Hardware gets harder

Building teams struggle to reconcile security, life-safety and aesthetic concerns with increasingly automated door solutions
August 11, 2010

Electrified, electronic, automatic and smart: these four words describe the state of door hardware, suddenly one of the most complex areas of construction. Building teams are struggling to reconcile their projects' aesthetic, life-safety and security needs with the vast array of door types on the market, not to mention the keying systems, access-control options, finishes and styles that have multiplied in recent years.

Fortunately, specialization has always been a part of design. To effectively deal with this deep category of the Construction Specification Institute's MasterFormat — classifications 8710, 8711 and 8712, to be precise — designers and owners rely heavily on consultants.

"For most new buildings and for complicated projects like schools, we sub out this very specialized area; for smaller projects, we can do it in house," says Denise Breunig, an architect with Dayton, Ohio-based E/A Woolpert LLP, which recently completed the design for a new information-sciences building at Southwestern Illinois College, Belleville, Ill. "We can't pretend to be experts at everything."

The expert called to numerous Woolpert projects is Carol Nelson, principal of the aptly named hardware-consulting firm 8710, based in St. Louis. Her firm recommends hardware, drafts master schedules and assists in coordination through the design and construction phases. Many of 8710's clients, Nelson says, have learned the hard way that a consultant is worth the fee. After all, hardware distributors and manufacturers offer "no-cost hardware specs and schedules," she explains, but — all too often — they're not worth much anyway.

"Even though there's a fee, a consultant will save money in the long run," Nelson explains. "We'll give the architect a much better document, and we're not on the payroll of a manufacturer, so we don't have an agenda." Also, she says, designers are comfortable with consultants contacting the owner, "because they know we're not trying to sell them anything."

Specifiers agree, says Gary Betts, senior associate principal with Chicago-based architect Loebl Schlossman & Hackl/Hague Richards. "There's always the option of going to distributors, but I've had problems with them in the past. Because they do the job for free, they can favor the manufacturers they represent," he says. For example, if the architect doesn't want to specify a brand carried by the distributor, it may cause some tension. Still, Betts adds, "It's always the designer's prerogative to change it."

So when cost is not an issue, a hardware consultant enters the picture. That is, if you can find one: The recent construction boom has left fewer of these vital experts available.

Even with all the help in the world, however, some access challenges are unforgiving. Consider the maternity ward of an urban hospital where Betts faced the conflicting intent of a self-closing, self-latching door that could automatically swing open for general traffic and for fire alarms, but automatically lock if the unit sensed a baby bracelet. Worse, the opening was on a main path of egress — through a fire barrier.

"You're asking that door to do five or six different things that it just can't do," Betts sighs. In that instance, the model code allowed locking down the protected opening only if it had a dedicated alarm and a sign instructing occupants to press the door for 15 seconds for an emergency release. "Then the hospital staff says, 'What good is that? You're telling people they can get out if they wait 15 seconds!'"

Hospitals: The Mount Everest of egress

Such unusual conditions aside, health-care facilities offer building teams the most challenging environments for specifying and coordinating door hardware, says John E. Abraham, a senior principal with Leawood, Kan.-based ACI-Boland, an architecture and interiors firm. "The solution is providing the owner with the right kind of door for what they need, be it rotary power-assisted, sliders or bi-fold, and whether it be pushbutton or remote actuated," he notes.

The firm's recent design of a critical-care center for the University of Missouri is typical: Every kind of door operator and hardware is used somewhere on the premises. "We specified a variety of automatic and manual doors," says Abraham, including breakaway sliders in private patient rooms that latch but also pop out of their frames if an occupant pushes on them during an emergency.

Beyond the multitude of door types and operation mechanisms, says Abraham, a big part of the challenge is the code environment, with overlapping and sometimes conflicting provisions. "There's the life-safety code, the building code and the state code — and the national code which is overridden by the state code, because its more restrictive in certain areas," he says. Last, the Joint Council on the Accreditation of Health-care Organizations (JCAHO) accredits facilities that adhere to all the codes.

"The [Americans with Disabilities Act] ADA and model building codes have gotten more stringent through the years, and life safety has become a much more complicated thing," Nelson concurs. "Model building codes are written by attorneys, who don't have to understand what they've written."

Secure, safe stores

Another perennial challenge is the prototypical mall and multiplex, where access to movie theaters and restaurants is often restricted after hours of retail operations. As at the maternity ward, the balance between life safety and security drives hardware selection.

"As a mall owner, one must think about the security system," says Butch Birchfield, associate principal with Atlanta-based retail specialist Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates, the architect of such projects as the Mall of Georgia, Buford, Ga. "Sometimes, the answer is just as simple as security guards. Other times, they prefer designated entrances and exits or the use of magnetic and electronic hold-opens," he notes, referring to automatic devices that turn doors into exitways when fire alarms are activated.

Yet, some recent hardware advances have been developed exclusively for the retail market, says Birchfield. "Promo doors," also known as exhibit doors, for example, have sliding leaves and transoms to allow large displays to be trucked in and out of stores. Another — often called the "one-door concept" — is a fire-rated partition on a track that automatically seals exitways when fire alarms go off, protecting the exit travel path. "Those are useful for the most complicated buildings, where you have a public assembly space or where corridors and travel distances are being extended, or where there's just one renovation on top of another," says Birchfield.

More complex

Even at the most basic schools and office buildings, however, hardware still demands more effort than it did a decade ago, thanks to the ADA, the desire to electrify everything and the widespread use of electronic actuators and sensors.

"Things are more complicated, which has helped in the perpetuation of my company," Nelson jokes. "We spend a lot of time coordinating with electrical engineers and life-safety consultants."

Betts agrees, noting that doors on openers or with connections to fire equipment have more stringent requirements. "But not only do we have to make sure there's power to the doors, but now it has to be the right kind of power," he adds, referring to the special transformers and low-voltage wiring needed for the microelectronics in use today.

And while much has changed about door hardware, one thing remains the same: It is the third biggest maintenance item for facilities, following HVAC and roofing systems, and it is used every day a building is open. "Value-engineering door hardware is hard to do," says Nelson. "It turns out to be a pay-me-later thing."

         
 

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