Active Design: Promoting Physical Activity in Buildings Through Design

Canadian Architect magazine’s editor Elsa Lam wrote about the decline of physical activity in our everyday lives and its impact on public health, particularly for those who sit in a chair all day long. However, she only briefly mentions the broader implications it has for urban design professionals and the role they can play in promoting physical activity within the built environment. Considering that people spend 90 percent of their time indoors, it’s a topic worth exploring more in detail.

Strategies to facilitate or improve physical activity within the built environment have been well explored and implemented at the community and city scale. Walkable pedestrian-oriented streets, bike paths, green space, mixed-use development – these are concepts familiar to architects, planners, developers and other urban design professionals. Due in part to our culture’s glorification of “convenience”, however, strategies to facilitate physical activity in individual buildings may be less familiar.

Active Design Guidelines

Luckily, there exists the Active Design Guidelines, created by the Center for Active Design in New York City. Based on the latest research and best practices in the field, the guidelines identify strategies that designers can incorporate into their projects that create opportunities for daily physical activity.

The Guidelines focus on four key areas:

  1. Circulation systems: Design interior spaces, corridors, stairs, elevators, and lobbies that connect a building’s programmed spaces

  1. Individual elements: Incorporate appealing, accessible, and comfortable elements, such as stairs, exercise rooms, and drinking fountains; de-emphasize elements that deter physical activity, such as elevators, poorly-lit corridors, and hallways with locked doors, and non-ergonomic designs.

  1. Programming: Organize the building program in a way that encourages walking between destinations.

  1. Activity spaces: Provide spaces designated as venues for physical activity, such as exercise rooms and multipurpose rooms.

The Value of Active Design

Active design strategies also provide other added benefits. It can add value to spaces that what would otherwise be considered “valueless”. For example, when was the last time you actually enjoyed using the stairwell of a large commercial building? Designing for conveniently-located and daylit stairwell (and while you’re at it, why not also add some artwork and music?), however, can make all the difference between choosing to walk up a few flights of stairs and waiting to take the elevator.

Better Design for Better Habits

For better or worse, humans are creatures of habit. Observe any public place with stairs next to an escalator and what you’ll most likely see is a majority of able-bodied people who choose to “ride” the escalator rather than walk the stairs. This is often not a conscious decision, but rather a habit that’s been formed subconsciously.

As Ms. Lam rightly pointed, this is a cultural issue, not a design problem. Even so, there still exist opportunities to influence behaviour through design. Designers could use environmental psychology to their advantage. Simple prompts can be used to create better habits. New York City, for example, has implemented a successful campaign that uses simple signage to encourage people to “Burn Calories, Not Electricity. Take the Stairs!

Active Design and Sustainability

Active design principles can complement a project’s other priorities and goals, including sustainability. In fact, human health and wellness have been identified by many as the next phase of market transformation in the green building industry. It also reinforces environmental goals: just think about the energy saved with minimized process loads for elevators and escalators.

The latest version of LEED (LEED v4) allows projects to earn credit for implementing active design principles through the new “Design for Active Occupants” innovation credit. Projects seeking to adopt the Living Building Challenge (LBC), the world’s most extensive and holistic green building certification system, can also benefit from adopting active design strategies.  In order for buildings to be certified as “Living” they must incorporate strategies that emphasize civilized and humane spatial environments and are intended solely for human delight.

Future of Active Design

Active design is a topic that few are currently familiar with. However, as the evidence for the health hazards that result from sitting in a chair all day continues to grow, it is one that will surely gain traction.


Photo credit: Lisa Elaine Gillanders