Effect of Innovative Building Design on Physical Activity

Employees were more likely to use stairs in a building with innovative "skip-stop" elevator design, according to this study of one strategy intended to "push" employees to incorporate more physical activity into their work day. This article is included in a supplement to the Journal of Public Health Policy regarding the 2008 Active Living Research Conference.

Stair climbing can be a low-cost way for people to add exercise to their day but unappealing, inconvenient stairways can discourage workers from bypassing the elevator. A new California high-rise office offered the opportunity for a "natural experiment" to promote stair use. One side of the building was serviced by a traditional elevator bank and enclosed fire stair; but the other featured an open, appealing stairway and five special elevators: one that stopped on every floor, reserved for those with a special access card due to a disability, and four elevators programmed to stop only on every third floor ("skip-stop"), requiring nondisabled workers to take the open stairs to walk up or down one flight to reach the floors where the elevator did not stop. During the 24-week experiment, technology monitored usage of each stairway. 

Key Findings:

  • The "skip-stop" stair was used 33 times more than the enclosed stair.
  • Nearly 73 percent of participants used the stairs daily, ranging from one to three flights (69%) to four to six (31%) flights.
  • Periodic surveying of employee attitudes about the arrangement reveal people may be more accepting of mandated stair use over time; however, feelings of resentment and resistance do linger.
  • The more flights people had to walk, the less people were satisfied with their workplace and the less cohesive they felt their offices were.
  • Measures of physical activity were not associated with the number of flights walked, except that people who took walks at lunch and break times did use the stairs more.
  • There was an increase in people claiming to have disabilities and requesting an access card to the elevator that stopped on every floor.

Implementing this same arrangement in other structures may be comparatively difficult; this California building had a unique layout and served a single tenant whose security and work patterns could accommodate the open flow between floors. The open stairway also required a variance from fire codes; however, skip-stop elevators could still be implemented in existing buildings that have a nearby fire stair. The practice does appear to offer significant potential for pushing workers into using the stairs more during their work day.