Stair Tactic

Bruce Fowle, who made his reputation by designing buildings that are nontoxic to people and the planet, now aims to prove that the spaces we inhabit can actively foster good health by encouraging movement. “I had no idea until recently how many regulatory agencies are working against the notion of fitness in buildings,” the architect says. “We had to put elevators big enough for a stretcher in the middle of a private school where, if you are injured, ten friends will carry you. So now students take the elevators one floor.” To counteract the unintended consequences of such safety regulations in three recent projects, Fowle has crafted sunlit staircases to be places where people will gravitate, both to circulate and to socialize. He envisions the stairs inside his buildings functioning the way the front stoop does in an urban neighborhood.

People will naturally choose stairs over elevators, the think­­­ing goes, if you locate them conveniently and treat them as avenues for spontaneous encounters. The New York Times Building, which opened last year in Manhattan and was designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop and FXFowle, accomplished that by putting the fire stairs at the core of each building and using wide red central flights at two of the gossamer corners to connect most of the anchor tenant’s 28 floors. They not only make it easy to dart back and forth between departments but are wide enough to host impromptu exchanges. The design, like Piano’s curtain wall, accents the owner’s interest in gathering information and moving it along as intelligence.

For the two-year-old Martin J. Whitman School of Management, near downtown Syracuse, the strategy was more one of civic connection: a large fan-shaped ramp draws students from the street and upward through the building. Cladding the stairwell, which has sweeping views, in low-emissive glass makes one-flight trips a way of linking the students with the cityscape and the drama of cam­p­us life. “You’re always aware of what’s happening outdoors,” Fowle says. “It’s in your face and a nice human experience.”

Most recently, in the plans for a two-story suburban Philadelphia campus for software company SAP (due to open in 2009), where employees work in teams, Fowle scattered the elevators to keep people circulating within sight and shouting distance of one another. What’s more, he placed the cafeteria that joins the two buildings downstairs, a floor apart from other key people-spotting zones. “I don’t think you would hesitate to take the stairs one floor,” Fowle says. “It’s just common sense.”

Public-health officials have embraced the physical benefits of plan­ning for high density around mass transit; now Fowle wants to affirm a similar approach to building design. Richard Jackson, an influential public-health scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, says that climbing a flight of stairs every day for a year can burn a pound’s worth of calories. Moreover, it promotes mus­cle strength and balance, which help people manage the effects of aging. “You need to build stairways the way we did classically, as places of beauty,” Jackson says.

This “fit buildings” agenda dovetails with corporate cultural needs. “Most institutions are very concerned with promoting interaction,” Fowle says. “Just as daylighting and fresh air appeal to deep in-stinct, it’s important for an office or academic environment that people know one another. You can bring your box lunch and never see anybody, but it’s much better to encourage contact.”

But absent the kind of science that revealed how daylighting made workers more productive, Fowle’s agenda runs afoul of building codes and ingrained habits. The same government agencies that reward energy efficiency relegate staircases to uninviting fire-escape routes, so it’s up to them, the architect challenges, to fund the research that could clinch the argument. “If you’re collecting data on what happens if you eat one meal a day at McDonald’s,” Fowle suggests, “it would be interesting to collect data on a building where people have no choice but to walk.”

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