Deciding which way to open a door is a big deal (if you've decided to spend some time thinking about it). Unless it's a really large door on a really big room, there are issues.

Stack Exchange the web-based Q&A forum has an interesting discussion going on on the subject of the doors on public toilets and stalls. I found it when browsing their user experience section.

The question was posted by daniel.sedlacek and goes like this.

Public restrooms design usually pay great attention to hand washing, providing facilities like wash basin (sink) – sometimes with touch free, IR operated taps – soap and hand drier or paper towels.

But when leaving the restroom, in too many cases (IMHO over 90% in United Kingdom) the design of the facility requires you to open doors inwards usually by pulling a handle.

Is there a reason for such design or is it just pure madness?

On first impression, you’d think this is a valid question. When in a public restroom, or any restroom for that matter, once you’ve washed your hands, you don’t want to touch anything quite possibly dirty like a door-handle. As daniel.sedlacek goes on to elucidate, it’d be more agreeable to push, instead of pull, a door open with a shoulder or a foot.

As with many things these days, the answer’s not one-dimensional. Once you’re facing a door and must open it, you also have to consider which space you’re opening it into. If you’re opening it into an egress, then you must ensure that people passing by have enough space to stay clear of the opening door. If you’re opening it into the restroom, then there must be enough space within the restroom to open it into.

Let’s assume that we’re speaking about a restroom whose door opens outward into another space. To keep the opener from pushing a door out into the path of another person, the door ought to have, say, translucent glass panes onto which pedestrian traffic casts a helpful shadow.

Second, if the door is pushed out fully and held that way, it must still leave enough space for pedestrians to occupy as they walk past.

(Solution 1: Translucent glass panes)

If a door opening outward opens into an open-space (like a room), then there must be an occlusion of the line of sight to prevent passersby from being able to see what’s going on inside the bathroom. To circumvent this, let’s say the door opens outward into a dedicated corridor (an assumption made by daniel.sedlacek as part of the question).

Now, once you’ve pushed open the door completely, and realise that you’re in New Jersey, the following convention holds:

1005.2 Door encroachment. Doors opening into the path of egress travel shall not reduce the required width to less than one-half during the course of the swing. When fully open, the door shall not project more than 7 inches (178 mm) into the required width.”

So, if you’re opening a door into a 2,000-mm wide corridor, then the door itself can at most be between 1,000 mm and 1,178 mm wide. If you’re opening the door into an open-space, then you’ve got to make sure that there’s no straight line-of-sight into any of the stalls, etc.

(Solution 2: Occluded restroom adjacent to a room-like space or a door that is, at all stages of its outward-swing, less than half as wide or as wide as the width of the corridor.)

Let’s up the ante and set the restroom on fire. Now, there are going to be a lot of people inside the restroom wanting out. A door opening outward makes more sense because it doesn’t restrict the space available inside the restroom. This facilitates an exiting crowd to evacuate faster.

However, a fire, or any other such emergency that necessitates quick evacuation, is not the existential norm. Yes, these and such facilities must be constructed with safety in mind, but not at the price of convenience. I would stress on this because the way a door opens is never the only safeguard against the possibility of an emergency situation arising.

A lot many installations and systems can help avert a crisis, and so the designers of a door may avail the privilege of designing one with both caution and convenience in mind. And when we’re talking convenience, we’re talking quicker access.

Assuming we live in a universe within which everyone is reasonable (which is a reasonable assumption), a door that opened inward would be most convenient for someone from the outside trying to get inside, and for someone from the inside to get outside.

As the user Kelketek on Stack Exchange suggests, conduct the following experiment.

  • Find a room with an outward swinging door. Lockdown other exits so that they can’t be used.
  • Locate the fresh excrement of an animal and place it in the room.
  • Take a younger sibling who is likely to become an amiable architect later in life and who has distaste for rancid odours, and place him in the room.
  • Walk outside, close the door, jam your foot against it, and don’t move. You are, thus, simulating an obstruction.

In this scenario, the poor little boy who inside a room with one blocked door and in the middle of which is rotting faeces is stuck. All doors but one are locked and the unlocked one is jammed shut. There is no escape.

However, if the door were to be inward-swinging, then no entities extraneous to the conditions within the room will have any influence on the inhabitants’ decisions. The little boy would’ve been able to exit the room irrespective of how his elder, and malevolent, sibling might’ve felt about it. It’s as if the room itself must play a zero-sum judicial game: It must not impinge upon the rights of those who have made conscious decisions to enter it (safety issue) nor must it facilitate in any way to allow those outside of itself to exercise their will upon those within (security issue) in any way that may compromise the safety of those within.

In all these scenarios (except in the experiment), we assumed the rooms all had only one door each. Rooms that have more than one door, which is more often the case (unless you’re in a cloth-store in Ranganathan Street, Chennai), may have as many outward-swinging doors as it needs to (after any of the relevant problem-scenarios discussed in this piece are resolved) as long as it has at least one inward-swinging door (after any of the relevant problem-scenarios discussed are resolved).

In India, however, such considerations can be rendered redundant because purchasing philosophy at the cost of absolute pragmatism can do you no good. If you have the space and the money, swing your door either way. Of course, I make this statement without making the very reasonable assumption of assuming everyone in India is reasonable and follows the rules, some of which I give you.

These specifications come from the General Requirements (Chap. 4) of the Model Building-Bye-Laws laid out by the Ministry of Urban Development.

4.8.8 Doorways

a) Every doorway shall open into an enclosed stairway, a horizontal exit, on a corridor or passageway providing continuous and protected means of egress.

b) No exit doorways shall be less than 100 cm in width and 150 cm in case of hospital and ward block. Doorways shall not be less than 200 cm in height.

c) Exit doorways shall open outwards, that is away front the room but shall not obstruct the travel along any exit. No door when opened shall reduce the required width of stairway or landing to less than 100 cm. Overhead or sliding door shall not be installed.

d) Exit door shall not open immediately upon a flight of stairs. A landing equal to at least the width of the door shall be provided in the stairway at each doorway. Level of landings shall be the same as that of the floor which it serves.

e) Exit doorways shall be openable from the side, which they serve without the use of a key.

f) Revolving doors shall not be allowed.

I wonder what a horizontal exit is...