Spiral staircases added during the renovation of Saint-Michel Nord in Montreal

Colorful spiral staircases now give direct access to the units of the Saint-Michel Nord residential complex in Montreal, which was renovated by Saia Barbarese Topouzanov to update the aging buildings and include a new pedestrian street.


Located in the disadvantaged Saint-Michel district, the housing complex was built in the 1970s in the brutalist style. Its 185 units lacked natural light, and the building’s low energy efficiency made them uncomfortable and expensive to maintain.

The renovation of the Habitations Saint-Michel Nord housing complex consisted of adding spiral staircases to the exterior

Architectural firm Saia Barbarese Topouzanov‘S intervention draws a new shared street across the long housing block, creating a safe outdoor space for residents.

“The shared street is very important for the project because it allows open pedestrian paths without dead ends, improving the sense of security of the residents,” said the architects.

Stairs and balconies
Colorful stairs lead to balconies used by residents

Along this axis, colorful spiral staircases lead to balconies directly outside each unit – a convenience previously lacking at the resort.

Spiral staircases like these are a common feature in Montreal’s elevator-free buildings, providing outdoor spaces that residents might not otherwise have access to.

Dark orange spiral staircase
A variety of orange accents differentiate the areas of the resort

“Overhanging balconies rather than set back [create] additional living space much appreciated in hot weather, especially by people of modest means, ”said the team.

Saia Barbarese Topouzanov chose a bright and cheerful finish for these exterior elements which gives each building a slightly different hue, while at the same time binding the overall composition.

“Using two similar colors to create a third resulted in the production of seven distinct colors using four base tones, from very pale yellow to rich brick red,” the firm said.

“In this cheerful new setting, the use of color helps strengthen the residents’ sense of belonging and identity.

The Habitations Saint-Michel Nord housing complex in Montreal
The site is intended to be pedestrian-friendly

The location of the stairs outside also allowed the studio to rethink the layout of the apartments. Those which were previously separated by an interior corridor now benefit from at least two exhibitions.

The interiors have been refreshed and taller windows have been installed to bring in more natural light.

Bright and colorful stairs
Renovated housing complex is designed to be bright and colorful

The project also included the addition of a restaurant, daycare and youth club on the ground floor of the complex, with the aim of fostering a sense of community among residents.

“The architects wanted to turn constraints into assets and provide residents with a dignified, bright and safe environment, disrupting the stigma surrounding social housing and its association with poverty,” the team said.

Montreal apartment complex by Saia Barbarese Topouzanov renovated with colorful spiral staircases
Common areas have also been added as part of the redesign

The renovation project was completed in September 2020 and was awarded a 2021 Award of Excellence from the Order of Architects of Quebec in the collective housing category.

Other housing projects that use colorful accent elements include a pair of bright blue buildings in Denver that contain eight studios designed by Productora, and a village of tiny houses in Los Angeles that can provide temporary shelter for up to 200 homeless.

The photograph is from James brittain.


Project credits:

Customer: OMHM (Office municipal d’habitation de Montréal)
Landscape architects: Vlan
Structural and civil engineers: Cima +
Mechanical and electrical engineers: Edifica
Environmental consultants: Drink
Security advisors: Bouthillette Parizeau
General contractor : Cybco

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