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Zero Clearance Entrances in NYC: Part II Fire/Smoke Barrier Doors vs Zero Clearance Doors

Louis "LJ" Blaiotta, Jr. on Monday, October 15, 2018 at 12:00:00 am

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A typical swing door for a zero clearance installation, this one by Columbia Elevator Products is installed at 56 Leonard Street in NYC.

A typical swing door for a zero clearance installation, this one by Columbia Elevator Products is installed at 56 Leonard Street in NYC.

To better understand NYC’s unique use of zero clearance entrances, you need to understand the designs and purposes of two types of door systems. Fire doors are usually held open by a magnetic catch/switch that retains the swing door in the open position during normal operation. However, upon activation of a fire alarm, the catch is released, and the self-closing swing door closes to prevent smoke from entering the hoistway. Unless properly protected during a fire event, elevator hoistways, as vertical shafts within a building structure, can allow for the unintended migration of smoke and fire between floors – a natural phenomenon referred to as the ‘stack-effect’ (as in a smoke stack.) Placing a second smoke barrier immediately in front of an elevator entryway is an extremely effective solution and an alternative to constructing elevator lobbies at each corridor landing, or to using gasketing, with or without the pressurization of the shaftway. Another solution - the use of roll-down barriers - can be used to similar effect, but present design limitations for the wall space between the top of the entrance assembly and the ceiling above. 

All such solutions, including the swinging fire door, do not allow the entrance to be locked out of service. Passengers exiting the elevator cab during a fire will easily be able to open and pass through the fire/smoke barrier positioned in front of the landing entrance. Their exit can happen without the need for any special keys or tools; plus, passengers will not encounter an entrapment issue. 

Zero-clearance doors, while very similar in appearance to the fire/smoke barrier doors, behave very differently and provide different benefits and features. Just like their fire/smoke barrier door counterparts, zero-clearance doors can also can be used to provide additional smoke and fire protection; however, their primary purpose is one of security, especially in high-end buildings that may have only one or two apartments per floor.

In super-tall, super-thin, and super-luxurious buildings – where typically there is only one apartment per landing – it is becoming increasingly the case that a "common-space" corridor between the elevator entrance and the apartment's front door becomes unnecessary. In this situation, the entire corridor can be eliminated, and the zero-clearance security entrance becomes necessary to help prevent unauthorized entry into an apartment from the elevator.

An ideal way to accomplish this – while at the same time maximizing the interior marketable space of the apartment – is by elimination of the exterior corridor while installing a zero-clearance security door directly at the elevator entrance to the cab. With the addition of such security doors, luxury apartment dwellers enjoy the effect of living with private elevators that directly service their units without the wasted space of dedicated shaftways for each unit. While the addition of the swing door in front of the sliding entrance doors does mean less unusable space and more security, it also means that the doors cannot be opened without the use of a permitted key or special tool, and, for that reason, landings used for egress during a fire alarm cannot be fitted with locked zero clearance doors.

In addition to such residential applications, zero clearance doors are being utilized commercially to accommodate a growing trend of single tenants occupying multiple floors in an office building. As the commercial tenant needs drift away from once-standard full floor/bank block occupancy, new and special requirements are arising for priority and/or express elevators, such as when a tenant’s executives require expedited travel to offices and conference rooms in the higher portion of the building. Next time, I’ll explain how zero clearance entrances eliminate concerns of entrapment.



Zero Clearance Entrances in NYC - Understanding Phase I and Phase II Fire Safety Codes

Louis "LJ" Blaiotta, Jr. on Monday, October 1, 2018 at 12:00:00 am

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520 West 28th Street

520 West 28th Street in Manhattan, often referred to as the “Zaha Hadid building,” for which Columbia Elevator provided 100 entrances. All are zero-clearance and were delivered in prime for customized adaptation to the surroundings of each entrance.

Start spreading the news: New York, New York has recently added another iconic structure to its skyline in the city’s ultra-chic West Chelsea area. Located immediately adjacent to the Highline at 520 West 28th Street, this property is often referred to as the Zaha Hadid building, in homage to the architect who personally designed it. Embodying the futuristic "mathematically inspired curving buildings” approach of Ms. Hadid’s famed point of view, this building was her first residential project in New York and among the last she completed before her passing in March of 2016.

Typical of today’s trend toward ultra-luxe environments, the 520 W 28th Street building features amenities such as a swimming pool, a private 3D IMAX screening room, and state-of-the art air filtration system. It also includes 100 zero clearance elevator entrances provided by Columbia Elevator Products. The entrances were delivered with a baked prime grey finish to allow for subsequent painting in the field to match the surroundings of each apartment.

The use of zero clearance entrances has long been a subject of confusion, particularly because their use is unique to New York City as they conflict with the locked-out-of service restrictions found in the national elevator code. Fire safety codes typically involve a Phase-I and Phase-II.

  • In Phase-I, when smoke is detected, all elevators cease up-and-down operation, redirect to the evacuation floor and shut down.
  • In Phase-II, firefighters have access to special keys, allowing them to manually assume elevator operation and direct cars to whatever floor is most advantageous to fighting the fire. If for any reason the Phase II key is turned off, the door either does not open or reverses direction and closes.

Everywhere other than New York City, Phase I and II prevent the “locking out of service” of a landing. NYC became the exception because of its unique real estate environment, particularly relating to luxury high-rise residential construction and some unique commercial applications. Besides the design flexibility that zero-clearance entrances provide an architect, such situations are also governed by matters of revenue and profitability. Market forces made it desirable to install elevators exclusive to single occupancy floors in residential buildings.

Initially for penthouses, and then for lower-level luxe apartments with private elevator service, NYC building owners and managers sought to sell or rent entire floors, including the common areas which had been customarily allocated to an elevator vestibule or corridor between the elevator doors and an apartment’s front door. But, accomplishing this while adhering to Phases I and II fire safety codes presented a major problem: it would make the firefighter’s key easily accessible to potential thieves and allow them access to entire private residences.   Let me take you into the NYC analysis process.

A first thought was to use a universal “fireman’s key” or a key-switch in the car operating panel to restrict access to the single tenant floor, allowing access exclusively to its residents. However, this created a serious security issue due to the number of elevator service and life-safety professionals who would necessarily have access to the keys and postcodes to perform their roles. A next thought was to provide all parties access to the exclusive floor, but install, in front of the elevator sliding doors, a second, separate swing door that required its own key. While this more aggressively blocked entry by thieves, while a firefighter with an axe could still gain entry, such an arrangement would not be compliant with national locked-out-of-service codes.

Ultimately it took a local, New-York-Centric modification to the building codes to accommodate this application. After much debate about the amount of space that was safe to create between the two door sets, NYC building code came around to allowing such construction using a swing door, mounted in front of an elevator entrance with sliding doors, but with the most minimal possible space or gap between them. This created the concept of “zero clearance” entrances that could yield the desired additional square footage that the real estate developers were endeavoring to sell or rent, while ensuring all the necessary security.

While many cities allow a second door in front of the sliding doors as a smoke seal (which remain open during normal operations and only close to an unlocked position with the tripping of a fire alarm), to the best of my knowledge, NYC is unique in that it permits such swing doors to lock in the closed position during normal elevator operation.



Columbia Elevator Celebrates its 53rd Anniversary

Louis "LJ" Blaiotta, Jr. on Monday, September 17, 2018 at 12:00:00 am

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Lou and Marie Blaiotta at Columbia Elevator Products 50th Anniversary celebration.

Lou and Marie Blaiotta at Columbia Elevator Products
50th Anniversary celebration.

LJ and Lou Blaiotta cutting the cake at Columbia’s
50th Anniversary celebration.

September 2018 is the 53rd anniversary of Columbia Elevator Products, and it is the first anniversary that our founder, my father, Lou Blaiotta is not here to celebrate with us. It has been a difficult few months since we lost Dad, but it has been inspiring for me, my mother, and the extended Blaiotta family to receive cards, phone calls, emails, and text messages from people who knew Mr. B.

What was most humbling were the stories we heard from people about how Mr. B extended a hand to others in the industry, even in the early years when he was struggling to get his own company off the ground. The messages I heard were often the same:

“Your dad helped me out when I was just starting out in business.”

“He extended me credit when no one else would.”

“He always gave us great advice, even though we were competitors.”

Those wise enough to listen to his advice came to realize that Mr. B’s intentions were pure; he wanted you to succeed in business as much as he wanted to build safe, aesthetically pleasing elevators in his own business.

We also heard from current and hundreds of past employees who appreciated Mr. B’s tough approach to business and saw that he wanted us to live by the characteristics most paramount to him: hard work and determination. He kept a Sam Goldwyn quote pinned up on his desk for inspiration, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”  

When we hit the 50th anniversary, we at Columbia had a huge celebration, and, at the center, of it was Mr. B! Although he isn’t here today working alongside us as we move the company forward, we know that his spirit of innovation and enterprise will endure in us and in the memories of the people fortunate to have known him intimately or to have collaborated with him across the industry.

Happy Anniversary to Columbia Elevator Products – and thank you Lou Blaiotta for leaving a legacy of industry excellence. We are determined to work hard and keep you proud of the company you started in September 1965.