Dramatic Staircases Make for Healthy Spaces

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Tuesday, April 14th, 2015
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Architects are returning to the visual grandeur of staircases in buildings in a bid to get people moving.

Dimly-lit stairwells and cold concrete stairs hidden behind fire escape doors are being brought front and centre. Visually striking staircases in high visibility areas are encouraging people to reach their daily physical activity requirements by choosing to take the stairs over the elevator or escalator.

With more people living and working in cities, public transport and amenities are often close at hand, removing the need to travel very far at all.

In the buildings themselves, elevators and escalators are generally the first point of call for people looking to move from floor to floor.

This has resulted in an increased sedentary and inactive lifestyle which links to an increased risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and premature death according to Michelle Daley, Active Living senior manager of the Heart Foundation.

Daley noted that over ten million Australians spend an average of eight hours per day in the workplace. Additionally, those working full-time in jobs that involve mostly sitting spend an average of 6.3 hours per day sitting at work.

Additionally, in 2012, the Heart Foundation conducted a collaborative research project, the 45 and Up Study that found that adults who sat 11 or more hours per day had a 40 per cent increased risk of dying in the next three years compared with those who sat for fewer than four hours a day. This was after taking into account their physical activity, weight and health status.

Stairs for Health

While taking the stairs isn’t a cure-all, it can certainly contribute to the recommended 10,000 steps a day for good human health. The Heart Foundation reveals that the minimum 30 minutes of exercise a day will accumulate around 3,000 steps, leaving the remainder to be met by additional walking.

Stairs could go a long way toward helping people meet that goal.

According to The New York City Department of Health, walking up the stairs can burn almost 700 per cent the number of calories burned standing in an elevator.

The Premier’s Council for Active Living NSW also provides some measurable (and humorous) stair tidbits:

  • Gain two flights of stairs a day, lose 2.7 kilos a year
  • Climbing the stairs burns kilojoules three times faster than walking
  • 10 minutes of stair climbing burns 500 kilojoules, that’s a can of lemonade, or a full cream latte

Stair Architecture

In terms of engaging stair design, one need look no further than the recently completed Dr Chau Chak Wing Building at the University of Technology Sydney by Frank Gehry.

The building features a crumpled mirrored staircase built from polished stainless steel. Working with Gehry Partners and Lend Lease, UAP Factory fabricated and installed the sculptural staircase, which reflects Gehry’s signature unconventional style.

The crumbling, reflective UTS Staircase

The crumbling, reflective UTS Staircase

The stairs allow people to walk from the lobby up to the first floor and, according to UTS, the mirrors are designed to reflect the movement of people and ideas.

The building also worked to create another two striking staircases. One is a set of oval classroom stairs made from Victorian ash that wrap around a classroom on level three and lead to a student lounge of level four.

Another wide concrete stairway curves between levels two and seven, illuminated by a skylight on the room designed to create a “bright, attractive and healthier alternative to using the lifts.”

The Grand Stairs in the Nishi building in Canberra’s Hotel Hotel lobby have also earned acclaim.

Above the wooden staircase is a mishmash of 2,150 reclaimed wooden timber dangling from the ceiling and held in place by 1,200 steel rods. According to Hotel Hotel, the timber was sourced from a house, a basketball court, the Nishi construction site itself and from off cuts of Nishi’s own Blackbutt (Eucalyptus pilularis) timber façade.

The space is an explosion of natural textures, making the walk up the stairs a visually stimulating experience.

The Grand Stairs in the Nishi Building create a floating environment

The Grand Stairs in the Nishi Building create a floating environment

The living staircase within the atrium of the Ampersand office building in London marks a world first. Linked to the culture of Ampersand, the stairs are where the “creative and commercial come together” according to Tom Hingston Studio.

Paul Cocksedge was commissioned in June 2013 to create the staircase which was conceived as a sculpture and required to be as slender (5.5 metres by 12.5 metres) as possible while being functional.

According to a video on the project, the staircase consists of 87 rises with profiled landings serving three floors. It is built from certified White Oak and features planters in the balustrade that can house 593 plants.

The plants help to improve indoor air quality while contributing to natural scenery for employees, which researchers say improves health and  productivity.

Volkswagen also explored the value in designing a visually engaging staircase concept when it transformed a set of public stairs in Odenplan Stockholm into Piano Stairs in 2009.

According to a 2013 paper, Social Stairs: Taking the Piano Staircase towards Long-Term Behavioural Change, the “fun” musical staircase was designed to change people’s behaviour, encouraging them to take the stairs in favour of the elevator or neighbouring escalator.

“Through the interactive steps, the staircase successfully persuaded and motivated 66% more people to use the stairs instead of the escalator throughout the day they shot the video,” the paper reads.

While aesthetics, safety and function are key to active design, so are spaces that contribute to the health (and fun) of building inhabitants. The stairs are a good place to start.

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