When a Door Closes . . .

We open and close them all day long. Teachers and students want the light and views that they provide, while maintenance staffs want them durable and easy to clean. They keep us safe from weather and intruders, while adding grace and beauty to our buildings’ facades. They are windows and doors, undeniably important to your school buildings, yet something of a challenge when specifying. What’s new in windows and doors, and how can your school pick the best of the lot?

No Way Out?

George Washington Carver said,“Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.” Of course your school doors aren’t golden, but they are just as valuable. So it remains surprising that such a precious asset gets treated the way it does.“Doors get a tremendous amount of use and abuse, so maintenance is of key importance when choosing them,” explains Tom Penny, AIA, senior principal, DLR Group.

Jim Devol, senior project executive, Gilbane Building Company, agrees. “As a contractor I don’t want to come back nine months after a project is finished because a door didn’t hold up,” he says. To prevent call backs, Devol always recommends hanging an entrance or exit door on a continuous hinge to bolster its strength. “This distributes the weight evenly from top to bottom so the door doesn’t pull and warp the frame even if kids hang on it,” he says.

“Door surfing” represents only the beginning of how doors can be abused. “Imagine how much fun it is to dent a door by throwing rocks at it,” speculates Dan Depta, manager of marketing, Special-Lite, “or rubbing your name into the oxidized paint. Doors often end up looking like the dark side of the moon.”

Depta’s company makes a fiberglass reinforced polyester door that promises to be very durable, vandal resistant, and maintenance free. Aluminum doors represent another paint-free choice but “they don’t hold up as well as other options,” reports Devol. Hollow metal doors must be painted frequently, but they wear well and are easy to replace. “I know one school system that only specifies hollow metal door,” continues Devol. However Depta warns, “Even if you keep them painted you can’t do much to keep hollow metal doors from rusting on the inside.”

Door hardware should also be robust enough to go the distance. “Never try to cut costs by paring down on closers or panic devices,” advises Devol. “These elements have to last for 50 years.”

No matter which material or hardware you choose, security remains the door’s primary mission. “More and more, we are seeing security systems with door monitoring capabilities,” says Penny. “This electronic supervision notifies building management if a door is being opened when it shouldn’t be, or even if it’s being propped.”

Some schools want to go further. “There are districts that want video monitoring on every door and an alarm that goes off if that door is opened. Frankly, the horn drives everyone crazy and doesn’t stop a person from leaving,” says Devol. “Newer egress systems have delayed panic devices. An alarm still sounds, or video is taken, but the door doesn’t open for 15 seconds. This way you can’t casually walk through any exit, but it is still fire-safe.”

While card readers remain rare in the K-12 environment, if you are contemplating a system Devol offers a bit of advice. “Even if you don’t think you will need extra capacity in the future, just inquire about how much it will cost to add it,” he says. “Many times I see a building with multiple reading systems and multiple cards because decision-makers bought a system with just enough capacity and quickly outgrew it. They didn’t think ahead.”

Soak up the Sun

Windows are education’s new darlings. “Research proves that natural light in the classrooms boosts student performance,” says Penny. “Teachers and students work better if there is light and views. Because of this we try to put as many instructional areas on the outside wall as possible.” Budget, however, still remains important in choosing window systems. “There is a high level of cost management and cost scrutiny when it comes to windows. That’s why we usually choose a store-front type system as opposed to a curtain wall.”

Daylight is only half of the window equation; fresh air remains just as important. Whether trying to improve indoor air quality or meeting LEED requirements, operable is now the word in windows. Casements, however, is one word that will not cross Devol’s lips. “I’ve had a client who adamantly refused casements because the crank that operates the window inevitably breaks or disappears,” he explains. “What usually happens is that crank is no longer available so maintenance has to put a vise grip on the window.” Not a pretty solution, for sure.

While lots of fresh air and daylighting are all good things, they do complicate other issues. “If the building is air conditioned, and most of them are these days, an open window brings up control issues,” says Devol. “This should definitely be discussed in the early planning phases.”

“Mechanical engineers don’t want the windows opening; it is detrimental to their ventilation systems,” Penny elaborates. “But from a practical standpoint, the ability to open a window on a nice day is so important. Even if it doesn’t actually ventilate the room it adds to the perception of ventilation.” Penny also reminds us that operable windows imply responsibility on the teachers’ and facility managers’ parts. Some schools have adapted a system where a window is operable but locked. Teachers call maintenance to come and unlock it. “This puts another person on alert that a window is opened and therefore needs to be shut at the end of the day,” explains Penny. “It doesn’t do security any good to have a window open all night or all weekend.”

Daylighting also offers opportunity to cut down on electrical lighting. If enough foot candles are reaching the desks, lights can dim and that saves money. “We always explore daylight harvesting systems,” says Penny. “But they are not always economical. There are a lot of variables that have to be considered.”

Along with green issues and daylighting, “energy performance is a key factor in window choice,” says Robin Randall, vice president, marketing, Trayco. “We are seeing a demand for energy performing products with lower u-values.”

No matter what kind of window an architect and school decide on, Devol likes to make sure the set up will work before he installs them. “If there are a lot of custom details we want to make sure the flashing and air barriers are going to hold up,” he says. “We’ll call in one of our ‘muddy boot’ guys from the field to assess the details, but if it is really complicated we’ll hire a specialty engineer to look at it.”

Once a design is decided on Devol likes to go beyond a mock-up and do a benchmark piece. “If you are going to install 100 windows, you want to make sure you do it right,” he explains. “A benchmark is one perfect window, or door for that matter, that teaches the trades people all of the details and the correct installation procedures.”

Devol also looks to long-term maintenance issues. “If some of the glass is fritted or tinted we suggest buying extra pieces,” he says. “That way if a pane breaks there will be stock on hand. Don’t ever get something so exotic or custom that it can’t be replaced.” Devol also reminds clients to think about cleaning. “Are you prepared to rent a lift to wash the windows a few times a year?” he asks. “If you can’t afford that perhaps you should look into interior-swinging casements.”

By the way, windows aren’t just for the outside anymore. “Interior glazing grows more and more important as people want to bring daylight deeper into the building,” says Penny. “It also allows for passive supervision which increases security.” Places like administrative areas, libraries, and even gymnasiums are great locations for interior window systems. But be warned. “Because of extra built-in safety features, gymnasium glass is going to be expensive,” says Penny.

With all the decisions to be made owners should never put aesthetics on the back burner. “Solving the puzzle of security, maintenance, cost, and durability and still keeping doors and windows visually pleasing is a constant challenge,” admits Penny. “But schools should look open and friendly, not like a prison or industrial facility. Fortunately, window and door manufacturers are offering lots of solutions and always developing more products to meet these concerns.”

It’s these choices and challenges that keep people like Penny excited, and our schools beautiful.