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Written by Helen Hill - Special to the BT   
April 2013

The concept of Active Design in architecture comes to Miami

A ActiveDesign_1few years ago the message “You are where you live” alluded to the sophisticated lifestyles offered by new condominium developments. Now the concept of “Active Design,” integrating architecture, planning, and personal health in cities, neighborhoods, and individual buildings, takes living well to a whole new level.

The Center for Active Design in New York evolved as a response to the current public health epidemics of obesity and related chronic diseases. By increasing opportunities for daily physical activity and healthy eating, urban designers can play a crucial role in preventing and controlling these problems.

For example, did you know that just two additional minutes of stair-climbing a day -- about six floors -- can burn enough calories to offset the average U.S. adult’s annual weight gain? Studies indicate that improving access to places for physical activity can result in a 25-percent increase in the number of people who exercise at least three times a week.

ActiveDesign_2In New York City, strategic improvements to public spaces resulted in a 161-percent increase in the number of people who walk and bike regularly. Active Design also offers an economic benefit by reducing long-term operating costs through increased energy efficiency. When people choose stairs over elevators, bikes instead of cars, or physical activity instead of screen time, they burn calories instead of electricity and carbon fuels.

The three-year-old guidelines for Active Design are the product of a collaboration between the American Institute of Architects, AIA New York, New York City agencies like the Department of Health, private-sector architects and developers, and academic partners.

In the big picture, urban design strategies create neighborhoods, streets, and outdoor spaces that encourage walking, bicycling, and recreation. In new residential and office buildings, the placement and design of stairs, elevators, and indoor and outdoor spaces sets the scene for active living.

Many of the guidelines’ strategies can be applied to existing buildings as well. These include unlocking the doors to stairwells so people can walk up and down. (Implementing a key card or code system for security is suggested; fire doors, which usually inhibit easy access, can be redesigned to open and close when required in an emergency.)

Getting people to use the stairs can be as simple as making the environment more appealing with paint, artwork, and visible signage. Biking becomes more desirable when there are designated places to securely store bikes, while safe recreational spaces invite children’s play. The community as a whole can enjoy growing fresh, healthy herbs and vegetables in roof-top or street-level gardens.

While the exercise facilities and social rooms recommended by the guidelines are already featured in most Miami multifamily buildings, other ideas may take a while to fly in Miami. Active Design is still new here, and its guidelines have yet to be formally adopted. Designed for northern climes, they may need some adaptation to South Florida’s tropical climate and different recreational opportunities.

ActiveDesign_3Rick Bell, executive director of the AIA New York Chapter’s Center for Architecture and a conference organizer for the Center for Active Design, says that Miami’s great advantage is an extraordinary climate that allows for outdoor activities year-round. “Physical activities become part of everyday life instead of only at weekends,” he notes. “Exercise is more than a treadmill or stationary bike in the bedroom.”

Bell believes that single-family neighborhoods function better as mixed-use communities, with clusters of stores and places to get a cup of coffee or a snack. “Nobody is going to walk two miles to get a bagel, but half-a-mile is doable,” he says, adding, “communities should have shaded benches for resting and perhaps contemplative mini gardens and other amenities to make walking pleasurable.”

Bell was a featured speaker at a recent event held downtown at Miami-Dade College’s Wolfson Campus. Organized by the Miami chapter of the AIA, the panel brought together Bell; Dr. Karen Lee, director of the Built Environment and Active Design Program for the New York City Health Department; Karen Hamilton of the South Florida Regional Planning Council; David Weller, Miami-Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization; and Karen Weller, RN, director of Community Health and Planning, Miami-Dade Health Department.

Moderator Bernard Zyscovich, head of Miami-based Zyscovich Architects, had a special interest in the topic, as his firm designed the new classroom building on the Wolfson campus. This is the first local project to incorporate Active Design guidelines and be recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council for an “Innovation in Design” credit, awarded for “exemplary performance” in green design.

“We accepted the challenge to incorporate the Active Design guidelines because of an even bigger challenge to our community -- young people in Miami and South Florida have a statistically higher rate of obesity and related health issues than most other areas of the country,” says Zyscovich. “This issue requires both education and action, therefore a student services and classroom building with a variety of functions, including a fitness center and food service, provided a wonderful opportunity to make a difference.”

Building #8 on NE 2nd Street blends well with the original 1960s building across the street, and is compatible with other Miami-Dade College buildings that rely on the use of durable, low-maintenance, pre-cast concrete panels. However, the material is used more creatively here, with panels moving in and out on different levels, creating street-facing walls with implied movement.

At the ground level, the line of pre-cast concrete undulates above an uninterrupted glass wall and makes the building appear to hover above the ground. Windows on upper floors are not uniform, but expand where there is a significant interior public space.

“College-age students appreciate buildings that allow them to feel a part of their environment -- in this case, a vibrant campus in an international city,” says Thorn Grafton, director of sustainable initiatives at Zyscovich Architects.

The building’s transparency rises with the light-flooded main stairway, which anchors the space directly adjacent to the entry doors. The open stairway is designed as a sculptural element, to encourage students to walk up and down and enjoy social engagement and views of the urban campus. The elevators, per Active Design guidelines, are intentionally less prominent, located in the rear corner of the building.

Another innovative design feature takes education out of the confines of the classroom: Extra-wide upstairs hallways have small “break-out” alcoves with tables and chairs, so students can work together in groups or study on their own.

Coding constraints meant the main, open staircase could only service the first four of the building’s seven levels, so it was decided the building’s enclosed fire stairs would take over for the last three levels. To meet the Active Design guidelines, these fire stairs have windows offering rooftop views and glimpses of cruise ships at the Port of Miami. Signage encourages users to continue on the stairs all the way to the fitness center at the top level.

Some changes were made to plans at the request of the college. Exterior spaces created by the building’s undulating façade, originally planned as balconies, were later modified to become inaccessible, roofed areas, and a proposed running track on the building’s roof did not meet budget requirements.

Looking to the future, Miami is joining progressive cities across the nation growing their transportation choices. A bike-share program -- following on Miami Beach’s successful program ( two million rentals in not quite two years) -- and an increase in pedestrian investments will help to implement some of the basics of Active Design.


AIA Miami is working with partners to create the first “FIT City Miami Forum” later this year, with a full day of programming that it hopes will raise the visibility of Active Design practices here. See

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