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An Energy Revolution At Your Doorstep

September 23, 2015

Each rotation of a revolving door generates enough electricity to power a 60-watt light bulb for 23 minutes. Revolving doors also equalize indoor temperatures, save lots of money, and reduce carbon output. So why do fewer than 30% of us choose to use them when they are located next to swinging doors? I’ve been a curious observer of entryway behavior for several years now, ever since I noticed very few people using the revolving doors at a newer building near my home (a building that earned LEED Gold certification no less). The air escaping from its swinging doors seemed to defeat the whole purpose of designing for energy efficiency. So I set out to understand the problem and see if I could craft a solution, not with fancy gadgets or digital technology, but through some simple yet compelling visual communications design. After all, if this behavior can be changed, what other everyday lapses in conserving energy and bolstering resilience could we transform?

“Storm Door Structure”

My questions led me to the brilliantly-named Theophilus Van Kannel, an inventor from Philadelphia who was granted the first American patent for his revolving door in 1888. This was not Van Kannel’s only invention — he also created and owned Witching Waves, an undulating amusement ride that proved popular in Coney Island — but it was the one that landed him in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. And for good reason. For the first time in history, people were able to enter and exit through the same door at the same time without the “possibility of collision,” as Van Kannel put it. A standard “4-wing” revolving door can move 4,800 people into and out of a building every hour, and all collision-free. But Van Kannel’s main concern when he designed what we now know as the revolving door was keeping out the elements, dubbing his creation “Storm-Door Structures” for their ability to prevent all the wind, rain, snow, dust and noise that rushed in through swinging doors from ever sullying another plush lobby.

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Resolve to Revolve

Today, it is the gathering storm and the rising tide of climate change that the humble revolving door may help keep at bay. We usually see revolving doors in large buildings where we work, shop, or go to school. These high-use buildings account for 18.6% of America’s total energy costs but, according to a study in 2006 by Urban Planning students at MIT, we could each save $7,500 a year and conserve enough energy to heat five homes, while saving 14.6 tons of carbon collectively, if everyone used revolving doors in just one building. Multiply those figures by the number of buildings that have revolving doors and the savings would be enormous.

To understand how to persuade more people to use revolving doors, I headed to midtown Manhattan, a neighborhood in New York City where a large number of people choose between swinging and revolving doors every day. Of the 42 buildings I observed, only 28% of the people entering and exiting used the revolving doors. They seemed to use swinging doors for many reasons. In some cases, door attendants opened them as people approached the buildings. People also followed others through swinging doors because the door was already open and often being held for them. Swinging doors do of course perform an essential function for many people who are disabled and for those who need to haul large items into and out of buildings. But our country could significantly reduce the $68 billion the Department of Energy estimates that we spend on heating and cooling every year if the rest of us used revolving doors.

MIT’s study found that some people used swinging doors because they perceive revolving doors to be more difficult to push. Other people expressed a fear of getting stuck or injured. While revolving doors need to be easy for everyone to use, it appeared that people were using swinging doors more out of habit, without thinking twice about which door to use. The MIT students provide a series of recommendations to increase people’s use of revolving doors, including better signs. I wondered if a better sign could in fact disrupt people’s habit of using swinging doors. It was time for an experiment.

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Power of Signs

Back at the LEED Gold-certified building near my home, I first gathered some baseline numbers and found that only 29 percent chose the revolving doors. So I taped a crude 8.5″ x 11″ sign to the swinging door that read “Please Use Revolving Doors.” The simple sign increased the average number of people who used the revolving door to 58%. I actually watched several people walk up to the door and stop to read the sign, then chose to use the nearby revolving door instead of the swinging door. This convinced me that even a basic sign could convince people to make different choices.

The second sign I made was smaller, but it pointed to the revolving door. The average number of people who used the revolving doors only increased to 53%. This proves the importance of the sign’s size: signs will be more effective if people can read them at a distance since larger graphics are easier to see, interpret, understand, and act upon from a distance. My third sign stretched two feet long, was seven inches tall (allowing for larger letters), and it not only pointed in the direction of the revolving doors but also featured the building’s branding colors to give it more authority. This larger sign prompted 70% of people to use the revolving doors.

Based on these two first signs, it seems that even more people would use revolving doors if even larger signs were used on the swinging doors (or covered the whole door), and people had more time to react. Even those who are looking down as they approach the doors — perhaps looking at their phones — would likely pay more attention to larger and more engaging graphics and be prodded into making more mindful decisions.

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There are many challenges that might benefit from a similar step-by-step process: observing how place or infrastructures help to shape the problem, prototyping and testing visual solutions that change how people behave in those locations, communicating the value of this design approach to people and organizations that might benefit from the design, and sharing the design solutions as open source documents that others can modify and implement. (Since I finished this project, the toolkit I created for others to use has been downloaded by over 1,700 people, and has been tested and its results verified by design radio show 99 Percent Invisible. Listen to their experiment here.)

We spend about half of each day in the same locations — such as home, work, and in transit — causing us to form habits that guide our behaviors in those places. So be observant and look for opportunities to use design in ways that might change the way people act and lead to positive social, environmental, and economic outcomes. You can make a difference and we can make progress, even by going around in circles.

Try This At Home

As my own experiment proves, a well-designed sign can make all the difference. So if you live or work in a building with a revolving door, I’ve created an open-sourced toolkit full of templates that you can download. Just customize the poster and signs with your color scheme, your logo, and add your address and contact information. If you need a printer to fabricate your signs, check Inker Linker for one in your area. Once you have the signs printed, add the directional arrows to your swinging doors, the circular facts to your revolving doors, and use the 8.5″ x 14″ poster near the entryway. Cold-blooded people like me will thank you for plugging your drafty lobbies.

Andrew Shea is the founder and principal at MANY, a communication design studio focused on creating positive social, environmental, and economic impact. He is the author of “Designing for Social Change: Strategies for Community-Based Design”, and he teaches design at Parsons, Pratt, and City University of New York.
Images: All images courtesy of Andrew Shea; source images for schematic from “The Revolving Door since 1881” by Alan Bearmore, except center sketch from “The Secret History Of The Revolving Door” by The Nonist.

2 Comments

  1. I didn’t know revolving doors produce electricity – or any usable energy. Is this for LEED certified buildings only, or all revolving doors?
    It would be interesting to see people’s reactions to yet another sign saying ‘produce energy – use the revolving door’ or something catchier. I would use the revolving door more, despite the perceived inconveniences, knowing it was contributing to help the environment.
    Currently when I see those signs, I also am unaware of any clear and obvious advantages or reasons to use one door over the other and often ignore them.

  2. Hi Laura,

    Most revolving doors don’t produce electricity, even in LEED buildings, though this technology has been developed: http://inhabitat.com/energy-generating-revolving-door-by-boon-edam. I think you might be thinking of the first sentence in the article (“Each rotation of a revolving door generates enough electricity to power a 60-watt light bulb for 23 minutes”) which refers to the fact that using a revolving door requires force. It would be great if every revolving door would a turbine that generated energy but there doesn’t seem to be much interest in this (yet).

    I really like your idea of customizing the text to be more motivational. Let me know if you end up using the toolkit to do that. I’d love to learn what outcomes you get.

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