Physio-40 / Health and Architecture

Building Type / Workplace
Location / Chicago, Illinois
Square Footage / 400,000 sq. ft.
Design Tools / Rhino / Vray / Adobe Photoshop / Adobe Illustrator /Adobe InDesign

The human body is designed to engage in physical activity, yet more than 50 percent of the American population does not meet the established recommendations as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sedentary lifestyles have been associated with an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, colon cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Personal and environmental barriers such as lack of knowledge, time, childcare, safety, and facilities prevent Americans from being physically active.

Lifestyle physical activity offers individuals an opportunity to meet the established recommendations through common daily tasks such as walking, biking, and stair climbing. Design research is beginning to focus on the relationship between this type of physical activity and the built environment. At an urban scale, mixed-land use, green space, neighborhood connectivity, public safety, and pedestrian-friendly design have each been associated with increased levels of physical activity. At the building scale, the design of stair systems, skip-stop elevators, roof gardens, spatial organization, and the building program have been equally associated with providing building occupants increased levels of daily physical activity.

This creative project proposes an enhanced model for the design of buildings that places physical activity integration at the forefront of the design process. This building is programmed as an office work environment within the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago and offers a precedent on how to successfully integrate lifestyle and organized physical activity into contemporary architecture.

The Design Project
Physical activity must be addressed at every scale within the built environment.  Cities, neighborhoods, blocks, and buildings together can battle the growing trend of inactivity in America.  A precedent for the successful integration of physical activity in the built environment is essential to establishing an architectural movement. This creative design project researched, analyzed, and implemented physical activity within the micro-scale of a single urban building.  An alternate model for the design of buildings that places physical activity integration at the center of the design process resulted in architecture that promotes lifestyle physical activity.

This study had two main objectives.  The first was to make architects, planners, and other design professionals aware of the impact the built environment has, or can have, on the physical activity levels of its human occupants.  This relationship has been acknowledged in other professional literature pertaining to health and well-being; however, it has been minimally addressed by the design profession.  The second objective was to provide an alternate model for the design of a building that placed physical activity integration at the forefront of the design process.  This created a successful precedent for design professionals and demonstrates how architecture can battle inactivity.  With an understanding of physical activity, its relationship to the built environment, and how it can be implemented within a building, architects and planners can build upon this framework, implementing physical activity at all scales within the built environment.

Establishing this alternate design model for buildings required the selection of three constants: a building type, program, and site.  The selection of these elements should not limit the scope of this research and its application, but provide a framework for integrating physical activity into any building.

Building Type
Office buildings can be considered the most inactive, sedentary environments designed today; however, many American adults have embraced the office environment as a major component of daily life, not acknowledging the negative health effects it can contribute to over an extended period of time.  Sitting within a single cubical throughout a workday has become an accepted practice, providing few opportunities for unstructured or structured physical activity.  Common characteristics of the urban office building include a circulation core containing the main elevator system, services spaces, and enclosed fire stairs.  The elevator, in most cases, is the primary form of vertical circulation throughout the building floors.  Surrounding the core is the main leasable office space, open for tenet flexibility, and many times developed into an expanse of open cubical workspace.  At the building edge, enclosed fire stairs ensure safe egress during emergencies, but provided far from optimal environmental conditions for everyday occupant use.  This is the reality of office buildings across American cities today.

The failure of office buildings to promote and provide physical activity presented an optimal situation in need of evaluation.  An alternative office building, what will be referred to as an office work environment, was developed and designed based on the need for lifestyle physical activity.  Although an office work environment was used as the base for the implementation of physical activity in architecture, the strategies explored and applied in this design have the ability to adapt to other building types and architectural scales throughout the built environment.

Site Selection & Analysis
The process of site selection was required to fulfill the design objectives and goals previously stated.  The selected site, much like the building type and program, should not be viewed as the only location that will allow physical activity to be integrated; rather, it should be understood as one precedent that can be altered and implemented across various sites throughout the United States.  The context for this design project was the West Loop, an urban community adjacent to the downtown business district of Chicago, Illinois.  The region is bordered by Ashland Avenue to the west, Grand Avenue to the north, the Kennedy Expressway to the east, and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Expressway to the south, although it extends all the way to the Chicago River south of Madison Street.

Design program
Programmatic requirements are a reality in the design of office buildings today; however, they were not established in the pre-design phase of this project beyond the definition of the building type, which is an office work environment.  A partial program was conceptually developed throughout the design process, equally informed by the requirements placed on it by lifestyle physical activity and functionality as an office building.  Only the spaces addressing physical activity were programmed within the design, creating an activity core that would remain constant for all building tenants.

This program development process was necessary to allow for the identification of program spaces that promoted, discouraged, or had no effect on an occupant’s physical activity level.  It also aided in establishing programmatic parameters for alternate building types.  The resulting program integrated spaces not commonly included in office buildings today.

The ground level was programmed for both community  members and building occupants.  It contains space for interior bike storage, a workout facility with shared locker rooms, a grocery store, and cafe.  Floors two through seven are programmed for office space requirements including desks, meeting rooms, bathrooms, copy rooms, lounge spaces, and supporting service space.

Within the central atrium, multi-use activity pods are conveniently placed throughout each office floor.  They maintain a visual connection to circulating occupants and the vertical activity park, educating others on different ways to become physically active.  These spaces are programmed for dance, yoga, stretching, recreational activity, aerobics, and light calisthenics.  Occupants can use the spaces before, during, or after the workday, blurring the lines between office work and physical activity.

Conceptual Idea Development
Conceptual development of the design project began with a series of idea based sketches, with the goal of establishing multiple concepts that relate directly to physical activity in architecture.   Conceptual building axon drawings, sections, elevations, and plans explored site and building circulation, building massing, scale, vertical organization, site constraints and opportunities, pedestrian access, green space integration, and formal expression.

This investigation established the following design concepts:

  • extension of Heritage Green Park onto the site and into the building form
  • vertical garden activity space integrated within a main central atrium
  • grand stair lining the central atrium and garden activity space
  • decentralized office building core (HVAC, elevators)
  • integration of skip-stop elevators
  • convergence of site circulation within the central atrium space
  • node on each floor and roof to increase vertical stair use
  • program spaces promoting physical activity scattered throughout with visual accessibility

Formal Development
The formal development process utilized the concepts and ideas previously establish through sketching and applied them to a digital massing model.  Other factors informing the manipulation of the geometry included sun altitude, sun azimuth, interior views to the street, access points, node locations, circulation, daylighting, garden integration, building structure, and site connection.

The vertical circulation system provided an opportunity for physical activity integration in very limited, yet valuable amounts.  Although you must walk stairs continuously for 10 minutes for the activity to count toward daily requirements, it does burn approximately 8.6-9.6 times the energy used while at rest.

The standard building core established in the majority of office buildings today was decentralized.  Two skip-stop elevators and the HVAC vertical shafts were located at the extents of the building, making them less prominent but still accessible to the building occupants.  Generously sized fire stairs are design for everyday use and are located at each corner of the building form, providing optimal daylight and views toward downtown Chicago.

Green Space & Gardens
Green space and gardens provide valuable space for physical activity in both structured and unstructured forms.  A garden platform, connecting the street to the second level lobby, was created, visually linking the building design to Heritage Green Park, located adjacent to the site.  The garden platform, consisting of annual and edible gardens, extends vertically through the building atrium to a destination garden located on the roof.  The integration of vegetation into the atrium and vertical circulation system creates an activity park, promoting stair use and physical movement.

A feature stair highlights the perimeter of the vertical activity park which is located centrally within the building volume.  It provides a convenient, well-lit, visible, and dynamic way to travel from floor-to-floor.

Concluding Thoughts
This investigation revealed many opportunities, as well as challenges, that architects, planners, and other design professionals will face when attempting to integrate lifestyle physical activity into architectural design.  Code and zoning ordinances, accessibility, programmatic requirements, limited budgets, and site constraints are only a few of the challenges future designers will encounter when dealing with this issue.  The largest issue yet to be overcome is the idea of self-selection.  Although this design project has shown the ability to keep users physically active, it is up to them to take the initiative.  The building occupants will ultimately make the design great.

This design project has taken a step toward acknowledging the problem of inactivity in American, and established a successful precedent for solving many of the challenges and constraints that exist in American cities today.  It should not be viewed as a solution to the problem, rather an attempt to initiate architectural thinking within the realm of physical activity.  The physical health of our national is at stake, and if architects don’t lead the way, who will?

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