Building attractive staircases to encourage better health

Staircases are necessary in many buildings but a new report suggests constructing them in attractive ways would help boost health:

And as ULI’s report argues, there’s more at stake than just aesthetics. A raft of research suggests that more appealing stairways may actually beckon more people to climb, in turn helping to reduce stroke risk, improving cardiovascular health and fighting obesity.

First, the obvious: More exercise, like the kind you get from taking the stairs instead of the elevator, is good for you. A 40-year study of nearly 17,000 (male) Harvard alumni, published in 1986, found that those who walked, took the stairs and played sports were likely to live longer than their more sedentary classmates. The researchers found that by age 80, one to two additional years of life were attributable to exercise. Take the stairs, enjoy a longer life.

And it appears designers and architects really can bait people into doing what’s good for them. A 2004 study saw a 9 percent increase in foot traffic when researchers added motivational signs, artwork, carpeting, new paint and music to a CDC building’s stairwells. A similar 2001 study published in the American Journal of Public Health tested two interventions in the University of Minnesota’s public health building and found that while shaming signs—“Take the stairs for your health”—didn’t motivate stair travel, adding artwork and music to them via a compact disc player (aww, 2001) increased stair traffic by nearly 5 percent. “Buildings should be designed with attractive stairwells that are accessible to the general population,” the researchers concluded.

There are more dramatic intervention options, too. ULI, guided by principles from the Center for Active Design, argues that developers should be thinking seriously about stairways even before the construction crew moves in. The groups recommend placing stairs closer to building entrances than elevators and making them more visible. (A 2007 analysis found stairways’ accessibility and visibility explained 53 percent of their use in 10 university buildings.) Using glass panels as walls instead of concrete and cinderblock also gently guides people toward stairways.

Stairs can be an exciting architectural feature as well as a health boon. In contrast, elevators in large buildings don’t present many benefits for health or architecture. The typical lobby of a modern high-rise includes a spacious room with ill-defined sections with banks of elevators somewhere to the side or back. Stairs, if done well, can present an interesting focal point and help define the space. However, I wonder if these findings primarily apply to low-rise buildings where the stairs could be used as the primary means of traveling between floors.

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