Buildings Designed To Keep Us Healthy

Buildings Designed To Keep Us Healthy

Our health is heavily influenced by the dozens of small decisions we make every day. Should we have a healthy salad or a hamburger for lunch? Should we go to the gym or skip it just for today? Should we take the stairs or the elevator? The aggregate of all of these decisions forms our physical baseline. Given the radical changes to the way modern humans live that have occurred during the last 100 years, it is not surprising to find that only 43.5% adults in the United States in 2008 report meeting the recommended minimum requirements for physical activity. Lest we assume this is a uniquely American problem, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggest that only 43% of adults are "sufficiently active.” The rest of Australia is either insufficiently active (36%) or inactive (20%). 

When pondering my own daily activity, I noticed a classic human resource intervention. The near ubiquitous reminder to take the stairs, instead of the elevator. In this case, not just to take the stairs, but also to love them. 


The poster got me thinking more generally about the design of our offices, public buildings and retail spaces. Especially how these spaces shape our daily behaviour. I did some research and discovered they’ve been investigating the effectiveness of these sorts of posters as far back as the 1980s. Results show mixed feedback that these ‘point of decision prompts’ actually encourage stair use. The posters are popular, probably due to their low cost, but it is unclear how much impact they have; how much they actually change behaviour. 

Interestingly, when posters are supplemented (or replaced) by banners that sit on the stair risers, stair use becomes more prevalent, with stair use increasing from a baseline of 2.4%, up to 6.7% stair use. In another study, using posters paired with music and artwork in the stairwells also increased stair use (at least a small amount). 

Setting aside posters for a moment, recent environmental psychology research has reawakened questions about how the very structure of our buildings and public spaces influences our behaviour. Research in Vancouver suggests that a combination of visibility from the front entrance, lighting, width (allowing 2 people) and unlocked access encourage stair usage. 

When you walk into an everyday office building, what greets you first? Ignore the cafes, chairs, reception and the few token plants. Typically, the dominating feature is the elevators. Stairs are mandated for fire safety, but they are usually tucked away in a dark corner, behind a secure door. Entering an office stairwell is usually an unpleasant experience. No matter the treatment of the rest of the building, most stairwells are stripped back and raw. Exposed concrete and building infrastructure are both visible, as well as pipes, conduits and cords. They are so tightly enclosed that it is difficult for two people to pass each other. Dimly lit spaces that echo strangely due to the exposed hard surfaces. They don’t feel like welcoming places to spend time in, especially compared to the well lit and easy elevator. 

Research validates this observation. A study in 2013 conducted in the United States found that people naturally avoid the stairs in buildings designed to be ‘elevator centric.’ Over the period of observation, 8.1% took stairs up and 10.8% took stairs down when the elevator was prevalent. In contrast, with a staircase-centric building, 72.8% took stairs up and 89.5 % took stairs down.  This is a stunning reversal of behaviour. 

Photos from Architectural Design and Physical Activity: An Observational Study of Staircase and Elevator Use in Different Buildings.

Photos from Architectural Design and Physical Activity: An Observational Study of Staircase and Elevator Use in Different Buildings.

Granted, these observations were based on smaller buildings, with only a handful of levels. Does this mean it is impractical in the skyscrapers of the modern city? I don’t think so. In a different piece of research, Nicoll and Zimring investigated a government building with both traditional elevators that stop on every floor and the alternative Skip-Stop elevators.  Skip-Stop elevators make stops only on specific levels and people use the stairs to travel up or down to their desired level. Over 24 weeks, they observed two different groups of employees using the two different styles of access. In the study, employees with direct access to the Skip-Stop elevators used the stairs 33 times more often than those with access to the regular elevators.  

Let’s be clear. Walking up 10 steps burns about 1.5 calories. Such small energy use won’t reverse all poor choices. But done on a regular basis it will contribute positively to cardiovascular health and muscle tone. This isn’t about making a single change to the design of buildings to suddenly change our entire lives, rather it’s about consciously designing spaces that contribute to the wellbeing of the people that live and work inside them. It means not only considering whether a building is technically safe, but also whether it is psychologically and socially healthy. We need all the help we can get in making our dozens of daily health oriented decisions. 


Australian Bureau of Statistics (2013) 4364.0.55.004 - Australian Health Survey: Physical Activity, 2011-12. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Retrieved June 2019 from https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/D4495467B7F7EB01CA257BAC0015F593

Bassett, David R. Browning, Ray. Conger, Scott A. Wolff, Dana L. and Flynn, Jennifer I. (2013) Architectural Design and Physical Activity: An Observational Study of Staircase and Elevator Use in Different Buildings. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, vol. 10, 556-562. 

Bond, Michael (2017) City psychology - The hidden ways that architecture affects how you feel. BBC. Retreived June 2019 from http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170605-the-psychology-behind-your-citys-design

Boutelle,  Kerri N., Jeffery, Robert W., Murray, David M., Schmitz, M. Kathryn H. (2001) Using Signs, Artwork, and Music to Promote Stair Use in a Public Building. American Journal of Public Health. Vol. 91, No. 12

Golembiewski, Jan (2014) Building a better world: can architecture shape behaviour? The Conversation. Retrieved June 2019 from https://theconversation.com/building-a-better-world-can-architecture-shape-behaviour-21541

Jaffee, Eric (2014) How To Keep Our Buildings From Making Us Fat. Fast Company. Retrieved June 2019 from https://www.fastcompany.com/3033627/how-to-keep-our-buildings-from-making-us-fat

Kerr,  Jacqueline. Eves, Frank. Carroll, Douglas (2001) Encouraging Stair Use: Stair-Riser Banners Are Better Than Posters. American Journal of Public Health, vol. 91, No.8.

Nicoll, G. Zimring, C. (2009) Effect of Innovative Building Design on Physical Activity. Journal of Public Health Policy, vol. 30, S111–S123. 

Wikipedia. Architectural Determinism. Retrieved June 2019 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Architectural_determinism

Staircase Photo by Paweł Bukowski on Unsplash. 

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