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Designing for Your Lifestyle

A Healthy Home


It's that time of year again to haul out annual resolutions to lose the holiday pounds and get into shape once and for all. Those who stick with their plan are the lucky ones. Statistics show that more than 30 percent of Americans are obese and two-thirds of adults are overweight, according to a recent National Health and Examination Survey. Just 30 minutes of daily moderate exercise can go a long way, but it's difficult for people to even find the time or motivation for a simple walk. One in four Americans do not exercise at all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Two-thirds of adults are overweight, according to a recent National Health and Examination Survey. Just 30 minutes of daily moderate exercise can go a long way, but it's difficult for people to even find the time or motivation for a simple walk. One in four Americans do not exercise at all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A new school of design has emerged that literally incorporates exercise into a daily routine, providing a fresh approach to thoughts about healthy living.

Joan Vos MacDonald's High Fit Home: Designing Your Home for Health and Fitness elucidates on the concepts underlying the new wave of architecture that creates home design incorporating healthy living and physical activity seamlessly into at home lifestyle. Architects are facing growing demand for exercise rooms, climbing walls, dance studios, his-and-her workout rooms and new ways to integrate that treadmill into a convenient and inconspicuous spot. Even a lap pool can be incorporated into a bedroom suite, making daily exercise both routine and luxurious.

Looking to the Past for Inspiration

Gymnasiums can be traced back to the Greeks, who had a profound appreciation for the human physique. The Greek word "gymnos" means "naked." Athletic competitions were performed in the nude, and many men attained celebrity status for their finely toned bodies. They trained in gymnasia devoted to various discipline and might have included a stadium, lecture hall, baths and covered sections in case of inclement weather. Most women were confined to leisurely courtyard walks for their daily exercise.

The Romans were a bit more relaxed in their approach to fitness and did not share the Greeks' enthusiasm for gymnastics. They did, however, build thermae, a kind of precursor to the modern health club. Thermae consisted of shops, restaurants, libraries and exercise yards around lush gardens. An example of thermae survives in Bath, England. By the Middle Ages, most common folk got their exercise laboring in the fields while the affluent rode and hunted. A Renaissance revival of Greek sport lead to "fitness festivals", which focused on running, fencing, archery, gymnastics, cricket, soccer and sailing. Modern day Olympics started again in 1896. The 19th century also produced a form of Christianity that embraced athletics, said to promote intellectual development and morality. In 1841, Sir George Williams started the Young Men's Christian Association, where basketball was invented. The last century saw a proliferation of gyms in schools, corporate headquarters, hotels, cruise ships and the like.

So when did we get so out of shape? Car ownership rose to about 50,000 in the 1960s. Today there are some 200 million that do the suburban sprawl, where walking is considered inconvenient and sometimes dangerous.

Urban designers are now attempting to build communities where basic needs can be met within a five-minute walk. Even corporations are looking at ways to get employees up and walking in an effort to increase productivity and reduce health care costs.

Technology--A Mixed Blessing

While enjoyable and sometimes even a necessity, computers, televisions and the vast array of today's technology have certainly created millions of couch potatoes. Forward-thinking scientists are now inventing ways to use technology to create a healthier home environment, according to Vos MacDonald. At MIT's Changing Places/Houses project, researchers are working to create new technologies that can be imbedded in the home to motivate behavior changes.

Working with motion sensors, estimates of how much you are walking throughout your house can be tabulated through the course of the day, letting you know if you're getting in your daily allotment of exercise. There are virtual aerobics trainers built into the wall of home gyms that can correct you on your movements and tell you when you are doing a good job. Aging boomers may not like the idea of adding more stairs to their home, but fitness architects are definitely pro-climbing. The techno geeks are adding their own spin to this functional architectural element. The Soundstair exhibit created by Christopher Janney at the Boston Museum of Science uses digital technology to make climbing stairs a fun exercise. As people climb up and down the stairs, their movements create tunes according to their movements.

A game called Dance Dance Revolution has children moving to different pads on a floorboard, creating music with their feet. Futurists imagine new video games that will motivate kids to move throughout the house.

With the Internet, there can be instant company on your stationary bike ride or treadmill run. Just hook up with someone online and chat during your exercise routine, which can make the time pass much faster.

Homes in Motion

Vos MacDonald's book features an awe-inspiring selection of homes dedicated to design that incorporates a physical element, whether it's an opulent staircase, a Zen-like swimming pool, a luxurious spa or a treadmill simply designed to blend into a home office.

The Spine House, the first private home designed by British architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw with Mark Bryden and Martin Wood, strives to balance physical and mental health. The layout encourages walking, climbing stairs, swimming, squash and tennis. It's designed around a dramatic "spine" handcrafted from American ash timbers. With a ship-like quality that separates the wings of the building, its splayed design changes what would be rectangular spaces into a home with diagonal views throughout. Underneath the spine are the squash-tennis court and swimming pool. All of this is designed to blend into the stunning sloping meadowland with distant views of Cologne, Germany.

Most of us don't have the luxury of unlimited space, especially in the city. One New York dancer, Joel Sanders, has his 1,800 square foot Millennium Apartment featured in High Fitness Home. He designed a multi-functional space for his ballet practice that can be transformed from a dance space into a spare bedroom and storage area. The mirrored walls are also closet doors with the ballet barre as the door handle. Inside one closet is a Murphy bed for guests, and concealed panels unfold to turn the practice area into a private suite. Pivoting panels subdivide the room yet again for another guest space or study area.

Ski aficionados should look to the family retreat and ski lodge, the Mountain House, located in Stratton, Vermont. Designed by Graftworks, the home borrows technology that was used to create and laminate snow skis and actually has elements that look like snow tracks. Set on a 150-acre site, the house is surrounded by beautiful hiking trails and a tennis court with stunning mountain views.

"The house is really like a journey," says architect Lawrence Blough, describing the myriad ways of moving throughout the spacious home. Lower level bedrooms have access to logging trails and the tennis court. Small reading areas are located on stair landings, away from the large, comfortable sitting room with ceiling high bookshelves. The entire house sways with circular motion that's evocative of ski trails.

Water offers so many health benefits. A relatively safe way to exercise, it's a viable alternative for those with physical ailments to get some relief. It's also a dramatic design element that can be used both practically and aesthetically. A swimming pool "moat" protects an ultra modern home north of New York City designed by the architectural team of Messana O'Rorke. Not only visually dramatic, it provides a visceral reminder of exercise waiting to be done. The surrounding maple trees shade the roof, and a lap pool cantilevers over the base of the roof, creating a serene oasis for yet more exercise. Rotating fiberglass screens with rotating panels control the heating and hot water of the home.

If you cannot hire an entire design team, one easy way to add water exercise to your own home is to add a small lap pool in the basement. The average size is about 15 by 7 feet and uses a propeller system, jets or a paddle wheel to generate current. They're made with stainless steel, fiberglass or acrylic with a vinyl liner.

A stunning example of the use of water in both exercise and aesthetic is a Utah home designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson where a 25 meter pool wing floats above surrounding trees and over the melting snow of a downhill stream. The stainless steel ceiling captures the water's reflections, creating magical illusions. There are also reflections of the forest landscape of dense quaking aspens and thick firs.

The pool is part of an 11,000 square foot house layered into a hillside with three levels. At pool level there is also a greenhouse for growing orchids, a spa and a sky-lit wine cellar. In addition, the home also has anexercise room, sauna and dressing area. A full quarter of this massive home is devoted to fitness. Hallways and stairs are also considered part of the physical activity of the home because "climbing them and using them to move through the house can change people physically and emotionally" according to Bohlin. "The whole business of getting from here to there is powerful stuff. It enables people and reveals the nature of the world to them."

Today's prefab homes are offering the option of affordable pop-ups or additions that can be added as additional space for a home spa. An 18th century home in Columbia County, New York, was updated by adding an actual mobile home. The simple lines and rectangular shape added a gym, sauna and steam room and did not distract from the classic lines of the historic home when incorporated as an addition.

Planning a gym in your own home

Vos MacDonald's book sources Richard Miller, president of Gym Source, a company that has set up personal gyms for Madonna, Cher and three presidents. Miller says color is a major factor when setting up your own gym.

For example, red is highly motivational, and green would be good for practicing yoga. Lighting should not be too harsh.

When building a workout room, high ceilings with a lot of light and plenty of windows are optimal. Mirrors create an illusion of space and can help with your form. The floors should have some give to them. Three quarter inch rubber flooring is best. Many people make a television set the room's focal point--which is ironically usually the culprit of their predicament in the first place.

The most popular cardio machine right now is the elliptical machine, but these trends change over time. The treadmill is second most popular. Other basics include weights and benches, a Swiss ball, a foam mat and stretching ropes.

Most experts say an exercise space should be no smaller than 200 square feet. Start with only one or two pieces of equipment, and wait and see if they are actually used or if they turn into coat hangers. According to the American Council on Exercise, a treadmill requires 30 square feet; single-station gym, 35 square feet; free weights, 20 to 50 square feet; bikes, 10 square feet; stair climbers, 10 to 20 square feet; ski machines, 25 square feet; and multi-station gyms, 50 to 200 square feet.

Above all, any elements you incorporate into your home should reflect your own goals and tastes. Your home should provide a nurturing environment to support health and fitness in today's hectic world.

Published: December 01, 2005
Issue: Holiday 2005