Glass Door Access Control and Hardware’s Path to Viral Safety

By Scott Sowers

Between March 1 and April 25, 2020, the arts and crafts website Etsy saw a 5,127% increase in web searches for “door openers.” Also in March 2020, Marshall Haas, the founder of Peel, a manufacturer of smartphone accessories, developed the Keychain Touch Tool made out of bacteria-resistant brass, and began selling it online for $35.

It doesn’t stop there. Creating a separation from finger tips to door handles spurred other nimble product manufacturers to create a whole new product category. More permanent solutions have since infiltrated the glass door hardware industry and will likely alter it forever.

Initial Effects

The effects of the pandemic on the glass hardware industry have been a mix of good and bad. “The first and most obvious effect was the transition to a remote [environment],” says Benjamin Smith, vice president of marketing for Banner Solutions, based in Akron, Ohio. “We serve both commercial and residential. On the residential side, a lot of people were stuck at home and interested in improving their houses so in [that market] we saw a nice upshot as a result of the pandemic.”

The impact on firms focused on downtown office spaces was a different story. “Our business was very concentrated in city centers with Class A office space, prestigious buildings; those facilities have been subjected to lower traffic patterns,” says Alex Housten, chief operating officer of Dormakaba, whose U.S. operations are based in Indianapolis. “We’ve seen a sizable impact. Now it’s coming back and it’s pretty nice to see.”

The birth of the Keychain Touch Tool serves as a proper metaphor for how the industry has adapted to catastrophe. Foot pulls, handles designed for elbows and other touchless solutions initially flew off the shelves.

“These kinds of economic situations always drive innovation, which is a good thing,” says Boston-based Mark Duato, executive vice president, aftermarket for Assa Abloy. “A year ago the market began asking for more sophisticated solutions and it meant, in many cases, simple solutions related to virus protection. We had a lot of products like this already on the market that were readily available.”

Questions About Coatings

In the early stages of the virus the fear of the unknown saw shoppers wiping down groceries and making their own hand sanitizer. Every touchable surface was scrutinized. The handles, knobs and pulls used to traverse through glass doors or open windows were reviewed for antimicrobial properties—but the hardware folks were ahead of the curve.

“I launched our original antimicrobial products about ten years ago,” says Michael McCoy, product manager for Dormakaba. “There is no official standard; we are utilizing today the exact same product.” According to McCoy, Sciessent, a chemical company based in Beverly, Mass., produces “agion,” which is a silver ion that can be added as a powder coating on door hardware.

Research indicates that certain metals including silver are more resistant to bacteria, fungi, and certain viruses. This fact helps account for using silverware at the table. Copper is the other big name in antimicrobial metals. Brass also joins the circle because it contains copper.

Healthcare facilities have served as the proving ground for protective coatings as the concerns about touching surfaces began transcending market verticals. “The healthcare segment has always been strong for us and that’s where these technologies have existed but it’s certainly crossing over into the commercial space,” says Duato.

Questions about the added focus on coatings include concerns from hardware companies being caught unprepared. “The state of New York has proposed a bill that indicates that for public use facilities the state is asking for solid copper on all touch surfaces,” says McCoy. “One of my largest customers is the New York City Schools and, if they are forced to use solid copper surfaces, where does that leave me if I don’t have copper as an alternative? We’re forced to at least consider the option … We are investigating it.”

At the same time, the science indicates that what we’re touching is still not as important as what we are breathing. “The guidance from the CDC has shown the attention has shifted,” says Smith. “They’re saying the spread of the pandemic is not so much of a concern in contact as much as aerosol. Coatings that are not an actual substrate may be anti-bacterial but not necessarily anti-viral.”

Going Touchless

The debate over coatings becomes moot with openings that don’t need to be touched. The pandemic has boosted frictionless, touchless entrances and exits, a trend that was already underway. “It did accelerate to the point where a year ago we saw a huge spike for things like automated openings,” says Duato. “Those things were driven by businesses needing to get people back to work and do it really safely.”

Beyond retrofitting existing doors, the pandemic is expected to have an effect on how new construction is designed and offices are laid out. A lot of the essential technology has already been invented and is right down the hall.

“While touch-free, sensor-flush toilets and faucets have been common in office building restrooms for years, perhaps automated and voice-activated doors could also become more standardized at office building entrances,” says Gail Malone, a principal with architectural firm Gensler, who is based in Atlanta. “Another solution could be designing a door-free entry point that relies on intuitive wayfinding to navigate an employee or visitor through an office building.”

What’s This Going to Cost?

The best of all safest scenarios for getting into and out of a space could be a combination of antimicrobial coatings on door hardware, combined with doors that don’t need to be touched. But safety comes with a price tag. “We can make something that kills everything but if it costs 50 times more to put it on the door, they may balk,” says McCoy of purchasers. “And if it doesn’t meet the aesthetic requirements and looks unattractive they’re going to be put off.”

For retrofits, the question of who is going to pay also raises questions. “Converting existing entry points in spaces and buildings will be a financial burden on owners, landlords and businesses,” says Malone. “Starting with changing the hardware at the public spaces that are accessed by many could be a bit more digestible to these stakeholders.”

What About the Future?

The pandemic changed the world as we know it and going back to how things used to be doesn’t seem realistic. The desire to get people into and out of work places safely is also spurring explorations about new ways of moving people through a space.

“We’re rethinking people’s physical interaction and their operation of entryways,” says Malone. “Entering in one door, stair or elevator bank and exiting through another is a way to guide people’s movement throughout a space. I think we will see more touchless activations at entryways via gesture or facial recognition technology and eventually integrated sensor and monitoring technology in building entry systems and architecture.”

Housten is seeing the adoption of speed bumps trimmed in glass to help employees from bunching up on their way to their desks. “If you have an office area with a common starting time you might do some traffic metering with an optical turnstile,” he says. “They can be used very elegantly to meter traffic to the elevators so you don’t have overcrowding. Some of our large campus customers have deployed these solutions quite elegantly.”

Writing the Code

The pandemic’s effect on future building codes remains to be seen, but industry leaders and designers are already preparing for change. “We anticipate the codes to change and we’d like to be at the table to discuss that,” says Duato. “These are very active discussions. Certain types of openings will have requirements. Safer to open, automated technologies, mobile technologies for electrified access control, those things are being designed into those projects. We’re in a very cool changing point.”

The lessons learned from the past year will be influencing design and construction for the foreseeable future as the particulars start to play out. “It will take some time for specifiers to become more knowledgeable about what products are available to make entry points safer from viruses, specifically new products,” says Malone. “Door hardware manufacturers and representatives will engage architects, designers, and specifiers more aggressively to ensure that they are able to learn about and specify hardware that provides a safer experience for their customers and clients.”

Just as the pandemic has helped spur the change from fabric curtains to glass partitions in hospitals, the hardware business is also changing with the times. “I believe touchless is here to stay,” says Housten. “It was here strongly before from an accessibility perspective. There was a secondary trend of frictionless and the deployment of mobile credentials, and other longer distance, wireless credentials to access secure spaces. When they re-open facilities we’ll be thinking about whatever the next event will be.”

“We try to listen to our customers and partners and that’s what drives investment in different technologies,” adds Duato. “We’re going to see a lot more mobile security credentials implemented downstream into the commercial workplaces over time. The percentage of openings that are being automated for frictionless capability continues to grow significantly. This was a trend before COVID, but it significantly bumped it up a year ago.”

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