print logo
© 2020
International Interior Design Association

Chicago, IL
Toll Free: 888 799 4432
International: +01 312 467 1950

Designers are Motivators

By Jan Stone

Could something as seemingly simple as a well-placed, alluring staircase save a life? Many interior designers are finding that an invaluable solution to one of the world's largest problems may be as straightforward as convincing people to opt for a flight of stairs over an elevator.

Joan Blumenfeld, IIDA, FAIA, LEED AP, Principal at Perkins + Will in New York, considers a well-situated stairwell perhaps the single most obvious way in which a designer can help stem the obesity epidemic, which causes diseases of the heart, lungs and circulatory systems, as well as a host of other illnesses.

Of course, it's not just staircases that can help reverse the obesity trend. From creating collaborative work environments that encourage constant movement to allowing for plentiful daylight access, interior designers can have a direct positive impact on public health and well-being.

According to the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Institute of Medicine report, Does the Built Environment Influence Physical Activity?, "the available empirical evidence shows an association between the built environment and physical activity. . Those responsible for the design and construction of residences, developments and supporting transportation infrastructure should be encouraged to provide more activity-friendly environments."

The need for interior designers to step up to the plate is great and immediate. "Designers have a unique opportunity to address the obesity problem through identifying and creating aspects of the workplace, homes, schools, and urban and community plans that promote a healthier lifestyle," says Michael I. Goran, Ph.D., Professor at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine and Director of USC's Childhood Obesity Research Center.

Costs of the epidemic vary. But an October 2007 study from the Milken Institute, led by former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, estimates the total U.S. economic impact, calculated on the cost of preventable chronic diseases, at $1.3 trillion annually; $1.1 trillion of that represents lost productivity costs. In Europe, the World Health Organization reports, adult obesity accounts for as much as 6 percent of direct health costs.

So what's behind it all? "Over the past half century or longer, major technological innovations - automation and the consequent decline of physically active occupations, laborsaving devices in the home and dominance of the automobile for personal travel - have substantially reduced the physical requirements of daily life," the TRB Institute of Medicine report says.

But the report goes on to say that efforts to reverse the epidemic require interdisciplinary, international collaboration to leverage the expertise of the architecture and design, public health, physical activity, urban planning and transportation research communities, among others.

Fortunately, a staggering number of international groups are working to stem the epidemic, including many professional design associations such as IIDA, AIA, AAHID and ASID.

IIDA's Healthcare Forum, for instance, is designed specifically to address pressing health-related issues such as obesity. It does so through Webinars and collaboration with other organizations. Linda Gabel, IIDA, AAHID, IIDA Healthcare Forum Advisor, has also hosted a series of programs to address the bariatric population and their specific needs in this regard. AIA's New York Chapter, of which Blumenfeld was 2007 president, conducts annual programs such as 2007's Fit-City 2: Promoting Physical Activity Through Design, which brought together academia, government, USGBC, IIDA and others to discuss issues.

Many other groups have programs in conjunction with researchers at colleges and universities, where grants are given by various private and government entities. The first global alliance united solely to address obesity prevention is the International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO). It consists of five principal medical nongovernmental organizations formally linked to the World Health Organization: the World Heart Federation, the International Diabetes Federation, the International Pediatric Association, the International Union of Nutritional Sciences and IASO itself.

The interior design community is poised to take on one of the largest leadership roles in its history, as it works to ensure all of these research results are put into action with solutions.

Responding With Solutions

Blumenfeld insists strong advocacy positions are critical. "As designers, we have the ability to proselytize, and we must make every effort to do so. When you reach into the built environment, you affect lots of people," she says. "It's a great way for any business, school, municipality or healthcare facility to communicate to staff that the powers-that-be care about their employees' health."

She put these principles to practice in a number of ways as President of AIA's New York Chapter, literally changing New York City's City Hall. Blumenfeld wrote a letter, co-signed by IIDA, to Mayor Michael Bloomberg suggesting he integrate the healthful interior designs of his corporate offices into city buildings. "He and his office embrace the notions," she says. "He advocates transparency in government, and he literally created that transparency [through design]."

At City Hall, walls came down and, where necessary, were replaced with glass, providing light access and transparency for employees. The mayor sits in a workstation surrounded by more than 50 employees, also in workstations instead of behind closed doors, making it difficult to be sedentary. "Workstations make it easier to communicate," Blumenfeld says.

Blumenfeld also worked with New York's Department of Construction and Administrative Services (DCAS) to arrange a symposium to highlight the importance of high-performance, sustainable and healthful Interior Design. Besides final decision-makers, many DCAS staffers responsible for procuring product and services are also encouraged to attend. "Though we know municipal processes are slow to change, giving information to DCAS staffers about some things they can easily affect - knowing about the chemicals in paints, materials used in furnishings - can make a difference toward providing a healthier environment," Blumenfeld says.

Get Moving

Simply getting people up and walking is a great start, says Gabel, Senior Associate at NBBJ in Columbus, Ohio. "We, as socially responsible interior designers, need to be thinking of experiential ways to get the population moving," she says. "Providing pleasant stairwells and walking routes so the journey is part of the experience is one way. Big landings can become places where people connect."

USC's Goran says designers should "plan spaces and buildings that integrate physical activity into their utility, thus enabling users to be more physically active in an enjoyable way." Interior designers can provide incentives for end-users to get up and move. "Examples could be placing elevators at the end of the hallway instead of the beginning, requiring users to walk past interesting building features or artwork, or designing parking lots further from the entrance but incorporating some attractive landscaping," he says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), through its "StairWELL to Better Health" initiative, found solid numbers linking design and physical activity. A team transformed grungy stairwells located near elevators in the Rhodes Building in Atlanta. They incorporated brightly colored paint, framed artwork depicting people being active, carpeting, strategically placed motivational signage and background music.

Of the building's 554 permanent employees, there was nearly a 9 percent increase in stairwell usage. "That may not seem like a lot of people, but when you consider such an increase nationwide, that's a lot more active people," says Tim Hensley, Media Relations for the CDC's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity. "It's been successful enough that we're going nationwide with it."

But Gabel suggests interior designers think beyond increasing walkability and mobility. "Normalizing biorhythms can't be overlooked either; therefore, access to natural daylight plays a huge role," she says. "It helps decrease depression, known to cause overeating, and maintains healthy circadian cycles. Providing a long view of the exterior world, not just three feet in front of someone, helps body rhythms stay healthier and enables better sleep. Individuals more rested are less likely to eat poorly."

Change brought on by interior designers can't happen fast enough, especially considering the CDC obesity map, says Craig Zimring, Ph.D., Environmental Psychologist and Professor of Architecture at Georgia Institute of Technology, who has spent his career studying the integration of physical activity into daily routines.

Change brought on by interior designers can't happen fast enough, especially considering the CDC obesity map, says Craig Zimring, Ph.D., Environmental Psychologist and Professor of Architecture at Georgia Institute of Technology, who has spent his career studying the integration of physical activity into daily routines.

According to the CDC, no U.S. state reported an adult obesity rate of 20 percent or more in 1996. Compare that to 2006, when just four states — Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii and Massachusetts — reported less than a 20-percent obesity rate. That year, the latest with available data, two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, had obesity rates of more than 30 percent.

"But there is hope. "When designers are conscious of their decisions, especially the evidence linking design to health and behavior outcomes, the results are significant, be it on an urban scale or at home or in the office," Zimring says. Adds James A. Levine, M.D., Ph.D., of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., "We've got to stop discouraging people from working on being healthy wherever they can. So many work two jobs, have a family to support and no time or money to go to a gym. Why shouldn't we make the workplace healthier?"
Put Into Action

When Giselle Newman Young, IIDA, ASID, first conceived in the '90s the idea for interior design and architecture firm Environments in Life, her goal was to create a vehicle to put research into action - designing healthful environments, primarily in the healthcare, corporate and hospitality industries. "As designers, we know obesity is an epidemic," says the Nashville, Tenn.- based designer. "And we can't just satisfy the problem, we must help solve it."

Giselle Newman Young is passionate about incorporating design measures to curb the overweight/ obesity problem. "It's too easy for some designers to give into the 'big boys,' the ones who want the fast-food restaurant in their lobby because it'll pay big dollars per square foot," she says. "If our role is to educate, we have to be willing to stand up to decision-makers to make choices for healthier lifestyles and buy into wellness first."

She believes in creating environments where it is more pleasant to walk a short distance and use stairs instead of an elevator. Interior Design, she says, involves these issues as much as sustainability or any other hot-button issue. The key is to participate in the construction process early on.

"We've got to get involved during the master-plan process, along with the developer. Or we've got to present enough compelling information when we get involved to get clients to change plans if they aren't supporting a healthy lifestyle," Newman Young says. One project her firm is working on is a mixed-use medical complex in Somerset, Ky.

One project her firm is working on is a mixed-use medical complex in Somerset, Ky. The client wants the campus to represent healthful surroundings. The paths to different buildings encourage getting a breath of fresh air instead of trying to find the closest parking space. Newman Young's team incorporated quaint brick streets and designed facilities a good walking distance from one to another.

The interiors interact with the outdoors as much as possible. "We're using windows to bring the outside in, so people have a nice, long view. We try to design our corridors with windows," Newman Young says. She also strategically places non-egress stairwells. "The stairwells are more visible than the elevator where we can do so to encourage their use," she says. "We've also designed areas a level up so people will take the stairs. There's a respite area on the second floor of one building for the workers. There's a library, but it's not on the first floor either."

With this particular client, Newman Young took her own advice. "I knew this doctor was eventually going to need bigger facilities. I'd send information about different healthy options as it became available. When he was ready to move, he called me in along with the developer," she says. "That's how I get my work. I keep talking about the importance of this issue."

Spreading the word about the problem and what interior designers can do to solve it, she says, is crucial. "It's all about education. We have to keep talking, giving information to the public and our clients and prospects," she adds. "We have a huge responsibility."

The Right Tools

Interior designers alone can't improve public health. Product designers, the medical community and others also are working to find solutions to overweight and obesity problems.

One such example is the Walkstation, the brainchild of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based office furniture company Steelcase's Details division and the Mayo Clinic's James A. Levine, M.D., Ph.D. This height-adjustable workstation with an integrated treadmill was created to improve the daily habits of sedentary workers. It allows users to walk on the treadmill, type on a keyboard and view a monitor simultaneously.

Levine, Endocrinologist and Obesity Researcher, along with his research staff, was studying how spontaneous activity affects weight and ultimately pioneered NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis), which explains the influence of metabolism on obesity. It was through this research that he created the "Office of the Future" and devised the treadmill-desktop prototype, which evolved into the Walkstation.

"People want to lose weight for different reasons. It's not solely so they can eliminate diabetes. It's so they can go to the park, play with their kids. No one wants to be [unhealthy], but how many have the time or money to go to a gym after work?" Levine says. Thus, he searches for solutions where the population spends most of its time - at work or school.

"It's very practical," says Klipa. He expects units will be shared - one for every four to five employees. "I've been connected to Steelcase for 23 years and never seen any one product strike such a nerve. Our goal is to help people feel healthier when they're leaving the office than when they came in, and I think we've found one of the solutions."

With help from global product and industrial design group IDEO, Steelcase's Details division is now working on an extended FitWork line, inspired by the recent introduction of the Walkstation.

"Corporate wellness programs aren't novel," Klipa says. "This is simply the logical next step: wellness provided at work."