How To Keep Our Buildings From Making Us Fat

Central stairs, slow elevators, smaller waistline.

It's tough to find time in a busy schedule for a full workout, but there's a pretty easy opportunity for exercise that many of us pass up every day. That would be the decision to take stairs instead of an elevator. The flights would add up if we let them: up and down at the office, maybe once again for lunch, maybe yet again at our apartment building. But all too often, at the intersection of stand-or-step, we go with stand.

That's not necessarily because we're lazy. Truth is, the choice between taking the stairs or the elevator isn't always created equal. While elevator banks are centrally located, staircases are often hidden away—not to mention poorly lit, dank, and let's face it, somewhat murdery. As recent evidence shows, the design of a building can act as an invisible hand guiding us away from physical activity and toward a bigger pants size.

Take one recent study conducted on the campus of on the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The stairs in the picture below are part of a fire escape in the seven-story Stokely Management Center. The narrow and dark stairwell looks uninviting on its own, even before you know it's hidden behind a heavy steel door and tucked around the corner from the center's main elevator bank.

Image: Journal of Physical Activity and Health

Now take a look at the stairs of the three-floor Art and Architecture Building elsewhere on campus. The staircase here is out in the open, situated in a nice bright area, and wide enough for several people to use at once. It's also given central placement; there's a freight elevator for people who need it, but it's located at the end of the building.

Image: Journal of Physical Activity and Health

Recently, a team of UT-Knoxville researchers, led by David Bassett, made a simple observation of stair and elevator use at the above buildings. The findings feel a bit obvious, but they speak to the power of active design: in the first building, only 8% of people used the stairs to go up, with 10% taking them down; in the second, 73% walked up, and 90% walked down.

A third building observed by Bassett and company, the four-story law school, made for an even more interesting case. The school has two centrally located elevators, but it also has a very attractive and centrally located staircase right beside the bank. Despite the easy access to elevators, 81% of people chose to walk up and 94% to walk down, according to the research team.

"In the United States, buildings are often designed with a centrally located elevator, and the stairs are located in unattractive 'fire escape' stairwells behind heavy steel doors," conclude the researchers in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health. "This design tends to discourage stair use, and the default decision is usually to ride the elevator. An alternative design, consisting of wide, centrally located staircases that provide a view of one’s surroundings, may encourage people to take the stairs."

Image: Journal of Physical Activity and Health

In other words, when a staircase is designed to compete with an elevator, both in terms of style and location, walking can beat riding head to head. The rules change a bit when a building gets too tall—short of losing a bet, no one's taking 10 flights of stairs up to work. But in the case of taller buildings there are other design quirks that can level the competition.

One is a so-called "skip-stop" elevator that only stops every third floor, a little like an express. If you work on the eighth floor, for instance, and the skip-stop goes from one to four to seven, you have to get out there and walk up the final flight. The point is to encourages people to walk just a little bit more than they might if the elevator took them exactly where they needed to go.

A few years ago, a pair of architecture scholars studied the impact of skip-stop design in a Los Angeles headquarters of Caltrans, the state's transportation agency. One side of the 13-story building had a skip-stop elevator that stopped every three floors; the other had a traditional elevator that stopped on each one. Using the building design as a natural experiment, the researchers collected access card data from stairwell entry to see if the skip-stop truly worked as expected.

It sure did. Employees on the side of the building with the typical elevator made 3,750 stairwell entries during the 24-week observation period. Those on the skip-stop side made 117,619 entries—roughly 33 times as many. Caltrans workers were getting more exercise whether they liked it or not. (Many did not; there was an "unexpected increase" in workers requesting disability elevator passes when Caltrans moved into the building.)

The skip-stop system isn't always feasible, for reasons related to architecture and interoffice resentment alike, but plenty of evidence suggests an even simpler way to induce stair use: make elevators painfully slow. An elevator that takes a long time to arrive has been found to nudge people onto the stairs in a four-story building, as has an elevator that arrives normally but takes a glacial 26 seconds to close. Even in a 12-story building with four central elevators, stair use has been shown to increase when one elevator is out of service, since the others take longer to come as a result.

So there are clearly some design tricks that architects and engineers can use to make buildings more active places. More stair use isn't going to make up for poor exercise habits on its own; going up and down a flight of stairs (roughly 20 steps) burns about two calories, so doing eight flights a day up and down for a 250-day work year burns just 4,000 calories, a little more than a pound. But as part of a more active lifestyle, it's a step in the right direction.

[Image: Staircase via Nagel Photography / Shutterstock]

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16 Comments

  • I am a huge proponent healthy lifestyles and choosing the stairs over the elevator. However, I would caution you against the recommendation of slowing down elevators. Slow elevators might encourage able-bodied people to use the stairs, but it would also increase difficulty and frustration for handicapped or disabled people. In cities with poor public transit options and poor infrastructure design, it can take twice or even three or four times as long to get around. Slower elevators would only cause further hindrance. Let's make stairwells more visible, safe, and attractive, but let's not do it at the behest of those who cannot walk.

  • crbswiss

    ahem... 'no one's taking 10 flights of stairs up to work.' I used to walk up 11 flights up to the office. After a few weeks it seemed perfectly natural. Please change this to, 'not many take 10 flights of stairs up to work.'

  • Emma Cheesman

    I think one big eye opener for me was when I started using the stair climber at the gym and realized that at a slow, easy pace, one can climb over 14 flights in under 5 minutes. Before, I would have thought "14 flights?! That'll take me forever!!" When I realized how little time it actually took, the number of flights in a building seems less daunting and I take the stairs far more often now!

  • If you want to change building stair design you will have to start by changing the International Building code. The reason stairs are " hidden behind a heavy steel door and tucked around the corner" is because they are dictated to be so by building code. Usually two rated stairs are required, this means they are separated from surrounding construction by 1, 2 or even 3 hour rated walls and doors. This is in an effort to protect the building occupants while evacuating the building in the event of the outbreak of a fire. The grand stairs pictured here are supplemental to the required rated stairs and therefor add cost to the building and take up valuable leasable space. While the goals of the article may or may not be considered laudable there are huge barriers to any change to the current design of stairwells.

  • Huge barriers? You have not been to the Kahn's Exeter Library, or Diller Scofidio Renfro's ICA in Boston? Even the egress stairs are incredible. You don't have to change the building codes, but committing to amazing stairs is a design / cost tradeoff. I think this article is arguing that it's a tradeoff worth committing to.

  • pallsopp42

    Great article!! Our human Habitats (built environments) have, for the past 50 odd years, been relegated in importance to human well being as mere commodities to be built on the cheap and traded to make as much money as possible for owners....And are we paying a heavy price for that "profits at all costs" approach to the places we inhabit.

    In 2012 the US spent $2.8 Trillion on all forms of health care and health insurance. of that, about $2.0 trillion went toward treating chronic disease, the biggest drivers of which are what we eat (and how much of it) and the places we inhabit.

    Walkability, clean air, freedom from noise and light pollution while we sleep and ability to afford to live in temperate interior conditions when its scorching hot or freezing cold outside are fundamental to minimizing the risks and costs of chronic disease.

    Obviously some very significant changes to the status quo in design, construction, real estate and banking are required.........

  • pallsopp42

    Great article!! Our human Habitats (built environments) have for the past 50 odd years been relegated in importance to human well being as mere commodities to be built on the cheap and traded to make as much money for owners....And boy are we paying a heavy price for that "money at all costs" approach to the places we inhabit.

    In 2012 the US spent $2.8 Trillion on all forms of health care and health insurance. of that, about $2.0 trillion went toward treating chronic disease, the biggest drivers of which are what we eat (and how much of it) and the places we inhabit.

    Walkability, clean air, freedom from noise and light pollution while we sleep and ability to afford to live in temperate interior conditions when its scorching hot or freezing cold outside are fundamental to minimizing the risks and costs of chronic disease.

    Obviously some very significant changes to the status quo in design, construction, real estate and banking are required.........

  • Alex Sung

    'Stair inducement' seems like a terribly inefficient means to adjust people's lifestyle. Slower lifts and 'skip stop' just sound like inefficiency and poor performance.

  • Grant Herron

    Cover photo is the Utah State Capitol! One of the most beautiful capitol buildings ever! Hooray for my home state!

  • Kristin Joy Currier Ludlow

    Wow. At first glance it reminded me of the Boston Public Library.

  • Stephen Bolling

    The complete lack of inclusion and downright punishment of disabled users (including the elderly) as well as those with young children (including infants) should be offensive to anyone reading this article. Including stairs that encourage usage by way of their esthetics and location is a good idea, but to make accessible routes less usable for those that need them is unacceptable.

  • I think you might be confusing accessibility and usability with hostility towards users that are less physically capable. Elevators are not made any less accessible or usable in staircase centric design — in Denmark, for example, staircases are often centrally located, but elevators are not tucked behind damp, dim corners. They are simply placed away from the central plan (to the left or to the right), but remain fully accessible and usable. Many even have tactile paving that guides visually-impaired users to elevators, too, as evident in metro and train stations, and public buildings.

    Simply put, a trade-off as you have described is not necessarily—the impression of the trade-off is probably due to poorly-designed staircase-centric building design. It is possible to make a building healthy, yet accessible to those who are unable, or unwilling, to use the stairs.

  • Karla Jackson

    You left out one of the largest deterrents to taking the stairs - in many building you will set off an alarm or become locked in the stairwell if you attempt to use it.

    Fear of being locked in often stops me from using the stairs in unfamiliar buildings.