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Knock-knock no more: Doors are being redesigned amid COVID-19

Doorknobs are out as entrepreneurs, engineers and architects design hands-free doors to reduce the spread of disease.
Image: 3D printing design firm Materialise is encouraging 3D printer owners to print their own plastic door handles that allow people to open doors with their forearm.
The 3D-printing design and manufacturing firm Materialise is encouraging 3D printer owners to print their own plastic door handles to allow people to open doors with a forearm instead of a hand.Materialise

Doors carry disease. A contaminated doorknob can infect half an office in just a few hours. But you can't exactly socially distance from a door.

As some companies plan a return to the office, entrepreneurs, engineers and architects are confronting a design challenge: how to keep the public safe from shared items that require constant decontamination. Grabbing a doorknob is almost as unconscious as touching your face — and both are now considered health risks.

"I’m not seeing my family, but I’m touching things that a thousand other people have, too," said Ziad Salah, 26, from Edmonton, Alberta. His wife, Maram, is pregnant with their first child and both have older parents. "It’s not enough to socially distance from being around people. You have to socially distance from things that are publicly shared, too."

Tired of using his sleeve to open doors, Salah and two friends, brothers Abed Shawar, 26 and Ammar Shawar, 28, designed a solution. Their product, the CleanKey, is a key-shaped pocket tool with a hook on the end that can open doors of up to 70 pounds without the user's hands ever touching the door handle. It can also be used to press elevator buttons, keypads or touch screens.

The CleanKey is among a proliferation of portable door-openers that have either entered the market or grown in popularity since the pandemic took hold. Salah said he and his team have worked to improve upon other designs: The CleanKey has a curved hook, for example, for a more stable grab, and at $7, is cheaper than some of its competitors. "We’re getting orders for five to six of them at a time; one for every member of a family, so we don't want the total cost running to $100," he said.

"Most heavy doors are around 50-70 pounds. Our plan was to make [something] thick enough to carry those doors," said CleanKey co-creator Ziad Salah.CleanKey Canada

Carrying such tools might not be for everyone, though, so some 3D-printing evangelists have altered the design of the door itself.

It took engineers at Materialise, which runs Europe's largest 3D-printing factory, just three days to design, manufacture, refine and publish online printing blueprints for a device that can be installed on an existing door handle and allows it to be opened with a forearm instead of a hand.

"We didn’t invent sliced bread with this thing. It’s a door handle," Kristof Sehmke, a spokesperson for Materialise, said by phone from Leuven, Belgium, where the company is headquartered.

3D printing design and manufacturing firm Materialise is encouraging 3D printer owners to print their own plastic door handles that allow people to open doors with their forearm.Materialise

"But I think we were possibly the first to come up with a positive, functional, 3D-printed solution for a very practical problem that everybody has," he added.

Materialise specializes in designing and 3D-printing medical equipment, so the goal was never to mass produce doorknobs. Instead, by making the blueprints available free online, the company is encouraging a grassroots retrofitting of doors: Anyone with a 3D printer can download and make their own handles.

One-hundred-thousand blueprints have been downloaded so far, equivalent to at least one tenth of all 3D-printer owners worldwide. The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota has even installed door handles printed from Materialise's blueprints, Sehmke said.

Sample design for one of Materialise's hand-free door handles. "Something as simple as this speaks to the imagination," says spokesperson Kristof Sehmke.Materialise

Even before the pandemic, architects and designers were increasingly interested in how the workplace affects employees' physical and mental health. "Fundamentally, we want to be creating buildings that minimize the amount of sickness people have when they’re in the office," said Arjun Kaicker, head of workplace analytics and insights at Zaha Hadid Architects, which is headquartered in London.

Kaicker designs some of the most sophisticated office spaces in the world, where everything from elevator doors to the air conditioning over an individual desk can be controlled by a cellphone app. He suggests voice-activated doors as a future alternative to germy doorknobs, with employees simply asking Alexa to close the door.

But in the short-term, Kaicker said offices may opt for simpler solutions.

"Meeting room doors are going to be propped open and only if you have a meting requiring absolute privacy will a person close that door with a handkerchief," he suggests.

"And when people move into the offices straightaway, they might just take doors off meetings rooms and offices and put them into storage until things change."

Don Norman has built a career around thinking about doors. Norman, an engineer, psychologist and director of the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego, wrote the bestselling design manual, "The Design of Everyday Things" after he constantly encountered poorly designed objects during his time at Cambridge University in England in the 1980s.

"They had doors that moved in every possible direction. 'Do I push it or pull it?' So I try both and nothing happens! Then I find out you have to slide it to the left," Norman said. His subsequent exploration of the phenomenon has even led to badly designed doors being dubbed "Norman doors."

The term 'Norman door' has been coined for a badly-designed door that needs a sign to tell people how to use itRatchat / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Norman thinks low-tech design solutions like foot-operated kick pedals at the bottom of doors will prove most effective in pandemic-proofing while avoiding the fate of the "Norman door."

"The more technology you throw at a problem, the more things go wrong," he said.

Psychologically, Norman believes that expanding the reach of pre-existing doors for people with disabilities — like automatic doors controlled by a button that can be activated with just an elbow — could also be key to getting a potentially skeptical public on board.

"I don’t want to tell people, 'This is what we put in to solve the pandemic.' Instead, we say, 'Hey, this is an easier to use door for people with children,' for example. If you come out as the expert, telling people what we must do, people rebel," Norman said.

"But if we make things better for people, with less touching, it would work for everybody."