The Region of Peel plans to incorporate active design strategies at other facilities within its portfolio after a successful pilot in two of its administrative buildings reduced average sitting times and increased stair trips and walking activities, report two members of the project team.
Treadmill desks — or walk stations, as they called them — were one of the most popular solutions to be introduced through the pilot. Other, low- and no-cost strategies were to apply decals to stairwell doors and supply fewer seats than people in fixed standing meeting rooms.
The pilot was aimed at promoting more physical activity and less sedentary behaviour through design, which aligns with the municipality’s 20-year vision for a community that enables its residents to thrive at all ages. It occurred as organizations are increasingly recognizing the impact of the built environment on health and well-being, observed Lee-Ann Kosziwka, a workplace health specialist at the Region of Peel.
“Design as a solution to a health problem is not new,” she said, speaking in the IIDEX seminar Changing Course Through Supportive Workplace Design.
Public health issue recognized
Kosziwka pointed to the roles of neighbourhood design, sewer infrastructure and clean-water policies in curbing mortality due to communicable diseases in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
“Fast-forward to the 21st century and communicable diseases remain low,” she said. “However, rates of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, and the risk factors, such as sedentary behaviour, lack of physical activity and unhealthy eating, are increasing at an alarming rate.”
Kosziwka characterized this as a public health issue, noting campaigns encouraging people to adopt a nutritious diet and exercise regularly have failed to stop this trend. What’s more, she said, it has been well-established that engaging in physical activity off the job can’t undo the negative effects of physical inactivity on the job, which is exacerbated by design features that place everything a worker needs within desk’s reach.
The recently launched FitWel certification and WELL Building Standards have acknowledged the importance of the built environment in promoting health in the workplace. The Region of Peel’s pilot may have begun as an initiative of the public health department, but it brought together a range of stakeholders, including the facilities, workplace design and innovation team.
Nicole Fratipietro, a designer at the Region of Peel, said the pilot targeted office areas, stairwells and outdoor spaces with the goal of identifying strategies that would have applications across the municipality’s portfolio.
Employees test active furniture
Active furniture was introduced to the office areas in phases, which Fratipietro noted gave employees the opportunity to test different products before they were procured in larger quantities.
One strategy was to integrate a height-adjustable component into the work surfaces of the traditionally styled desks. Fratipietro said a crank-operated option was ruled out, due to the risk of shoulder injuries caused by repetitive stress, as was a difficult-to-use pin-leg option.
“We don’t have the resources to go in and adjust a surface every time staff want to sit or stand, so we ended up settling with electric desks,” said Fratipietro.
But the electric desks had limited applications in meeting rooms due to the availability, or unavailability, of floor monuments, she said, so this solution was complemented with the addition of counter-height chairs paired with standing-height tables.
“For our meeting rooms that had 10-staff capacity, we ended up only providing eight seats,” added Fratipietro. “This ensured that if we had a meeting of 10, at least two had to be standing.”
The walk stations were initially tested in enclosed areas in anticipation that the equipment would generate noise, among other reasons. The walk stations were later moved to the corridor to give them improved visibility. This also exposed them to natural light, and some were positioned in pairs to facilitate walking meetings.
“We purposefully called them walk stations because we don’t want people to think it’s a workout machine,” added Kosziwka.
Steps to improve stairwell use
Next, the project team turned its attention to improving the aesthetics, safety and wayfinding of the stairwells, which starkly contrasted some of the internal staircases being integrated into new offices.
“They were stairwells to get from point A to point B in case of emergency — they were not used by staff,” said Fratipietro. “Staff came in, took the elevator, went to their floors and did their daily tasks.”
Temporary, and later permanent, signage was posted in the elevator lobbies and above the doors into the stairwells to point staff in the right direction. Door wraps — a low-cost product that Kosziwka said was easy to install, maintain and replace — introduced images intended to entice employees to take the alternative route to move between floors.
Rubberized guardrails, grips on the steps and photo-luminescent strips were installed to enhance safety, as were the fire-rated doors, which were specified in a glazed option — another visual cue reminding employees of the option to take the stairs, as Kosziwka pointed out.
Bright paint colours were applied to perk up the walls of the landings on each floor, which later provided a backdrop for art installations featuring local landmarks, which were subsequently showcased with new lighting. Similarly, images of employees and their families participating in physical activity were installed along the corridor connecting the stairwells to the main elevator lobbies to enliven the long path.
Fratipietro said this exercise engaged employees as the project team called on them to submit photos and vote for their favourites.
Amenities attract outdoor activity
Encouraging employees to spend time outside would prove more challenging at the south administrative building, which is located in an industrial park, than at the north administrative building, which has access to a park. Fratipietro said some of the solutions applied through the pilot came from University of Guelph architecture and design students, who were invited to look at the site plan and make recommendations.
Bike shelters were introduced to make it easier for employees to choose an eco-friendly mode of transportation to get to and from work, while adding cardiovascular activity to the start and end of their day. And walking trails were created to give employees an opportunity to increase their step count over the lunch hour, with motivational messages posted along the three paths, which are marked with their distance, steps and time.
New outdoor fitness equipment was accompanied by instructions to make it just as accessible to citizens as it is to employees. Fratipietro said this was aimed at modelling publicly owned private spaces, or POPS as they are known.
She added that an outdoor ping-pong table introduced around the same time brought together co-workers — some formerly unacquainted — for friendly competitions and the occasional meeting.
“There’s no corporate hierarchy at the ping-pong table,” observed Kosziwka.
Fratipietro said employees wanted to play ping-pong through the winter, so they’ve requested an indoor table, which speaks anecdotally to the success of this solution.
The pilot itself was measured against established guidelines as well as through employee surveys and observation.
Measures quantify pilot impact
Pneumatic sit-to-stand desks scored highest among the active furniture on ease of use and work effectiveness in an employee survey, Kosziwka reported. Participants spent anywhere from 12 to 24 fewer minutes sitting per day, on average, according to a mix of self-reporting and booking data. Booking data also revealed that the ‘walk stations’ were the best-used active furniture.
The stairwells saw a stampede of new foot traffic following the improvements undertaken during the pilot — infrared sensors recorded 811 more trips per day, Kosziwka said. She added that the upgrades to the stairwells and outdoors spaces during the pilot checked the boxes of most of the recommendations contained in the Center for Active Design’s guidelines. And observation suggested that walking activities had tripled thanks to the changes made to the outdoor spaces.
“I know that there is a real desire to demonstrate an improvement to productivity,” said Kosziwka. However, she added, “Don’t feel the pressure with productivity, because there are other ways to evaluate and demonstrate the impact of what you’re doing.”
Successes to be replicated
Fratipietro credited leadership support, stakeholder collaboration and employee engagement with the success of the pilot. She also said the process of testing different solutions in phases gave the project team an understanding of the reasons certain strategies were effective and others weren’t.
The Region of Peel is now applying active design strategies to paramedic and public works facilities.
Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.