Virginia Passes Bill to Evaluate Single-Stair/Point Access Block for Multifamily Dwellings

On April 4, 2024, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin signed into law Senate Bill 195, which directs the Commonwealth’s Board of Housing and Community Development (the “Board”) to convene a stakeholder advisory group (the “Advisory Group”) to evaluate and recommend revisions to the Uniform Statewide Building Code (§36-97, et seq. of the Code of Virginia) to allow Single-Stair/Point Access Block multi-family dwellings, provided that the building isn’t higher than six-stories.  The Advisory Group must submit its findings to the Board, as well as the Chairmen of the State House Committee on General Laws and the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology no later than December 1, 2024.

This new law reflects the efforts of policymakers across the country striving to modernize housing policy to increase access to affordable housing.  However, unlike many initiatives which touch a single regulatory issue, such as density, zoning, lot size or environmental impact, Single-Stair/Point Access Block dwellings simultaneously address two distinct barriers to increase access to housing: density and zoning.

Single-Stair/Point Access Block is an architectural design concept prioritizing a single stairway within multifamily dwelling structures such as apartments or condominiums. This approach involves consolidating stair access to a single point within a residential or commercial block, provided it complies with local fire and building codes.

In traditional multi-story dwellings, multiple staircases are commonly dispersed throughout the building, leading to a network of access points on different floors.  Traditional multifamily buildings may be larger to accommodate the multiple staircases, but will probably have smaller, more expensive units.  Most American apartment buildings over four stories are required to have at least two means of egress from each unit.

In contrast, Single-Stair/Point Access Block multifamily buildings consolidate all staircases into a centralized location which encircles or is adjacent to the building’s elevator.  More commonplace in European, North African and Asian multifamily buildings, this design maximizes useable square footage and can lead to buildings with larger units and increased density.  If implemented at a larger scale in the United States, Single-Stair/Point Access Block buildings could increase both affordability and inventory in the communities where they can be built.

For the Advisory Group established under the new Virginia law, the Board will appoint experts in the areas of fire, safety and building design to discuss and evaluate whether or not to multifamily dwellings up to six stories can be adequately and safely served by a Single-Stair/Point Access Block.  The Board’s discussions will most likely focus on whether multifamily buildings will be permitted under current zoning controls and if increasing the number of units in the Commonwealth’s multifamily buildings is worth potentially sacrificing multiple means of egress from a safety perspective.  Many affordable housing professionals are looking forward to the Advisory Group’s findings to be submitted by the end of this calendar year.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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