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How To Keep Our Buildings From Making Us Fat

Central stairs, slow elevators, smaller waistline.

How To Keep Our Buildings From Making Us Fat

[Image: Staircase via Nagel Photography / Shutterstock]

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.