Active Design in Buildings

Science has proven the relationship between physical activity, happiness and overall health. Active Design in Buildings investigates how architecture influences our behavior. It offers solutions to reincorporate physical activity into our lives in buildings.

Who wouldn’t want to live a long, happy and healthy life? Evidence has shown that physical activity is an important precondition to achieve this goal. Active people have an improved performance at school and work, a better self-image and generally participate in more dynamic social networks.

Physical activity also helps to reduce lifestyle related chronic illnesses such as diabetes type 2, obesity and heart disease. An enhanced healthy life expectancy reduces the need for clinical treatment and thereby decreases the burden on our health care system.

Despite the multitude of obvious advantages of physical activity, it is human nature to save metabolic energy. Through evolution we have developed energy-saving measures, of which inactivity is but one. Technological progress has supercharged this innate behavior, outsourcing physical activity to countless innovations in work and play.


We could reverse the trend by exercising on a regular basis, but not everyone has the required discipline to do so. Luckily our daily routines offer plenty of opportunities to enhance physical activity. These opportunities can be identified, amplified, their frequency increased, stimulating physical activity and creating impact.

Buildings are a good place to start to make small changes in our daily routines, after all this is where most people spend more than 90% of their time. However architecture has been anything but instrumental for the active lifestyle. Modernity has brought us an architecture dominated by the efficient allocation of (economic) resources, rather than the physiological or psychological needs of the human being.

BETA office for architecture and the city Amsterdam Active Design in Buildings book collage


Alternately, a human centered design approach makes us identify human needs and allows us to incentivize physical activity. The approach towards active design in architecture can be divided along two lines: discouraging passive behavior and encouraging active behavior.

If we are presented with a sign showing the advantages of taking the stairs over the elevator, we are nudged towards making a conscious decision using our cognitive system. Similarly an attractive space can motivate us to take the inviting stairs rather than wait this long for the elevator.

Humans also make decisions in a subconscious manner, superimposing sensory perception. Architecture is eminently capable of stimulating different senses at once and can influence human behavior if composed accordingly. Offering a diversity of light- and soundscapes for example, plays into the fact that humans biologically require different environments throughout the day. The way in which sensory experience influences our spatial perception, our social behavior and activity is made concrete in the informative and entertaining documentary ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’ (1980) by William Whyte.


Active Design in Buildings condenses literature, interviews and precedents into a so-called Toolkit. Drawing on New York City’s Active Design Guidelines (2010) and the Well Building Standard (2016), the Toolkit aims to inspire architects and project developers by offering a series of principles, practical and specific solutions which encourage physical activity in the built environment.

Some solutions are easily applicable, highly effective and can be deployed at any moment throughout a building’s life cycle. A good example is removing waste baskets from beneath office desks and substituting these with central recycle stations near the building core. Besides offering the opportunity for brief stroll during our daily routine, the measure encourages awareness and is synergetic with sustainability.

Other measures, such as making a staircase welcoming and easily walkable require more efforts from a design perspective. These too can be synergetic with other goals in the built environment such as universal access. Lowering the inclination of stairs improves their walkability, also for those with a limited physical impairment.

Active design can also be a more fundamental part of a building’s configuration. Placing functions in the first two layers of a residential block will increase ‘eyes on the street’ and improve walkability of the surrounding public space. Combining access routes with interesting features into a rich architectural experience will reward the senses and stimulate activity.

Project Details




City of Amsterdam


Henri Snel (Alzheimer-Architecture), Adnan Mirza (Heartbeat Ventures), City of Amsterdam


Auguste van Oppen, Evert Klinkenberg, Eldrich Piqué



Active Design in Buildings aims to inspire architects, developers and policy makers to incorporate active design principles in their work.

Commissioned by the City of Amsterdam, BETA produced a richly illustrated catalogue in Dutch and English, available in print and online.

The project is part of the City of Amsterdam’s ongoing program The Moving City. This initiative by Deputy Mayor Eric Van Der Burg is focused on enhancing the active lifestyle in all aspects of urban life.



Active Design in Buildings (English version)


Beweeglogica in Gebouwen (Nederlandse versie)