Death Notice: The End of the Three-Story Walk-Up Apartment

We are seeing the gradual sun setting on the typical stick-built, three-story walk-up apartment.

Joe 6EDITAlright, I’m calling it. We are seeing the gradual sun setting on the typical stick-built, three-story walk-up apartment. They seem to be fading away much like the two story walks up died in the mid ‘90s.

Giving way to four and five story wood framed behemoths; we are just not seeing many three story walk ups in the pipeline. These high density designs, which were once confined to urban sites, are heading to the suburbs. “The key to today’s development cycle is density,” said David McDaniel, principal of Integra Land Company, a Lake Mary, Fla.-based development company. “Sellers are requiring it in order to maximize the price of the land and municipalities are requiring it from a zoning and entitlement standpoint.”

The market demands are changing. With the four-story threshold you are required by building code to provide an elevator, and the rental market likes the elevator—think about carrying a sleeping four year old up three flights of stairs! In addition to the elevator, the four- and five-story products provide a greater sense of community. “Some of the things we are seeing in these new higher density projects are well finished and furnished amenity functions that provide social connectivity to the resident,” said Gary F. Brock, AIA, principal of Charlan Brock & Associates, a Maitland, Fla.-based design firm. “The courtyards and pool area have well designed hardscape elements that provide a high level of connectivity for entertainment. The Millennials want an environment that has more of a resort hotel feel both in amenities, concierge services and the treatment of hallways and lobbies, like an upscale hotel.”

Like most good things, these larger designs come with some baggage. We loved the three story walk up as it was predictable and scalable. Here are a few of the challenges.

Code requirements

LandSouth 1760

LandSouth 1760

The complexities of the structures are an issue. Life safety, structural requirements, MEP issues, fire separations and fire protection systems all come into play. With four stories you are required to provide elevators and with five stories the requirements expand to fire treated lumber and NFPA 13 fire systems (fully sprinkled buildings including truss spaces and attic areas). When the design requires that you tuck the leasing and amenities under the resident buildings, you create significant fire separation issues due to the mix of uses. All of these items combine for a much more complex design that requires additional expertise and coordination from the development team.


This goes without saying- these buildings are big and tall! There are significant issues with access and logistics. Sequencing the work shifts to division by floors and sections instead of individual buildings. At five stories, typical lulls (articulated forklifts) will not reach which may require crane service in order to stock materials in the buildings. Loading materials and construction logistics must be considered upfront or you will risk boxing yourself in.

Building turnover

The size of the buildings dramatically affects the turnover process. “Sequencing the turnover of units is a big challenge”, says Brock. “Working with the local building departments to coordinate turning over the club and units in phases for efficient leasing and move-ins requires a lot of up front coordination.” Local building departments that are still recovering from the recession are often undermanned. The inspection process can be a real schedule nightmare. Many development teams are opting for costly private inspections where allowed by the municipality. Power utilities are also an issue. In order to have electrical meters set, you will need the electrical inspections completed. If provisions are not made in the design, you may need the entire building cleared before you can get meters set and energize the units. These issues can significantly lengthened the delivery schedule.

Podiums and structured parking

With the density, podiums and structured parking are becoming more common. Adding these concrete elements in combination with a wood structure requires close attention to details. A failure to completely understand the interface between the materials and sequencing requirements can lead to real problems.

The trend to higher density helps to address increasing development costs and allows for near urban locations which are increasing in popularity. “The Millennial renters want to be closer to or in the urban areas that are walkable with connectivity to the urban lifestyle,” added Brock. “They [larger buildings] help to accomplish many of the goals required in the current multi-family environment.” So where are we going next? I can only guess that the trend will continue and push multi-family design bigger and taller. Three-story walk-ups, we will miss you! You were great for so many years. Rest in peace!

Joe Passkiewicz is a 35 year construction veteran, and serves as senior vice president of development for LandSouth Construction LLC. Passkiewicz has built more than 10,000 multifamily units in the Southeast and Midwest U.S. Joe is a passionate leadership trainer and hosts a blog called “Leading by Serving,” You can also follow Joe on Twitter and LinkedIn at @JoePasskiewicz.   

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