AIA TAKES THE STAIRS
November 4, 2011 – Mildred Hodge, Director of Payroll for the American Institute of Architects is a jovial, charismatic and vivacious woman. Her speech is bright and effervescent, seemingly strung together with robust laughter and a profound appreciation for life. Asked about stairs, however, her tone becomes more intense “I feel like if I trip, I’m gone; there’s nowhere for me to hold on. So that’s why I don’t usually take them, because there’s a small amount of fear.” Mildred takes the elevator to her fourth floor office.
In his podcast with the AIA’s America’s Design and Health Initiative in October, Rick Bell, FAIA, and AIANY Executive Director asked, “What makes a stair more usable, more friendly, more attractive?” Of AIANY’s own bright stairwell—featured on the cover of Fit-City 1: Promoting Physical Activity through Design—he answers, “We’re able, here in New York City, to have electromagnets hold open our fire doors. People see that the stair is bright, cheerful, painted well, part of our exhibition sequence, and fun to use and they don’t wait for the elevator.”
“The truly beautiful stair,” elaborates Daniel Friedman, PhD, FAIA, in his praise of Making Healthy Places, “is one that beckons us to use it.”
The central stairs of the AIA’s headquarters photograph well—the open stairwell’s bright orange railing hypnotically spirals ten stories to a full skylight—but are they “truly beautiful” if staff prioritize the elevator over the stair? Could modest interventions illustrate the AIA’s commitment to the increasingly complex problems connecting health and the built-environment and yield more usable, more friendly, or more attractive stairs?
More than a dozen staff from across the Institute helped to answer these questions. Combing through myriad resources, some of which can be found in the Center for Value of Design resource library, staff recognized that beyond the health benefits that come with increased physical activity, simple gestures like taking the stairs or bicycling to work are part of a culture shift that supports well-being, sustainable practice and a positive workplace. For example, designing day-lit stairs, like the Institute’s, not only reduces energy consumption attributable to lighting, but creates psychologically more appealing spaces and engenders physical activity which may reduce employee absenteeism. From this, ADHI encouraged staff to increase physical activity, decrease elevator use and take steps toward a “Stair Culture” using wall graphics, social media and personal scorecards.
Inspired by similar endeavors at the New York Department of Design and Construction, Public Health Agency of Canada, and several academic articles that definitively correlate increased stair use with health messages on posters and banners, ADHI developed a 12-poster series exploring the theme “Stair Culture is…” Each poster complete the thought with a fact related to one of three categories: HEALTHY, SUSTAINABLE, or SOCIAL. From the serious (“Running an escalator all day, every day can yield as much CO2 as four cars annually”) to the less serious (“It’s like being at the gym, but you don’t have to wait for a machine”) each factoid encouraged staff to take the stairs.
Following literature trends, which suggest a 10.9% reduction in elevator use could be attainable, staff established a goal of 15% reduction over the course of one week in October. Elevator metrics were prioritized because, as referenced by the U.S. Department of Energy, elevator use not only reduces physical activity, but also typically accounts for 3-10 percent of a building’s energy use. During the week of October 10—14, elevator trips fell from the 4,270 trips, the baseline standard, to 3,650; the 14.5% reduction was just shy of the 15% target goal.
Additional metrics were collected on a voluntary basis. Staff were encouraged to maintain a record of the number of stairs they climbed during the week—the average was 75.8 flights—competitively seeking to out-climb their peers. Of the personal scorecards distributed to staff, there was a 26% response rate. Although the sampling is ineffective for measuring the overall effectiveness of Stair Week, the tool was valuable for conveying the cumulative power small, daily modifications can have on health: walking to a meeting on the next floor may seem uneventful, but walking to the same meeting once a week for a year is comparable to climbing to the top of Chicago’s Willis Tower and could burn as many as 2,540 calories.
“Every time I climbed the stairs, I could feel my heart rate go up which was something that I don’t usually, at least during the day, get to happen very often,” says Mildred who conquered her fear to climb 133 flights of stairs. “I would stop from time-to-time to do calf flexes,” shares Mildred with her characteristic laugh. “I think it helps.”
In the May 1973 issue of Architectural Record, celebrating the then-brand-new AIA headquarters in DC, William L. Slaton, Hon. AIA wrote, “the greatest challenge in the creation of our headquarters lies ahead. It is far less important what the new building is than what it can become.” Today, more than 35 years later, AIA headquarters is becoming a healthier, sustainable, more positive workplace, and it’s beginning with a shift to Stair Culture. “It was a nice shift; one I’m still trying.”