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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine


Stepping up

Architect’s research explores how buildings can do a body good

Gayle Nicoll has dedicated much of her research to finding what factors will most encourage people to take the stairs. So when she steps on an elevator, well … she feels a little guilty. “I do use the elevators,” she says. “But I have to admit I feel like Martha Stewart baking a Betty Crocker cake.”


Well-designed and well-placed stairs such as those in these UTSA buildings can impact health and fitness, says architecture professor Gayle Nicoll. Pictured are the Main Building and the Biotechnology, Sciences and Engineering Building.

For Nicoll, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Architecture at UTSA, taking the stairs isn’t just about burning off the calories from Betty Crocker brownies (or Martha Stewart’s, for that matter). It’s about the functionality of architecture. And her research, which explores how buildings can do a body good, may well change the future of American design.

The key, she says, is exploring “how buildings can impact health, both positively and negatively, and specifically how building design can promote health.”

In other words, making staircases more convenient than elevators. Planning well-lit hallways so people will walk to one another’s desks to talk rather than firing off an e-mail. Offering employees who want to bike to work a safe place to stow their bicycles. And providing shower facilities.

The connection between architecture and activity has never been more important, Nicoll argues. As people spend more time inside, design elements—even things as simple as heavy doors that don’t open automatically—become a fitness factor for the folks who utilize that building.

That sort of thinking has attracted interest from architects, developers and cities—including New York City, which is slated to launch design guidelines for active-living buildings in June based on Nicoll’s research. Adopted by the city’s director of building and design, the guidelines will be “strongly suggested” for Big Apple municipal buildings, with the hope that it will trickle down into the rest of the city’s architectural and urban planning. The guidelines look at everything from opportunities for physical activity inside a building to the convenience of getting active on the streets that surround it. Nicoll, who received a grant to research whether the guidelines are also adopted more broadly in the area, will serve as a consultant for the initiative.

Making physical activity part of a building’s plan is smart design, Nicoll says. “We spend 90 percent of our time indoors. We sleep, we play, we work mostly in buildings. And so in lots of ways, one wonders whether architects can influence the environment by making it healthier, by making a building less convenient and making it more active.”

Something as simple as climbing 20 flights of stairs a week—think of it as four flights every work day—can have a dramatic impact on health, Nicoll says. “Taking the stairs is the greatest opportunity for physical activity that exists,” she says. “Stairs don’t require special membership, or special clothing or special skills. But climbing them will improve your health.”

So why don’t more people do it?

Mainly, Nicoll’s research has found, because elevators are just so darn convenient. And stairs? Not so much. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation: as elevators grew in popularity, architects could build taller buildings, and as buildings grew taller, elevators became more important. That meant architects tended to tuck the stairs away in an out-of-the-way corner, which meant people turned to the elevators, even when they were only going up or down a few flights.

That’s bad for health and for architecture, Nicoll says. “Think back to these wonderful buildings with a grand staircase,” she says. “The staircase was an important part of your sense of entry or exit in a building. It gave it drama.”

- Jennifer Roolf Laster

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