Using stairwells for wellness

StairWELL, a Penn Sustainability Green Fund project, completed a yearlong pilot project last July that aimed to test how effective a stairwell makeover could be in increasing physical activity and reducing energy costs.

Blue stripe with Determination written on it in stairwell
“Determination” is one of many motivational phrases used to encourage people to take the stairwell as part of the StairWELL UPenn campaign. (Photo: Danielle Cavalcanto)

As part of the Healthy Penn program, launched in 2015 to promote wellness activities across the University, Danielle Cavalcanto, design coordinator at Space Planning & Operations in the Perelman School of Medicine, and Sara Solomon, deputy director of the Penn Injury Science Center, launched the StairWELL UPenn project in July 2017. 

Its ambition? Save energy by asking people to exert just a little more of it. 

StairWELL UPenn is a stairwell beautification project founded in coordination with the City of Philadelphia’s similarly-named StairWELL Campaign that encourages the use of stairwells instead of elevators. The ultimate goal is to increase physical activity during the work or school day while also decreasing energy use from elevators. The sustainability effort, funded by a Penn Sustainability Green Fund grant, is a partnership between the Center for Public Health Initiatives and the Space Planning & Operations Office.

Cavalcanto and Solomon conducted the project by selecting the Anatomy Chemistry building as the site for a pilot, deciding that structures with four to eight floors (Anatomy Chemistry has five), would be ideal spaces to work in. The pair installed a vinyl wall graphics and signs—donated by the City of Philadelphia, prominently displaying motivational language—to improve the stairwell’s aesthetics. They surveyed people in the building three months before the stairwell was installed, and three months after. The results: daily stairwell use increased by 18 percent, and elevator usage per day decreased by 9 percent.

Cavalcanto cites the vinyl design as being a big factor in the project’s success, a pivot from an initial idea to hang metal-framed artwork in the stairwell—nixed because of artwork’s liability as a fire hazard in an emergency stairwell. 

Sara and Danielle in a stairwell beside a Green Fund poster
Danielle Cavalcanto, left, pictured with Sara Solomon, right, who are responsible for the StairWELL UPenn pilot. (Photo courtesy: Danielle Cavalcanto)

“Going the vinyl route made this cost-effective,” she says. “The frames would have been really expensive. And I don’t know if it would have been as visually appealing as it is now.”

That cost-effectiveness, she believes, could boost the likelihood of the project being easier to implement in other buildings.

Cavalcanto created the designs, which were, in part, inspired by the University’s shield logo. Motivational words like “Achievement” and “Determination,” were then heat-welded on the walls surrounding the stairs.

She adds that the designs also prominently displayed floor numbers as an additional motivational tool. 

“Sometimes, when I took the stairs, I’d always be getting off on the wrong floor,” says Cavalcanto, who works in the Anatomy Chemistry building. “‘I already went up three flights!’ [I’d think]. But I’m really on the second floor. I’d like to think having those numbers make this better wayfinding, as well.”

The duo have since identified other Penn Medicine buildings that would benefit from the StairWELL project, and are in the process of examining additional test subjects. 

Solomon says she would like the stairwell interventions to be considered for future construction or renovations.

“For me, working in space planning, I would love it if it was the case that when we’re renovating a building, we start thinking more about the stairs,” she says.