January 20, 2015

Active Design Guidelines


The publication of the Active Design Guidelines was a critical milestone in New York’s commitment to building a healthy, living city. Serving as a robust tool for designers to address major public health issues, the Active Design Guidelines provide the design industry with an avenue for understanding how the built environment impacts the human body and its systems. As human-centered design is essential to the mission of sustainability, these guidelines are inherently helping us create a more sustainable city.

Architecture that is designed to activate the body contributes to broader health and wellness and also generates spaces that are truly nourishing, resilient, delightful, and lasting. Visual cues, environmental graphics, and the creative framing of spaces can encourage exploration and offer opportunity for self-propelled discovery. Through thoughtful programming and circulation, the connections between areas can catalyze awareness about space and movement. Consider what is learned about one’s position in space from climbing a set of stairs as compared to riding an elevator, or what is learned from traversing a long and thoughtfully designed circulation path as compared to one designed only for efficiency and utility. When designers reframe a project as a dynamic set of choreographies and activities for the body, rather than as a static container of space, we are better able to design architecture that is vibrant and energetic – architecture that gracefully supports the full range of the human state over a sustainable lifespan.

Taking this approach is a particularly exciting endeavor in existing buildings. For the renovation of a multi-story 100,000 square foot office space at 2 Lafayette Street in Manhattan, our clients asked us to reimagine the existing short, dark, isolated spaces as fresh, bright, and re-connected. We answered the challenge by removing the existing dropped ceilings to let daylight pour in, providing automated shades to ensure an easy and flexible connection to exquisite outside views, and re-weaving the multiple floors together with two bright green staircases that present an irresistible form of travelling through the workspace.

As our industry continues to understand the built environment’s influence on health, we challenge future authors of similar guidelines to include content that more specifically relates to mental health and social wellness, both of which have a reciprocal relationship to physical well-being. Designers have an opportunity to support the public health sector in addressing issues ranging from obesity to depression through careful spatial considerations of light, views, color, movement, and more. And there are similar opportunities in the sciences of chronobiology, physiology, anatomy, kinesiology, nutrition, psychology, and sociology, all of which can be collaboratively considered through a design lens in order to enable a more robust spatial experience.


The LAB endeavors to contribute to the knowledge base manifested in publications like the Active Design Guidelines by conducting research informed by a focus on the body in space. The Syntax that guides the research of the LAB is organized around this focus and takes the human body as a model through which to study the processes of the built environment.