Author’s Note

I would like to end with this self-portrait, which is to say that this is quite a personal project for me. I grew up in a three-storey, single stair apartment building where we knew our neighbours well, the stair landings were generous and naturally-lit, and everyone got pretty crazy with their Christmas decorations. My childhood home in Switzerland reminds me that stairs should be about more than just circulation and fire safety, and that there is a sensuality to them too - the tactile sensation of a winding guardrail, the slip-resistance of the treads, the wash of light from a skylight or the breeze from an operable window. Especially in an apartment building stairwell, a small lightwell goes a long way to maintaining a visual and acoustic connection between floors and therefore, between neighbours.

I consider it ridiculous and borderline offensive that the building code in Canada considers buildings like the home I was raised in to be unsafe. Learning from Alex Bozikovic’s House Divided and affirmed by my own exposure to NIMBY-ism, I am saddened by the hostility with which small apartment buildings have been actively discouraged and are often forbidden in this country, especially zoning policies which are directly at odds with growth and densification targets. Since moving to Canada I have come to understand North American preferences for detached homes and big open spaces, but also experienced perversions of the opposite in the downtowns of Toronto and Vancouver. Living in Montreal, a city of winding stairs and triplexes, I see an alternate history to the common conditions across anglophone Canada. There is now also an acute housing crisis across the country, a supply problem worsened by the missing middle of housing options, an entire range of typologies suited for the people that fall between the polarized real estate market of condominiums for urban professionals and detached houses for nuclear families. The code requirement for a second egress in any building above two storeys, regardless of the floor area, occupancy load or active fire protection measures, makes it all the more challenging to fill the missing middle.

Of the 30 international jurisdictions reviewed for their maximum allowable building height with a single exit stair, Canada is the most restrictive country. A rule that made a lot of sense when it was established in 1941 remains unquestioned in each revision to the building code since. It’s time to change that.

Thank you.