In Praise of Stairs

According to Peter Walker, they are a "magic pill" that will extend your life.

Stairway to Nowhere
Stairway to Nowhere. Fontainebleu Hotel.

Lloyd Alter

The photo above is the famous "Stairway to Nowhere" in the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. It actually does lead somewhere; to a small coatroom, designed so that, as described by Maura Judkis, "the beautiful people could leave their jackets and then swan down the stairs, catching the eye of everyone below."

Architects don't do that anymore; that's why Treehugger used to feature the Stair of the Week, because "making good stairs is an important part of green design; you want people to use them instead of elevators in bigger buildings, and you want to get tighter, more efficient plans in smaller ones." We have noted that they are good for your health, quoting Dr. David Alter [no relation] who says exercise is medicine. "I was struck by the consistency in how important that exercise pill was for health and survival." He tells the CBC that he recommends "doing less intense types of activity, such as climbing stairs, walking a few blocks at a brisk pace, or sweeping instead of vacuuming."

Now Peter Walker, a political columnist for the Guardian, has taken this idea further, writing a book titled "The Miracle Pill." The appropriately named Walker is also a cyclist (his last book I reviewed was "How Cycling can Change the World") and picks up on the idea of exercise as medicine: "Imagine if you were a medical researcher and you discovered a drug which would improve people’s health outcomes on the scale of cycle commuting. A Nobel Prize would be more or less guaranteed."

He describes how physical activity has declined in the UK, but it is nothing like what has happened in North America where the only walking most people do is to their car.

"What has happened? The short answer is that everyday physical activity more or less disappeared from the world. Regular, informal, unplanned exertion, an integral part of virtually every human life since the first Homo sapiens hunted and foraged, was designed out of existence, and with astonishing rapidity."

This is still happening, as we tell Alexa to turn on our smart bulbs instead of the small act of getting up to flick a light switch. (I did the math for an earlier post and found that using my phone to control my Hue bulbs, instead of getting up to use the switch, adds up to a quarter-pound of weight gain per year.)

There is so much stuff relevant to Treehugger in this book that I cannot cover all the issues and points in one post; the issues here about exercise, walkability, and cycling have been themes on Treehugger since we started. It is all particularly relevant for aging baby boomers like me:

"Staying active as you age is a huge predictor of how likely you are to remain healthy and independent. Regular physical exertion has been shown to affect everything from strength and balance (and thus the likelihood of falling) to bone mass and cognitive ability, as well as the risks of developing all sorts of debilitating illnesses. To borrow the Ralph Paffenbarger maxim: ‘Anything that gets worse as you grow older gets better when you exercise.'"

Which is why I always take the stairs, and bang on so much about how they should be generous and inviting. Walker notes how they rarely are, and are often impossible to even find.

"Think about the last time you walked into an office block or large hotel. Almost certainly, the lifts would have been in direct view. But the stairs? If you wanted to climb even a single flight you would probably have had to hunt along a corridor for the recessed fire door, made sure you didn’t set off an alarm in opening it, and then trekked up a generally blank, narrow, windowless stairwell in the hope you could open the door at your destination. It’s not exactly intuitive."

It should be noted that comfortable, plentiful, and prominent elevators are a must for those who are disabled or neurodiverse and cannot comfortably take the stairs, and monumental in-your-face stairs shouldn't intimidate those who can't use them.

BDO Building in Copenhagen

Lloyd Alter

Consider the most wonderful office building stair I have ever seen, in the BDO building in Copenhagen. There are elevators beside it that will do the same job of getting you to the upper floors, but it really invites and encourages you to take the stairs. Walker writes:

"I am a stair user by preference, in part because of a mild dislike of lifts. Sadly, this preference comes at a cost. Like most such people I could recount numerous examples of hunting vainly down hotel or office corridors for the telltale ‘Fire exit’ sign, not to mention the times I have accidentally triggered an alarm or found the stairwell doors only open from the outside, leaving me trapped in a windowless, fluorescent-lit concrete purgatory."

This is a situation I know well, particularly now during the pandemic when I refuse to get on an elevator. Fortunately, the highest I have had to climb is eight floors to my dentist's office, where there is a constant stream of people coming down the 4-foot wide stair while I am going up. They should really make them one way, but the other stair is as Walker describes: every door is alarmed and they don't open from the stairwell side. Walker continues:

"The architecture of staircase use is a subject which might not immediately win you an audience at parties [no wonder people move away from me at parties] but is considerably more interesting than it might seem. I sought out experts to explain why stairwells are so often cramped, interior, unappealing and hard-to-find places. The obvious answer is that they are primarily also fire stairs, which to an extent dictates the design. It is possible to construct buildings with both fire stairs and another, more welcoming set of steps, but that adds to the costs."
Stair in Munich
Apartment stairway in Munich.

Lloyd Alter

This is often a function of building codes. In North America, for example, apartments all open on to a corridor that leads to one of two fire exits at either end. An attractive stair in a useful, central location is often superfluous to the code, adding cost and deducting valuable floor area. In Austria and Germany, in buildings up to eight stories, the apartments can open directly onto landings around these grand open stairs with a big smoke hatch at the top, and fire-separated balconies on the exterior. This one code difference on its own makes it possible to make smaller, more efficient buildings with glorious stairs that many people use.

After the Grenfell fire, I promised I would never complain about North American fire safety design protocols again, but these European buildings have a track record of safety and these are very different buildings from Grenfell, so I am reneging on that promise. Because as Peter Walker notes, it makes a huge difference:

"It goes without saying that habitual stair use brings health benefits, and equally inevitably these have been proved via long-term mass studies. A 2019 paper using some of the decades of data from the Harvard Alumni Health Study, first developed by Ralph Paffenbarger, found that even after factoring out all other activity, habitual stair climbers (those who ascended thirty-five or more flights a week) had just 85 percent of the mortality risk over the course of the study than those whose weekly average was ten or fewer."
Stairs in the Terry Thomas Building
Stairs in the Terry Thomas Building.

Lloyd Alter

It's also a great way to burn up calories; I loved the way Weber Thompson Architects marked the stairs in their Terry Thomas Building in Seattle with the calories or watt-hours you burned climbing each step, as a way of encouraging their staff to avoid the elevator.

Frank Gehry Stair in Art Gallery of Ontario
Frank Gehry Stair in Art Gallery of Ontario.

Lloyd Alter

A beautiful stair can draw you in and up, like Frank Gehry's does at the Art Gallery of Ontario; it is a serious hike, right through the roof of the old building into the new addition on top.

There are many things to learn from Peter Walker's book, but one thing all architects should consider is to stop creating built environments "biased against human movement," and to end "the conspiracy of the hidden staircase."

UPDATE: Laura-Maria Tiidla of the International Sport and Culture Association sends us a video filmed on that BDO stair that I liked so much. It is apparently popular!

UPDATE: I asked Peter Walker what his favorite stair was. He covers Parliament for the Guardian and replied:

"My favourite flight of stairs is actually a fairly unappealing one. It’s in the Houses of Parliament, and goes from ground level to the corridor where the media rooms are located. It’s probably about four or five stories up, but it’s hard to tell as the layout of the building is so odd - for the first few floors there are no exits, and there are no windows. Like much of parliament, it’s pretty old and not in the best of condition - the carpets are worn, the paint on the walls is stained, and dotted with old pictures of parliamentary journalists from the Victorian age. I like these stairs as - in normal times, when I carry out my day job in parliament - I go up and down them about a dozen times a day, and I’m aware how much activity they give me. There is a very small elevator, which I occasionally use if I’m carrying back a tray of coffees to my work colleagues, but it’s so tiny and prone to breaking down that it’s not that alluring."