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Design Matters:

Designing Healthier New Yorkers: Building Design—Part 2

AIA New York issues recommendations to create buildings that encourage fitness and healthy lifestyles

by Sara Fernandez Cendon

All images courtesy of
Iwan Baan.

41 Cooper Square, an academic and laboratory building that is part of The Cooper Union, was conceived by New York and Los Angeles-based Morphosis as a “stacked vertical piazza” organized around a central atrium.

From the double-high main lobby, a 20-foot wide grand stair ascends four stories through the central atrium to a student lounge overlooking the city. An undulating lattice envelopes the grand stair creating visual interest.

In addition to the primary skip-stop elevators, the building’s secondary elevators stop at each floor, both for ADA compliance and for transporting materials, artwork, and equipment.


The AIA New York’s “Active Design Guidelines” report, released Jan. 27, may seem like a simple and shrill command to take the stairs and walk to work, but at least in terms of building design, creating environments that stimulate the body means designing spaces that are inherently more sustainable and beautiful. The report was developed by New York City’s departments of Design and Construction, Health and Mental Hygiene, Transportation, City Planning, and the Office of Management and Budget in collaboration with AIA New York. (Part I in this two-part series is available here).

AIANY executive director Rick Bell, FAIA, explains that AIANY volunteered to serve as “neutral grounds” for discussions involving many disparate agencies, offering them professional design expertise and leadership.

The report rests on the premise that physical activity has been designed out of our daily routines. According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, only 42 percent of adults in the city reported meeting the recommendations for physical activity in 2007. Concerning building design, the report considers program, the design of specific spaces (including gyms, locker rooms, bicycle storage rooms, etc.), and circulation systems as opportunities to incorporate physical activity.

One of the main recommendations for building designers is to encourage everyday stair use. Strategies to lure people away from elevators range from locating stairs near the building’s entrance (research suggests stairs encountered prior to the elevator are more likely to be used for everyday travel), to being generous with stair dimensions, as wider stairs tend to increase their use.

The Bronx Library Center, designed by New-York based Dattner Architects, is presented as an example of wide, open stairs that incorporate daylight and a large art installation to invite circulation. Though most of the research that deals with increased stair use is classified in the “emerging evidence” category of study that has not been as firmly established and unequivocally accepted as fact, what is more certain is that stair use can have a positive impact on health. The report cites research published in Preventive Medicine, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, and the American Journal of Psychiatry that indicates stair use can have a direct impact on cardiovascular health and has been shown to raise “good cholesterol” levels.

The report argues that highly visible or ornamental stairs are more likely to be used, but it also acknowledges the difficulties designers might face when dealing with code-mandated fire separations, or if the same staircase is to be used for both everyday travel and emergency egress.

The central stair at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, designed by SOM in collaboration with ZGF Architects, is mentioned in the report as an example of a good solution to this problem. The stair is enclosed in glass, and therefore highly visible, but the glass is fire-protected through the use of a sprinkler water curtain.

Mustafa Abadan, FAIA, SOM design partner on the project, explains that the central stair is one of three staircases in the tower. He says all three are at least partially glass enclosed so users have light and visual connectivity to the exterior, and he says the stairs are widely used because they’re pleasant and convenient. “No one inside the building has to walk more than 30 to 40 feet to get to those stairs,” he says. “The materials used throughout the building carry into the staircases and therefore become part of the overall design.”

Other guidelines suggest carefully designing the building’s program to encourage brief bouts of walking (between work and common rest areas, for example) and to encourage personal, as opposed to electronic, communication. The report also calls attention to the way individual buildings fit into neighborhoods, and it recommends designing the exterior of buildings at a human scale within the distinctive character of the surrounding area, so walking becomes an attractive option.


The report draws many parallels between active design and other design standards–such as sustainability or universal access–that have come to be regarded simply as benchmarks of good design. Encouraging stair use, for example, offers advantages beyond increased physical activity. Less elevator travel means less energy use, but it also means greater elevator availability for persons with disabilities. The final chapter, titled “Synergies,” explores the connection between active design and other design strategies, and it also includes a reference chart identifying LEED 20009 products and categories that overlap in some way with active design.

The guidelines aim to address concerns about safety and comfort, but they’re equally concerned with creating beauty, complexity, and interest as incentives for physical activity. Many of the recommendations in the report were inspired by five design qualities that, according to a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Active Living Research Program, are critical to a good walking environment: complexity, imageability, enclosure, human scale, and transparency. Among these qualities, designing distinct and memorable spaces that are visually rich is cited often in the guidelines as an effective way to promote physical activity. Quite simply, engaging the mind and its imagination is just as important to physical fitness as stimulating the muscles and heart.


Evidence-Based Design: The Deeper Meaning to Sustainability, Building Performance and Everything Else

Hospital Design as a Primary Tool for Healing


AIA New York’s Active Design Guidelines are available here.

See what the Academy of Architecture for Health Knowledge

From the AIA Bookstore: Architecture and the Brain: A New Knowledge Base from Neuroscience by John Eberhard, FAIA (Greenway Communications, 2007).


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