The ever-evolving world of architecture is in the midst of a movement to promote individual health and well-being.

Active design refers to the design of healthier buildings and public spaces that encourage physical activity and more active lifestyles. It consists of four components: building design, transportation, recreation and improved access to nutritious foods.

In the context of building design, prioritising stairways over lifts helps to combat the sedentary lifestyles to which many people have grown accustomed.

Take The Stairs

Take the stairs

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), “45 per cent of people now work in a sedentary type job,” which limits the amount of physical activity individuals are able to get in a typical day.

The ABS added that “six out of 10 adults do not meet Australia’s recommended physical activity guidelines for health benefits (30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week).”

Insufficient physical activity can lead to health concerns such as heart disease and obesity.

paul cocksedge living staircase

Aesthetically appealing: Paul Cocksedge Living Staircase

A 2013 journal by academics Sarah McGann, Jonine Jancey and Marian Tye promoted a stairs-versus-lift strategy in building design. Public figures such as New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg also support this movement, encouraging New Yorker’s to choose stairs over lifts.

McGann said people may be more likely to take a lift instead of using the stairs in cases where “the language of building design suggests that the lift is best.”

The quality of a building, as detailed by the Property Council of Australia’s Guide to Office Building Quality, recognises lift use as a major grading factor, whereas there is no such credit for stairs.

In addition, a 2009 journal by Gayle Nicoll and Craig Zimring noted that “many building stairwells are inaccessible or unpleasant and elevators are far more convenient.”

Some buildings have even gone to the effort to implement theatrics to their elevator systems. QT Sydney Hotel has installed software which customises songs based on the number of passengers or the time of day. For example, the elevator may play Just the Two of Us when there are two passengers in the lift, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator tagline “hasta la vista, baby!” can play as passengers exit.

Despite the appeal of current elevator designs, the health benefits of stairs are paramount.

The New York City Department of Health even estimated that “walking up the stairs burns almost 700 per cent the number of calories burned standing in an elevator.”

New York City Public Health Campaign

New York City public health campaign

Opting for the stairs also offers ecological benefits by reducing the energy expenditure of buildings that are usually overwhelmed by excessive elevator use.

Initiatives to promote the ‘greenness’ of stairs have been employed in posters as part of a New York City Public Health Campaign that encourages people to “Burn Calories not Electricity. Take the Stairs.” Australia undertook its own campaign promoting stair usage as part of its Find Thirty Everyday campaign, which ran from 2008 to 2010.

Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney

Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney

The active design trend has not gone unnoticed in Australia, with building designs featuring ‘healthy’ staircases. In Sydney, the Australian Human Rights Commission features a central staircase with frameless glass balustrades. In Melbourne, Mirvac’s Yarra’s Edge Project contains around 60 stairs and balustrading.

Through active design, there has been a fusion of architecture and health promotion. The concept of ‘healthier’ buildings is being implemented to encourage physical activity and lifestyles. Opting for stairs alone may not help reach the ideal 30 minutes of activity a day, but it surely is a start.