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5 ways to build health into your architecture, as seen at GW's new $75 million public health school

Thursday - 5/15/2014, 6:29am  ET

You won’t find any stairwells tucked away into the dark corners of George Washington University’s newest academic building.

That’s because those stairs have literally taken center stage in the $75 million Milken Institute School of Public Health, where officials are celebrating an official grand opening Thursday. By design, one of the first things visitors see upon entering the 115,000 square-foot building are the staircases winding every which way up a seven-story atrium.

At the same time, the elevators require a little searching to find.

“I think it's important the environment where people are working is conducive to activity, that the environment helps people make the right choices,” said the school’s dean, Lynn Goldman. “When the stairwell is a pleasant place and exciting place to be it helps people decide to use the stairs. When the foods that are available in meetings or vending machines or cafeterias are healthier it helps make people make healthier choices about food.”

In other words, the School of Public Health was trying to put its money where it’s mouth is, Goldman said.

“At every step of the way to not only emphasize to people that they should eat the right food, obviously, but also to make it easy for them to make that healthier choice. The two things go together," she said.

To engineer health into the building, officials got creative. They decided to put one-third fewer copier and printer machines in their new building to force faculty and students to have to get up and walk every time they hit the print button. “The first week, people were really complaining about it, but we really wanted them to think twice about how much they were printing,” Goldman said.

Beyond the elevators, hidden away and programmed to be just slow enough to make the stairs look a bit more attractive, the school also tried to engineer health into the building by:

  1. Cutting out the coffee stand: That’s right. Despite it being an academic building, you won’t find the standard barista stand packed with snacks and high-calorie drinks. Instead, each floor has kitchens where students and faculty can prepare foods they brought from home. Vending machines will still be stocked with Coca-Cola products, but officials negotiated to have the company offer only healthier items — absolutely no soda — and will subsidize the potential loss in sales.
  2. Encouraging movement: In order to keep people up and moving, every faculty office is equipped with a standing desk. Some student desks come with the ability to stand during class (near the back of the room, of course.) The benefit, Goldman said, is a positive impact on posture and back comfort, as well as on bones and joints thanks to the weight-bearing activities. A safe bike rack was built inside the building to encourage cycling to class.
  3. Focusing on fresh air: Often when a staff moves into a new building, they complain of headaches from the chemicals which off-gas from new carpets and furniture. So the building is furnished and built with more sustainable materials. At the same time, the air system has a strong filtering component which helps eliminate allergies and mold. A large number of low-light plants were placed in the lobby in order to help filter the air and regulate humidity.
  4. Paying attention to mind and spirit health: When designing the building, officials said they tried to take a holistic approach. Having windows with plenty of sunshine and being encouraged to spend time walking outdoors to the farmer’s market or to grab a bite to eat is good for the mind and spirit, Goldman said. If that’s not enough, the school now has a prayer and meditation room, a well as workout spaces for yoga and zumba.
  5. Designing for environmental sustainability: The building uses local and recycled materials, a green roof and rainwater collection system, low-flow plumbing and cooling systems.

In its 17-year history, this is the first time all seven departments of the school will be located in the same building, Goldman said. She hopes the new configuration will encourage faculty and students to talk and collaborate more on research, she said.

Research was already bolstered at the school earlier this year when it was announced that two prominent philanthropists — Michael Milken and Sumner M. Redstone — announced they planned to donate $80 million to help push prevention studies. None of the donated money from Milken and Redstone is footing the $75 million bill for the new building, officials have said.

What GW public health researchers hope to do with their new facility, and the money at their disposal, is better inform both policy makers and businesses about how to make changes in the U.S. that will help prevent disease, Goldman said. That's also the example the school is trying to set.

“People can work better when they’re physically active, when they feel good they can be more productive. And I think that’s important.”

© 2014 American City Business Journals, Inc.