First Contact: How Will We Deal With Doors After the Coronavirus?

CC BY 2.0. A brass doorknob on a bathroom door/ Lloyd Alter

It's a problem when nobody wants to touch anything.

A reader asks:

I am wondering if the architecture community is rethinking doors in public buildings. For example, in my office building, I have to grab a handle when entering. It seems this pandemic should cause us to have doors that can be pushed open entering and leaving. And I have the same issue with restroom doors. Shouldn't we be able to push them open with a shoulder after just having washed our hands? I use a paper towel for health reasons, but I hate wasting that much paper. I would appreciate a Treehugger feature on this issue. Thanks.

Actually, a lot of people in the community are thinking about this right now. I was thinking about it a few weeks ago when I was still teaching at Ryerson University, where the 1974 vintage washroom had an anemic old electric hot air dryer, no paper, and an inward opening door with a stainless steel pull. I would stretch my jacket sleeve down over my hand and open the door with that. I thought there had to be a better way, and I am not alone.

Arjun Kaicker of Zaha Hadid Architects tells Oliver Wainwright of the Guardian about an office building he is working on:

[It is] designed around "contactless pathways", meaning employees will rarely have to touch a surface with their hands to navigate through the building. Lifts can be called from a smartphone, avoiding the need to press a button both outside and in, while office doors will open automatically using motion sensors and facial recognition.
Space Seed

Space Seed/ Star Trek/Video screen capture

Automatic doors have been around for a while, but they are expensive and don't always work as planned.
As for contactless pathways, architects have been playing with those for a while, particularly with public washrooms, where they design circulation pathways that block views, but these are not without their own problems.

Ryerson Univeristy

Washroom entry/ Sheldon and Tracy Levy Student Learning Centre/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I took this photo of the entry to the washrooms in the Sheldon and Tracy Levy Student Learning Centre at Ryerson University where I teach because it was such a failure. I was meeting a student in the big open space that is adjacent to it, and could barely hold a conversation because of the noise coming out of the washrooms.

hand dryer

Hand dryer/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Inside, there was just one of those high-velocity hand dryers, but it was so loud that it compromised about a quarter of the floor space. Sometimes a contactless path isn't such a good idea.

A comeback for copper?

Brass pulls

100 year old brass pulls on our pocket doors/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

We recently noted the antibacterial properties of copper, and how it got used a lot after the First World War when people were concerned about germs. In my own house, all of the original hardware is copper and brass. However, a 2014 study led by Dr. John Bond of the University of Leicester found that it was not as good as people thought.

“The antimicrobial effect of copper has been known for hundreds of years. It is thought to occur as a result of a charge exchange between copper and bacteria, which leads to a degradation of the bacteria DNA. We have discovered that the salt in sweat corrodes the metal, forming an oxide layer on its surface, which is the process of corrosion - and this corrosive layer is known to inhibit the effect of the copper. We have shown that it is possible for sweat to produce an oxide layer on the metal within an hour of contact."

A prize-winning self-sanitizing door handle

self sanitizing door handle

© Sum Ming Wong, Kin Pong Li via Dyson Award

Here is a really interesting idea from Simon Wong and Michael Li that won the James Dyson Award in Hong Kong in 2019, and whose time has truly come: a self-sanitizing door handle. Hong Kong was the epicenter of the SARS crisis of 2003, so the designers came up with a door handle that would prevent the spread of infection. It's very clever:

handle details

© Sum Ming Wong, Kin Pong Li via Dyson Award

The handle is coated with a thin layer of photocatalytic Titanium Dioxide, which disinfects when it is activated by ultraviolet light. Every time the door is opened or closed, a generator provides electricity to light up UV-emitting LEDs. So basically, it runs itself without any outside source of power. I really like this video explanation:

In the end, I suspect that the changes we see will be cultural as much as architectural – washing your hands after you touch that doorknob. Or, for that matter, just installing ADA-compliant lever handles everywhere, which you can open with your elbow. The changes may be small, but nobody will look at a doorknob again without wondering what's on it.