Revolving Doors

Great Design

Revolving doors are something we encounter on a daily basis, but have you ever thought about why they were invented? If you think about it, they are quite strange. Who’s idea was it to replace a simple hinged door with some rotating panels of glass that form strange compartments for people to squeeze into and move along with just to enter a building. The idea was first patented in 1881 by the German inventor H. Bockhacker for his ‘door without draft of air’. However this did not take off. Then in 1888, American designer, Theophilus van Kannel received a patent for his improved ‘storm door structure’ that was later renamed the ‘revolving door’ we know today.


Van Kannel’s design consisted of a three-way storm door that had weather stripping to ensure a sealed fit with the outer frame. This provided great energy efficiency as heat was significantly reduced compared with a normal hinged door. However this was not the main motivation for his invention. Van Kannel’s idea routed from a social phobia. There were two social interactions that he passionately hated: having the awkward ‘no, you first’ conversations with other men when approaching a door and the expectation to hold doors open for woman. It is no surprise that he never married, however he did dedicate most of his life to the invention and perfection of his design.


Other than tackling his social nightmare, there was a much more impressive benefit that Van Kannel’s revolving door offered. By installing a revolving door instead of a hinged door in a building it is estimated to have energy savings of 30%. This is because when you open a regular door, there is high air flow exchange, making it hard to maintain consistent indoor temperatures. Revolving doors significantly reduce this as there is never direct exposure between the inside and outside of the building. They also prevent the transfer of noise, dust, rain and snow entering a building. These benefits make a revolving door seem like an obvious replacement for a hinged door in any building, however there are some key flaws with Van Kannel’s energy saving design. 

Firstly there is the concern of fire safety. Using a revolving door is not a speedy procedure and only a limited number of people can fit in each compartment. This makes it a useless fire escape and additional swing doors have to be installed on the side. However, the biggest issue with revolving doors is simple. People don’t use them. Funnily enough, having been designed to deal with a phobia, revolving doors themselves seem to cause many phobias. It’s not unusual to be afraid of revolving doors. Why do people find them so terrifying? Well the most obvious reason is the concept of having to enter a small compartment which does not suit anyone suffering from claustrophobia.  Also having rotating doors can cause you to trap your arm, leg or even clothing in the door. Then there’s the possibility of getting confused whilst being spun around in this glass structure and ending up missing your exit and finding yourself standing outside again looking like a complete idiot. Not going to lie, that has happened to me before… Finally there’s the social fear of getting stuck in a small space with a stranger, a bit hypocritical considering the whole idea was to avoid awkward social situations.


However, considering how how much energy can be saved from using a revolving door, which offers both environmental and financial benefits, surely there is a way to encourage people to use these intimidating devices. There was a study carried out in 2006 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which found that only 25% of students chose to use the revolving door when there was a normal door beside it. The researchers then put up a sign that encouraged the students to use the revolving door by emphasising the energy saving benefits. The revolving door usage subsequently increased to 58%. This experiment was repeated a few years later at Columbia University in New York by graduate student Andrew Shea. Initially only 28% of students were opting for the revolving doors. Andrew’s thesis involved the subject of designing for social change and as a result he created an aesthetically pleasing sign, again informing the students of the benefits of using the revolving door. Usage increased to a staggering 71%. 


I think it’s fascinating that something as basic as a simple sign can make such a difference. Although some of us do claim to be legitimately afraid of revolving doors, I think most of us are just sub-consciously avoiding them for no real reason. I have to admit, I’ve never really considered the environmental benefit that revolving doors offer and I think awareness of this does need to be increased. So if you have a revolving door at your uni or office, why not put up a sign and encourage people to use this great energy saving design.


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