

Despite their confidence that single-stair buildings could be built and lived in safely — as they are in Seattle and Europe — Valdez and other supporters said they took the fire officials’ concerns seriously. Valdez is preparing changes to the bill that would require single-stair buildings to include sprinkler systems and be built in areas that have fire departments with trucks that can reach six stories.

But Valdez said he didn’t want to turn the bill into a study, as had happened in other states.

“We need to be innovative,” he said, pointing to the need to address housing affordability. ” … Anything that we can do is what we need to do. We need abundance in housing.”

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