Why Did Montreal Get Those Twisty Deathtrap Stairs?

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter

A few years ago I wrote about how we should learn how to build dense walkable cities from Montreal, after walking through the Plateau district and admiring the three storey high “plexes” with their twisty exterior stairways. On a trip to Montreal this weekend I finally got to stay in one, at a wonderful AirBnB.

Exterior stair montreal

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I have noted that the Plateau is incredibly dense, achieving over over 11,000 people per square kilometer. One reason is that the design of its housing is almost 100 percent efficient; with the stairs outside there are no common areas at all, with all the interior space being used. It should be noted that we have a bit of an obsession about stairs on TreeHugger; they are great for keeping people healthy and fit. However we have shown a lot of them that readers call deathtraps because of the lack of handrails, steepness or winding. In Montreal, they have a city full of them.

But it is an odd choice of design for a city with so much snow; how did it happen? According to one article in Urbanphoto, it was the building codes and zoning bylaws of the time.

stairs between houses

Tight Spaces Call for Spiral Stairs

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Architect Susan Bronson, who teaches at the Université de Montréal, notes that turn-of-the-century building codes, designed to improve living conditions, played a big role in reinforcing the dominance of the plex. In Montreal and the suburb of St. Louis (now Mile End), lot sizes were increased from 20 by 60 feet to 25 by 100 feet and laneways were built in between blocks to service new apartments. Setbacks were mandated on newly-built residential streets, indirectly encouraging the use of outdoor staircases as a space-saving measure.

The problem is that the mandated setback was just a bit short of what was required to run a straight stair, so many of them go through extraordinary contortions to get the stairs in the limited distance. Others feel as steep as ships ladders.

high stairs

Lloyd Alter/ Extra high stairs, 22 risers up a storey and a half./CC BY 2.0

In effect, these regulations created an official template for the plex. Contractors were able to quickly and cheaply build high-quality housing. At the same time, the city’s population swelled with new migrants. “There was a really, really urgent demand for housing,” said Bronson. “A typology developed out of what was essentially a building code.”

There are other theories about why the housing got built this way; some note that it saved the landlords the cost of heating the interior common areas, and that it was probably better in case of fire. There is even a theory that it was an “anti-adultery precaution imposed by the Roman Catholic Church”- no sneaking around inside. But whatever the reason, it results in lovely apartments, usually L shaped to allow light into every room.

Stair at our AirBnB

Lloyd Alter/ Straight and steep with a weird winder at the top/CC BY 2.0

The Problem With Oddly Shaped Stairs

The biggest problem with the typology is that many of the stairs, frankly, are deathtraps. They don’t meet any of the codes for stairs now; The plex we stayed in had a relatively moderate and comfortable stair compared to others I have seen, but it still was steep, with a difficult turn at the top and a handrail that was way too low. My wife Kelly Rossiter was appalled, suggesting that she could never live in a place like this, how do you carry your groceries up? What about when you get older? Or have to carry a baby up the stairs? And what about winter when they are covered in ice?

twisty stairs

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I can only think that since most of the plexes are rentals, people are more used to moving and that there isn’t a lot of aging in place in Montreal unless you manage to score a ground floor apartment. It’s also true that people adapt; they have been doing it all their lives and it is second nature, and they get help with the groceries.

The fact remains that they are glorious and idiosyncratic and everyone just takes it for granted that this is how you live in Montreal. As a Facebook friend noted: “We love our staircases! All twisty!”

Old Montreal stair

Lloyd Alter/ Old Montreal/CC BY 2.0

Finally, here's one that is not in the Plateau district but down in Old Montreal that is not typical but is truly scary; you walk up the steep yellow stair, then along a catwalk to the front again, then up the spiral to the third floor. I am not sure I could do this sober in the daytime.