Gateways to Learning

April 1, 2002
Facilities managers must consider many factors when selecting doors and windows for their buildings.

Each day, millions of students and instructors pass by windows and doors on the way to classes in school buildings throughout the United States. In most cases, they pay scant attention to these building features. The only time most people notice them is when they aren't working properly.

If a door doesn't lock to keep a wing of classrooms secure from intruders, or a window frame has such a poor seal that rain, snow and wind enter a classroom unencumbered, students and staff will be quick to notice and complain. Administrators who make sure their doors and windows are providing the best protection for their facilities can avoid those complaints — and the problems that might arise because of unsatisfactory equipment.

Finding a formula

The windows and doors that a school or university chooses to install are the result of an intricate formula that weighs security concerns, energy efficiency, accessibility, aesthetics and durability.

“And cost always plays a part,” says Keith Goodman, director of maintenance and operations for the Plano (Texas) Independent School District.

Doors and windows are the primary paths into a building for people, goods, sunshine and fresh air. But beyond those obvious roles, doors and windows are a critical factor in a building's overall security plan.

“Security plays a big role in the kinds of doors we choose,” says Goodman. “The equipment has to provide us with the level of security we require.”

Doors need to be durable enough to withstand the hard knocks that come from relentless use and abuse from students. They must meet federal guidelines for accessibility and local fire and building codes. Windows should keep out rain and snow, as well as the drafts that can play havoc with heating and cooling systems. They also should conserve energy and provide some measure of relief from the noise generated outside the school And once all those criteria are satisfied, the doors and windows should look good.

For renovation projects, school officials must be sensitive to the desire for replacement doors and windows to be architecturally compatible with the items they are supplanting.

“We try to make sure that the replacements are historically correct and fit in with the building we're renovating,” says Michael Sturko, manager of construction services for the facilities operations department at Washington State University in Pullman.

Attractive doors and windows can improve the atmosphere in a school, says John Eliassen, an architect with WLC Inc., which is part of a master design team that is overseeing construction projects for the West Contra Costa County Unified School District in Richmond, Calif.

“Good aesthetics, involving the use of doors and windows in styles appropriate to the original designs of campuses, creates a harmonious appearance, which has a direct effect on student and staff morale,” says Eliassen. “By replacing the older, energy-inefficient systems with modern look-alikes, we are seeing great improvements in function, reductions in energy consumption and greatly improved purchasing power.”

Keeping clean

Facilities managers responsible for buildings with many windows inevitably have to deal with the question: How are we going to keep all of them clean? That tedious task becomes even more difficult and dangerous when it involves cleaners scaling up the side of the structure with scaffolding and harnesses.

“That's a big issue for campuses, especially if they have a lot of high-rise buildings,” says Sturko.

At Washington State, maintainability is one of the factors that officials look for when choosing windows. Sturko says many of the windows in the university's classrooms, offices and labs are the type that allow both sides to be cleaned from the inside.

To keep heating and cooling systems running efficiently, the windows in most of the university's buildings can't be opened for day-to-day use. But workers can unlock the windows and turn the panes around so that they can clean the exterior side of the window from the inside of the building.

Washington State chooses windows with an expected lifespan of 50 to 100 years, so it's important for officials to select something that the campus will be able to live with for a long time.

In the West Contra County district, the master design team is developing standards for windows and doors. It will establish an optimal size for replacement windows “so that the district can competitively bid and have in-stock replacement components that can be immediately installed,” says Eliassen.

The team is recommending dual-pane thermal insulating glass with a vertical mullion in the center so that the replacement size will be smaller when a window is broken. It is also working with window manufacturers to create a sash system that is uniform in appearance and operation so that the systems can be bid competitively and look the same even when installed side by side.

Eliassen says West Contra County also has installed stile-and-rail doors in several schools, which, the architects have found, are less prone to wear and vandalism than flush doors.

No to noise

One reason many schools upgrade their windows is to reduce the noise that seeps in from outside sources. In some cases, students attending schools that are close to highways are distracted by the racket of passing traffic. In more obvious cases, schools situated in the shadow of airports often find it hard for students to focus on lessons when powerful jet engines roar past.

“It doesn't take a whole lot of noise to make a difference in a classroom,” says Chuck Newman, president of newmanArchitecture in Naperville, Ill. newmanArchictecture has worked with several Chicago area schools to abate noise from O'Hare and Midway airports.

Those airplanes generate plenty of noise to shatter the concentration of even the most focused student. The Federal Interagency Committee on Aviation Noise says research indicates that excessive noise can adversely affect a student's reading, motivation, language and speech acquisition, and memory. Newman says the decibel level generated by jet engines can reach 110.

“Most schools won't face anywhere near that noise level, but schools need to assess what noise level they are experiencing before they decide how they'll try to treat the problem,” says Newman.

One way to keep noise out of school is to limit the number of windows. But recent studies show that exposure to daylight can improve student performance, so educators want their schools to have more windows, not fewer.

Fortunately, window systems are available that provide sufficient daylight without surrendering in the battle against noise.

“You can have an appropriate number of windows and still have adequate control of noise,” says Newman.

Replacing single-pane glass with double-pane windows will help diminish noise as well as improve energy efficiency. Improving the seals around glass panes also will eliminate avenues for sound to leak through.

Some schools concerned with noise control opt to install windows that cannot be opened, says Newman. In that, it must make sure that its heating and ventilation systems are capable of providing the required air flow inside the building, says Newman.

“There are times when a school will want to have windows that open,” says Newman. “In the summer, when you wash the carpets or floors, you want to have the natural ventilation.”

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].


  • 24

    Percentage of public schools that reported building deficiencies that related to doors, windows or exterior walls and finishes.
    Source: Digest of Education Statistics 2001

  • 30 to 35

    Recommended decibel level of ambient noise (noise from all sources) in an unoccupied classroom.
    Source: Acoustical Society of America and the American National Standards Institute

  • 333

    Number of Chicago Public Schools that have received new windows from 1996-2001.
    Source: State of the Buildings, Chicago Public Schools Capital Improvement Program, April 2001

  • 200

    Number of Chicago Public Schools identified as needing new doors.
    Source: State of the Buildings, Chicago Public Schools Capital Improvement Program, April 2001

SIDEBAR: Plugging leaks

After years of neglect, hundreds of schools in Chicago were plagued by leaky windows and deteriorating doors. It was not uncommon for children to keep their coats on in their classrooms because dilapidated window systems couldn't stop the cold wind of Chicago winters from whistling in through the cracks.

In the mid-1990s, after a new management team took control of the district, the nation's third largest, officials began to address those facility programs more aggressively.

According to a 2001 report on the school system's capital improvements program, 333 schools in the district have received new windows since 1996. Several other buildings are waiting to receive new windows.

The report also states that about 200 schools need door replacements, and 28 schools had door projects underway. “The new steel doors feature ADA- and fire-code-approved hardware,” says the report. “Additional schools will receive door replacements as funding becomes available.”

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