Combining ADA Compliance With Aesthetics, Convenience

Apr 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By M. Christopher Smith

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For owners, architects, specifiers and facility managers, complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) while preserving a building's aesthetic qualities can be problematic. However, recent custom door entry options can be made to match any décor from historic to commercial buildings. New or renovated structures bound by the ADA's “readily achievable barrier removal” requirement for “public accommodation” facilities, have been legally required to do anything they reasonably can to remove physical barriers to accessibility at any time during a facility's life. The ADA code, while requiring greater public access, has had the unintended effect of creating a “tacked on” look and delaying many building projects.

In public and commercial buildings, ADA requirements have often led to automating door entries. The problem is that, too frequently, inadequate thought has been put into aesthetically integrating door entry systems with a building's appearance.

“For the past 30 years, most accessible design has been an afterthought and it shows,” says Harold Kiewel, AIA, CSI, CCS, an architect and specifications writer for HMC Architects in San Diego.

In order to comply with ADA requirements, the historic Minnesota state capital building had to be renovated before the legislature returned from recess. Automatic operators had to be installed on doors, and actuator switches mounted on walls. Because the stone and marble walls could not be cut into, the actuator switches could not be recessed flush with the walls, as typically done for aesthetic reasons.

“The building was historically ornate, so placing stainless steel switch boxes on the walls would have looked tacky, like an ugly add-on,” explains Eric Magdal, owner of Minneapolis-based Straughan Hardware, the commercial hardware distributor contracted to supply the switches.

To avoid an aesthetic mismatch, the project architect chose a special finish and a custom-made escutcheon that wrapped around the switch box to blend in with the wall.

“Automatic door operator switches are usually the last fixtures to be installed before a reopening,” Magdal says. “And custom work typically has an eight-week lead time. There was no room for error.”

Magdal turned to Wikk Industries Inc., a Greendale, Wis.-based designer and manufacturer of automatic door equipment. The company supplied 35 heavy-duty bronze door actuator switches with custom escutcheon plates to architectural specification. Instead of an industry-standard eight weeks, the company fulfilled the custom order in less than four weeks.

“You could have walked through the building and thought the high-tech hardware was originally installed with the building,” Magdal says. “It was a seamless match that helped preserve the historic sense of place and community.”


Automatic door operators are often used to make door openings accessible to comply with guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but they offer added convenience to a wider range of users. Concentrating only on ADA accessibility can lead building owners and facility managers to overlook the broader benefits of installing automatic operators.

ADA compliance and convenience can be complementary issues. For example, mechanical door closers that are adjusted to higher closing powers for difficult-to-close doors are often not ADA-accessible and can also be difficult for non-disabled persons to open. On the other hand, it may be possible under some conditions to accommodate ADA compliance by adjusting the mechanical door closer force to Size 1, which may not provide enough power to close the door completely due to weather conditions and building pressures. In most cases, automatic door operators are the best option to provide ADA accessibility and ensure that the door closes. Typically it may only be necessary to equip one door in a bank of doors.

ADA accessibility should not be looked at as simply a design for disability but also a function to serve everyone who uses the facility. In addition to meeting the needs of the 54 million Americans with disabilities, an accessible building is more convenient for the elderly, children and people carrying heavy loads, pulling laptop bags or pushing strollers. There is a business advantage to creating an environment to accommodate all ages and people.

One reason these opportunities are sometimes neglected centers around the confusion arising from the differences in terminology and organization between ADA guidelines, model building codes and ANSI standards. In an effort to reconcile differences from the model building codes, including the International Building Code (IBC), the United States Access Board has updated the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG). A side-by-side comparison of the new ADAAG, the original ADA standards and the IBC is available at the Access Board's website,

Many types of automatic operators available

Manufacturers provide a variety of automatic door operators to meet the various combinations of door openings, traffic patterns and conditions found in the field. Some of the available types are described here.

  • Electro-hydraulic low energy automatic operators are designed primarily for manual opening applications where there is occasional need for automating the door to meet ADA requirements. They combine a conventional heavy-duty door closer with a low-energy automatic operator. One manufacturer incorporates a highly reliable 10-million cycle, cast iron door closer and a digital control suite with on-board diagnostics that makes installation a simple plug-and-play process. Typical installations might include a door in a school building that operates manually most of the time but can be activated in automatic operator mode with a touch plate close to the door, either on a wall or bollard post. Some facilities are using wireless remote devices issued only to those who need them to avoid abuse or misuse of the operators.

  • Concealed pneumatic low energy automatic operators are suitable for applications where aesthetics are important while still meeting ADA guidelines for manual openings that require occasional automatic opening. They are built around a heavy-duty door closer for manual operation, combined with a pneumatic low energy operator to power the door when required. Power for the operator can come from the building's in-house air supply, if available, or from a small remote compressor available from the manufacturer of the door operator. In an application such as a library, pneumatic operators provide accessibility without visibility, and their quiet pneumatic operation is an added advantage.

  • Pneumatic low energy automatic operators are also available for surface mount applications. Pneumatic operators can be used in hazardous areas where electrically operated devices are not permitted. They are suitable for multiple doors because the cost per door leaf decreases significantly as the number of door leaves increases. Also quiet in operation, they can be combined with pneumatic exit devices for safety and silence in applications such as libraries, churches, hospitals or laboratories.

  • Electro-mechanical low energy swing door automatic operators are designed to open automatically when activated yet to allow manual operation for normal traffic. Unlike the previous operators, they are not built around a door closer but rather are gear-driven for applications where automatic operation is the primary mode. They typically are activated by an actuator mounted on a wall or bollard post. One manufacturer offers Push-N-Go operation that provides automatic power assistance for those who need it once the door is pushed. Typical applications include cross-corridor doors or other frequently used openings.

  • Electro-mechanical low energy, low manual opening force swing door automatic operators offer a low opening force (8-1/2 lb.) in the manual mode and low energy automatic swing door operation. Designed primarily for automatic applications, it also allows for manual operation with Push-N-Go operation. The low manual opening force makes it suitable for assisted living facilities, elementary schools and other applications where users may not have the strength or stature to apply the 15-pound force required to initiate motion with most automatic operators.

  • Electro-mechanical low energy automatic operators for light-to-medium traffic applications are designed to provide cost-effective and reliable access for people with disabilities and the elderly where there is light-to-medium traffic. They can be retrofitted to existing manual doors and also include Push-N-Go operation to achieve automatic operation without the added expense of optional activation accessories. These units are suitable for interior doors such as bathrooms and utility closets.

  • Electro-mechanical high energy automatic operators for high traffic applications are designed to manage heavy traffic flow in areas such as retail stores or airports. They provide a flexible solution, with control over opening speed, backcheck speed and position, latch position and hold-open duration. Unlike the previously mentioned low energy operators, these high-energy products require added safety devices such as safety mats or other sensors to control the flow of users through the door and guard rails to keep non-users in the area away from the door's swing path.

M. Christopher Smith is product manager for automatic operators at Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies, Carmel, Ind.

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