Monday, May 2, 2011

Part 2 Building Design: Fooling people into taking the stairs

I just got back from a conference in Montreal – one on obesity at that. The hotel, the location for the conference, held sessions on floors 1-4 and on sub floors below the lobby – ample opportunity to use the stairs.  There were two main problems: 1) the stairs were confusing – you’d get up to one floor but then couldn’t find the next set of stairs to the next floor and have to walk quite a distance to get to them; and 2) there were escalators in between these floors in plain sight from the main floor lobby, somewhat easy to navigate, and were a brilliant, flashy gold colour. I, more often than not, took the flashy-fancy escalators. 

In my last post, I reflected on how easy it is to be physically inactive nowadays and went on to discuss point-of-decision prompts as a way to get people to use the stairs instead of escalators or elevators. These prompts appear promising, but what if buildings are not designed to make taking the stairs easier or enjoyable, such as was the case at the obesity conference? To answer this, in today’s post I will discuss the recommendations provided by New York City’s Active Design Guidelines to make buildings enjoyable places to walk – and some instances make walking the more convenient form of transportation. The guidelines were developed based on the best available evidence in the literature, as well as on current best practices in architecture and design. So keep in mind that even though these are recommendations there is no guarantee that they’ll work to increase physical activity.  At the same time however, they have direct synergies with sustainability, such as decreasing electricity and building material use (so, in my opinion, are at least worth considering).

There are three main categories of building design recommendations that I’ll touch on in my discussion below: 1) Elevators and escalators; 2) stairs; and 3) supportive design elements. I think that the more recommendations implemented, the more likely that building design will be successful at increasing the physical activity levels of its users.    

Design of elevators and escalators

Mechanized options for travel between floors should be designed to be hard to find, or at least less prominent (not the case for the escalators at my conference). Decreasing their speed can make them less efficient than walking, and save on electricity. Installing the minimum number of elevators required by building codes could also decrease efficiency by increasing volume of users. Other ways to make elevators less efficient than walking include programming them to:
  • Be skip-stop (they don’t stop on every floor so you have to get out and walk up a floor);
  • Open at each floor (this may not make sense in buildings with 30+ floors);
  • Open and close very slowly (which is beneficial for persons with disabilities) 
Design of stairs

Stairs should be the main attraction. They should be visible from the lobby and elevators, and always located close to building occupants (i.e. office areas). One way to draw attention to them is to put the lobby of the building on the second floor, accessible from the ground floor via a grand staircase, with elevators accessible only at the lobby (meaning people have to use the stairs to access the elevators). Point-of-decision prompts can also help (as I discussed in Part I).  A great example of making stairs interesting -maybe a bit extreme and perhaps not sustainable, but cool nonetheless- is the piano stairs:  

Additionally, stairs should:
  • Open to and be accessible at each floor (no locked doors);
  • Be seen – if stairwells are a must they should be transparent;
  • Receive large amounts of natural light;
  • Be well ventilated

Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa (ON): CC images Michelle Hotchin

In order to improve the overall experience, stairs themselves should be designed for comfort, aesthetics, safety, and ease of maintenance. Art and articulated and unique stair composition can increase interest. Balustrades, handrails and landings can provide architectural points of interest, especially for grand staircases. Floor finishes should be slip resistant and colour or textural contrasts can be used to increase safety. Step height should be comfortable for small children (i.e. not too high), and staircases should be wide enough for groups traveling in opposite directions to safely pass. Finally, stairs should be easy to maintain. Long lasting materials should be chosen that are easy to clean and discourage vandalism or graffiti.   

Cooper Union New Academic Building, New York, NY: CC images

Supportive design elements

There are some things that can be included in building design that make being physically active easier and more enjoyable. Change rooms and showering facilities are big ones for me. My work building currently does not have one. I figured it would be quite easy to add a shower – one for men and one for women and no need for change rooms as our washrooms are so large. No dice though, my request was immediately shut down by my organization – citing no money. Always the excuse. I plan to press the issue. Bike parking and storage are also important. In NYC, several laws have been enacted that mandate certain buildings and facilities provide bicycle parking or other accommodation for cyclists. Storage can also prevent damage to building interiors when bikes are brought inside, and also prevent nasty notes from being sent to you when you forget your bike lock. 

Design of building exteriors should also have the pedestrian/cyclist in mind and interestingly can influence building users and non-users alike. Here are a few examples that can enliven, and improve the comfort/convenience and safety of the streetscape:
  • Reducing set-backs (space between the road and building) and providing multiple entry points 
  • Adding awnings or canopies (to provide shelter from the weather)  
  • Porches, stoops, and terraces can add to the social environment and provide ‘eyes on the street’ 
  • Paying attention to nearby parks, open spaces and public gathering areas so that the building does not adversely affect them (e.g. minimizing the cast of building’s shadow, and the potential for creating unpleasant wind conditions)

Building in New Orleans (LA): CC image

The design of public buildings (including point-of-choice prompts) has the potential to not only increase physical activity, but also to vastly improve the quality of our shared spaces. Perhaps residential spaces could also be designed to promote physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviour. The hard part is that people generally choose what they live in and where they live.  It is my hope that more and more researchers examine how design of our spaces (from houses to cities) may influence not only obesity but overall health, with high quality epidemiological methods - something that is currently lacking.       

Bloomberg MR, Burney D, Farley T, Sadik-Khan J, & Burden A (2010). Active Design Guidelines: Promoting Physical Activity and Health in Design City of New York


  1. Great and timely post Megan. We have often considered this here at CHEO whereby the stairs are often hidden out of the way and sometimes more confusing to navigate than the elevators which all have good signage. I know they tried to do some stair revamping at the UOHI, I wonder how they fared.

  2. UOHI? Which building is that? I know that at Morriset Library it is terribly confusing to navigate the stairs, and the elevator is always full. Some stairwells are even locked.