flexiblefullpage -
billboard - default
interstitial1 - interstitial
Currently Reading

Can 'active' building designs make people healthier?

Healthcare Facilities

Can 'active' building designs make people healthier?

By Terrance Perdue, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP BD+C | Gresham Smith | March 7, 2016
Can "active" building designs make people healthier?

The staircase at the GS&P-designed Methodist Olive Branch Hospital helps promote an active lifestyle. Renderings courtesy GS&P

The phrase “environmentally conscious design” typically conjures images of recycled materials and energy efficient systems for lighting and temperature control. Methodist Olive Branch Hospital, which my colleague David Zegley has already discussed in a previous post, is one great example. Today, we’ll focus on another – the 25,000-square-foot (and LEED Gold projected) medical office building GS&P recently designed for Kaiser Permanente in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.

Designed to house everything from primary care, obstetrics and pediatrics to optometry, a pharmacy, imaging and laboratory services, this MOB embodies the connection between between healthy building techniques and a healthier world. With careful planning and client guidance, we drastically improved the facility’s environmental impact by reducing its total water/energy consumption, carbon footprint, and demand for construction materials.

Energy model calculations project the building to perform 34.6% better than AHSRAE 90.1 standards, the benchmark for energy consumption building codes across the U.S. Water consumption will be more than 30% lower than federal government standards, and regionally sourced materials with high-recycled content and low VOC emissions will promote a healthy and inviting interior environment.

But this high-performance building also incorporates another important aspect of environmentally conscious design that often gets overlooked: using the built environment to improve the overall health of its occupants.

A Growing Health Issue

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of Americans do not get enough daily exercise to meet the government’s minimum guidelines for aerobic physical activity. In Maryland, the adult obesity rate has nearly tripled to 29.6% since 1990 while heart disease accounts for nearly a quarter of all deaths and is the leading cause of mortality at both local and national levels. Stroke and diabetes also rank among the top causes of death nationally and in Maryland.

Because adequate physical activity can reduce the risk of all four of these health issues the U.S. Green Building Council has introduced a pilot credit for LEED certification focused entirely on occupant health and physical activity (EQpc78 – Designing for Active Occupants). This concept played a central role in the interior space planning exercises we conducted during the schematic design phase of the new MOB in Anne Arundel County. As we examined the possibilities, we found that very simple changes in the spatial hierarchy and natural progression of the public spaces would provide occupants with an equal opportunity for healthy choices.

These changes to the way we envision our built environments can have a major impact on whether people live an active or sedentary lifestyle. In the case of Kaiser Permanente’s new medical office building, two distinct design factors play the most prominent roles in promoting physical activity.

Stair-Centric Design

The average annual weight gain for adults in the U.S. is about one pound per year, which adds up quickly as the years go by. Fortunately, climbing the stairs for just two extra minutes per day burns enough calories to cancel out the extra pounds. However, stairs in modern healthcare and office buildings often feel like an afterthought. Especially when they get tucked away in dark, low-traffic areas, those “emergency exit” signs can start to feel like they really say “emergency only.”

Here, we brought the stairs out into the open and made them feel like a central part of the building’s circulation system. The main staircase (which doubles as a fire exit) spills directly out into the entrance lobby, an expansive space flooded with natural light. A custom dimensional feature wall begins to engage sensory elements in an exciting way. Natural and artificial light fill the stair core and provide a comfortable level of light for travel and safety. Equal visibility and prominence with the elevators make the stairs an appealing option for everyday use by both visitors and staff. Another set of stairs at the opposite corner of the building, an area vital to employee travel and not served by an elevator, creates a convenient vertical connection between the 2nd and 3rd levels.

Alternative Transportation Options

Another way to quickly promote physical activity among building occupants is by making it easier for them to leave the car at home. In this case, a high-volume bike rack located just outside the main entrance fosters awareness among passersby that riding a bike to their destination is a viable option. Summers in Maryland can get hot, of course, so a public water cooler and a shower/changing facility provide cyclists an opportunity to “freshen up” upon arrival if necessary.

Sustainability isn’t just about the environment anymore. Design leaders must begin to harness the synergy between healthy people and healthy environments, which is why bike storage, changing rooms, and stair-centric designs that encourage physical activity now factor into LEED certification scores. At GS&P, we think carefully about how the spaces we design can encourage people to live healthier, more active and more sustainable lifestyles. What better way to do that than by designing the very structure of a healthcare facility to promote healthy choices?

About the Author: Terrance Perdue is an Intern Architect in GS&P’s Nashville Design Studio and has worked on a variety of healthcare projects since joining the firm in 2015. As a young professional and LEED AP BD+C, he brings a passion and excitement to the dialogue surrounding high-performance building within the office. He hails from Jacksonville, Fla., and earned a Master of Architecture degree from Ball State University after graduating with a Bachelor of Design in Architecture from the University of Central Florida.

More from Author

Gresham Smith | Jan 19, 2023

Maximizing access for everyone: A closer look at universal design in healthcare facilities

Maria Sanchez, Interior Designer at Gresham Smith, shares how universal design bolsters empathy and equity in healthcare facilities.

Gresham Smith | Dec 20, 2022

Designing for a first-in-the-world proton therapy cancer treatment system

Gresham Smith begins designing four proton therapy vaults for a Flint, Mich., medical center.

Gresham Smith | Nov 21, 2022

An inside look at the airport industry's plan to develop a digital twin guidebook

Zoë Fisher, AIA explores how design strategies are changing the way we deliver and design projects in the post-pandemic world.

Gresham Smith | Feb 13, 2022

Helping maximize project dollars: Utility coordination 101

In this post, I take a look at the utility coordination services our Transportation group offers to our clients in an attempt to minimize delays and avoid unforeseen costs.

Gresham Smith | May 7, 2021

Private practice: Designing healthcare spaces that promote patient privacy

If a facility violates HIPAA rules, the penalty can be costly to both their reputation and wallet, with fines up to $250,000 depending on the severity.

Gresham Smith | Mar 4, 2021

Behavior mapping: Taking care of the caregivers through technology

Research suggests that the built environment may help reduce burnout.

Gresham Smith | Feb 10, 2021

Using technology to design better and safer spaces

Our new technology called Gresham Smith’s Empathic Analytics allows us to measure and record a user’s perceived safety.

Gresham Smith | Sep 12, 2019

From project planning to post-construction: Navigating the commissioning process

As building system technology increases in complexity and sustainability remains at the forefront of design, the need for commissioning continues to rise.

Gresham Smith | Feb 12, 2019

The basics of building commissioning

As building system technology increases in complexity and sustainability remains at the forefront of design, the need for commissioning continues to rise. This is the first post in our series examining the basics, benefits and boundaries of building commissioning.

Gresham Smith | Jan 17, 2019

Strategies to improve the human experience during interior renovations

Over the past decade, Flagler Hospital has been undergoing a complex, phased renovation touching every patient room and almost every public space with the aim of improving the patient experience.

boombox1 - default
boombox2 -
native1 -

More In Category


The basics of building commissioning

As building system technology increases in complexity and sustainability remains at the forefront of design, the need for commissioning continues to rise. This is the first post in our series examining the basics, benefits and boundaries of building commissioning.

halfpage1 -

Most Popular Content

  1. 2021 Giants 400 Report
  2. Top 150 Architecture Firms for 2019
  3. 13 projects that represent the future of affordable housing
  4. Sagrada Familia completion date pushed back due to coronavirus
  5. Top 160 Architecture Firms 2021


Magazine Subscription

Get our Newsletters

Each day, our editors assemble the latest breaking industry news, hottest trends, and most relevant research, delivered to your inbox.


Follow BD+C: