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Tall Stories in the Big Apple: Elevator Entrances reach New Heights! Part II: How are we able to install 20-Foot entrances and meet Fire-Code?

Lou Blaiotta on Monday, October 16, 2017 at 6:00:00 am

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20 Foot Lobby Entrances at WTC3
20 Foot Lobby Entrances at WTC3

First a bit of history. Before drywall was used in the construction of multi-story buildings, elevator entrances were designed and built for the then-prevailing masonry construction of openings which only required that the doors, and not the frames, have a fire safety label. In fact, in a masonry application, it is allowable to construct a fire-rated opening with just fire-rated doors and no frame at all, as long the code required door-to-wall gap and overlaps around the doors are maintained.

Nevertheless, frames are often used in masonry environments because of the precision they contribute to the fit of components. When openings are cut into a pre-existing masonry wall, it is very difficult - if not impossible - to achieve perfect alignment between elevator car and hatch-side components. This alignment situation is ameliorated using steel frames, which are installed prior to the wall construction and act to ensure elevator equipment alignment. In such masonry circumstances, only the doors require UL® labeling while masonry “alignment” frames do not. To understand why, it’s easier to think of the jambs more as “concrete forms” rather than fire-rated frames.

A subsequent step forward in fireproof construction came with the invention of drywall, which became highly popular due to its lesser cost and weight, faster speed of installation, and its design flexibility. In a fire-rated shaftway, drywall construction is composed of a 1-inch thick shaft wall liner on the shaft side and two thinner sheets of 5/8-inch drywall on the corridor side, with an air space between. The fact that fire could work its way into that so-called interstitial space required capping the ends between the shaft wall liner and the corridor liners whenever penetrations are cut into a drywall system to gain access to the shaftway.

With frames already in use in masonry environments, elevator entrance designs drifted to using the same frames as interstitial end-caps for drywall openings; however, this led to a new set of challenges. Upon installing a steel frame together with a fire-rated door and subjecting this combination to a fire test, it was found that, without masonry behind to hold the frame in place, the frame would twist and allow the gap between the drywall sheets to open and permit fire to spread from floor to floor. It was determined that, to render these frames workable in a drywall application, modifications needed to be made to the design of the frame, including hooks on the back of the doors and other accommodations. Consequently, to properly regulate fire safety in drywall applications, it became necessary to now obtain U.L. labels for the frames as well as the doors in drywall, contrary to the doors-only requirement that is still acceptable by code for masonry.

The first successful fire tests for drywall door and frame combinations were for very small openings because of the design difficulties these presented. As 7- and 8-foot entrances became standard, architects began striving for taller entrances to achieve the bold new looks they were imagining and needing to create to remain competitive. The bigger the openings became, the more difficult the ability to conduct fire testing.

Demand continued to develop for taller openings, more in the range of 9 to 10 feet, not only for aesthetic reasons, but also to create bigger service cars able to move both people and large objects within a building. If such large entrances had not been previously tested, then they would not qualify for a UL label. For a time, the only UL-labeled alternative to such “oversize” entrances was to go with masonry. It was inevitable that a way needed to be found to create door/entrance combinations for drywall that met UL standards. 

To accommodate this industry need, Columbia Elevator sought ways to create progressively larger and larger fire-rated door and frame combinations that would pass the required fire test in all wall types. At first door manufacturers in the elevator industry tested designs for masonry openings and then for drywall. After testing several permutations and combinations, Columbia Elevator developed and are manufacturing revolutionary oversized solutions for both environments. Next time, I will share a specific example of how we resolved oversized issues at a major NYC high rise building.


Tall Stories in the Big Apple, Elevator Entrances reach New Heights!

Lou Blaiotta on Monday, October 2, 2017 at 6:00:00 am

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Twenty-foot-high elevator entrances!

WTC3 Computer Rendering from World Trade Center Press Kit
WTC3 Computer Rendering from World Trade Center Press Kit

At first blush, 20-foot high elevator entrances sound like the stuff of imagination or a futuristic movie set. However, this is the current reality at Tower 3 of New York City’s World Trade Center complex where one of the major OEMs is in the process of installing 27 such oversized entrances designed and strategically supplied by Columbia Elevator Products.

Among the world’s most iconic sites, WTC-3 is located at 175 Greenwich Street at the southern tip of Manhattan. Standing 80 stories and nearly 1,100 feet in height – this building, and its soaring lobby, are scheduled for completion in 2018. The design of Tower 3 was brought to life by noted architect Richard Rogers of Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners. The plans called not only for these soaring entrance heights, but for a revolutionary approach to elevator entrances and lighting applications as a certifiable part of their structure. 

Such bold vision has been a growing trend as architects increasingly stretch the limits of design and code compliance to meet the demands of today’s dynamically-evolving, highly-competitive real estate environment. In the elevator industry, market demand drives innovation, and, in 2017, the elevator entrance has shown unending invention since its rudimentary beginnings over a century ago. Even in more recent times, entrance heights of 20 feet, or even half that, were unfathomable, not because of aesthetic issues but as matters of safety.

Elevator entrances play much more of a critical role to safety than many people know. Most look at elevator entrances and today’s sliding doors as purely a way to “pretty up” the property – without giving much thought to their two most fundamental safety functions:

  • to protect the opening and keep people from accidentally falling into the shaftway when the car is not there; and
  • to prevent fire from moving floor to floor in an open shaftway, which, in effect, acts like a giant chimney.

Fire safety remains a critical and sometimes restrictive factor in the design and functionality of today’s aesthetic adventurism. The design challenge for oversized entrances is to overcome some of the legacy restrictions while maintaining the safety and support of continually advancing architectural trends.

Next time, I’ll talk about how to construct fire-rating openings that meet code and allow us to build soaring entrances.


Words of Wisdom: Planning for the future

Lou Blaiotta on Monday, September 18, 2017 at 6:00:00 am

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The day-to-day running of a business is overwhelming, as any business owner will tell you. Still, you can’t just focus on the current crisis or the order due at the end of the week. It’s vital that you consider what’s further ahead in the coming months and years. Otherwise, your company will fail.

In my previous blog, I shared some of the Words of Wisdom I have followed to build successful employees and a successful business.  

  • Hopes are just wishes without a plan.
  • Dreams are goals in need of a plan.
  • Reality is the result of well-executed, goal-directed plans. 

What am I talking about? An entrepreneur cannot achieve the dreams or wishes he has for his company if he doesn’t have a concrete plan.

Part of the job of a company owner is to have a broad-stroke/high-level strategy for how a company can thrive in an industry's constantly changing landscape. To do that, it is vital to have a planning process where every three or five years a leadership team sets a strategic plan for the company. To develop a clear plan, the leadership team needs to

  • identify wishes for the company
  • assess current assets and liabilities
  • itemize the threats to reaching the goals of company viability and growth
  • recognize and acknowledge how your company must adapt to the ever-evolving elevator industry

Finally, through the development of a strategic plan, your company can achieve goals by a specific date and convert your dreams into the company’s reality.

photo of employees in lunchroom listening to a presentation

As we build our strategic plan at Columbia, we gather feedback from employees in small, division groups.
This allows us to involve everyone in the plans for the company’s future.