The Meaning Is Clear

by Don Friedman on February 5, 2016

For Friday, something slightly silly that I noticed last week. The front of a door:


And the back:


The yellow signs say “CAUTION. AUTOMATIC DOOR.” The blue sign on the front says “PUSH TO OPERATE;” the blue sign on the back says “PULL TO OPERATE.” My immediate response was to be amused at the obviousness of it: the PUSH side has a push plate and the PULL side has a handle, so what else are you going to do?

My next thought was “why?” The door is a fire separation in a hallway to make an old and large building compliant with current fire regulations. It needs to be closed, but because it’s in a hallway, it needs to be easily operable. It specifically needs to be easily operable by people with physical disabilities. This is a good example of two building-code provisions that make perfect sense by themselves coming into conflict. How do you make the heavy, spring-closed door easily operable?

The answer is a clever bit of mechanical engineering. The door closer, located at the upper hinge, is not simply the usual spring and lever combination. Rather, it’s a small hydraulic unit capable of pushing the door open or pulling it closed. There are buttons on the wall on each side of the door that operate the “open” function; the close function works on a timer some ten seconds after the door is opened. Good, it works. But people can miss the buttons. So the closer is even more clever: it interprets the door being opened slightly as a signal to open it all the way. So pulling a bit on the PULL side or pushing a bit on the PUSH side is enough to engage the closer and get it to open the door for you.

The CAUTION signs make perfect sense. The door can swing open without (from one side) any obvious reason. Of course, that is also true of any door and the mechanically-assisted operation of this door is slower than a lot of people (including me) tend to push open doors.

I wonder if the door might be better off without the blue signs. For observant people, there are the buttons adjacent to the door. For everyone else, the door will open mechanically when you do the expected: push on the push plate or pull on the handle. The only problem comes if someone pushes on the handle or tries (with great difficulty, I imagine) to pull on the push plate. In that case, the hydraulics won’t trigger so the door will not open by itself. The blue signs are necessary for people who literally do not know how to open a door. Did I mention that the door is in a college classroom building?

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