Wide-span Doors Gain Popularity

Wide-span doors, whether bifold or lift and slide, have come a long way in a short time. What once was just a beautiful door, featuring large spans of glass that provided unobstructed views, now offers an array of characteristics, including weathertightness and energy efficiency. As more manufacturers enter the marketplace offering wide-span doors, they compete by improving the doors’ technology, creating a plethora of reliable and sophisticated choices for homeowners.

The Weather Factor

Austen Gray, principal of A.T. Gray Architect PC, Locust Valley, N.Y., has been specifying bifold and lift and slide doors for more than five years. He first started looking into them about 10 years ago but was disappointed in their lack of weathertightness. “Back then, you couldn’t find a manufacturer who could figure out how to keep the sill waterproof in a driving rain,” he says. “The doors were used in interiors, especially in shopping malls, because this was an environment where rain wasn’t an issue.”

Today Gray specifies Warroad, Minn.-based Marvin Windows and Doors’ Ultimate Lift and Slide door because it has its own drainage system, which, he says, is key to making the door weathertight. “The lift and slide has a huge sill plate that is quite an elaborate mechanism you install in the floor and it has a drain in it. They’re complicated pieces of equipment.”

Despite his confidence in the Ultimate Lift and Slide door, Gray still has some concerns about wide-span doors in general, namely the complexities of installation. “The lift and slide has to be perfectly level for it to slide perfectly. Not every contractor is good; not every wall is plumb; and the grade may not be even where the door will be installed.”

He also notes a secondary egress should be considered when installing the doors in most climates. “Bugs are an issue, and at the moment the solution is to have a huge automatic roll-down screen,” he says. “You have this big opening and get the screens down, but now you want to walk outside to put the steaks on the grill. Instead of having to push the button and wait for the screen to go up, you need to have a door to one side for easy access.”

The Energy Factor

Brian Fuentes, AIA, is owner of Fuentes Design, Boulder, Colo. The city employs an urban growth boundary to control sprawl, maintain rural land and wisely extend city services. Because of the boundary, there aren’t many single-family homes on the market and more will not be built. Therefore, Fuentes spends much of his time designing remodels for mid-century modern ranches, which are the predominant house type in Boulder.

“We often add a front porch or back patio/deck or both,” he says. “The wide-span doors connect the indoors to the outside. In Colorado, we have great weather; even in February it can be 70 F. We have a lot of opportunity to provide connected living.”

Fuentes’ practice, which was established in 1999, specializes in environmentally sensitive design. He specifies wide-span doors from Boulder-based Zola European Windows specifically because of their energy efficiency. “We’re using Zola because they have an R-11 center glass value; these big pieces of glass are actually the most energy-efficient wall you can build quickly,” Fuentes says. “If you put them on the south side of the building, they can also provide a lot of heating, so I’m selling them as a heating appliance, an extension of the living space and as a cool feature. A homeowner receives a lot of benefits from one piece of hardware.”

Fuentes does not consider the doors cost-prohibitive. “They may be a couple extra thousand more for a homeowner, but what they get in terms of their living space by extending their house into the yard rather than building a bigger kitchen or dining space is a huge benefit.”

He adds the doors don’t have a flange. “In a remodel, if you had an old opening or you didn’t want to disturb the siding, you could literally Sawzall the opening out, install this door and trim it out pretty quickly.”

The Small-space Factor

In Washington, D.C., where Richard Loosle-Ortega’s firm, KUBE Architecture, is located, space and natural lighting within a rowhouse are issues homeowners seek to resolve. “Most of these homes have minimal glass and windows,” he says. “We suggest making it all operable glass so they can open it all up. Homeowners love that idea and a lot of them make room in their budget to have that option.”

Loosle-Ortega, who specifies Mill Valley, Calif.-based NanaWall Systems Inc. doors, often takes clients to homes in which the doors already have been installed. “They can touch the door, see how easy it is to open and how it functions and they really love it,” he says. “They see it really does make the whole wall disappear and they have that continuous connection between indoor and outdoor.”

He adds that in the D.C. area very little new land is available and most people like their neighborhood and therefore choose to remodel. “They want to build up or out and they want to make it very open space. These doors can do that for them.”

The Web Factor

Shamual Choudhury, senior associate with Moore Architects, Arlington, Va., jokes with his colleagues about websites driving a lot of their clients’ requests, including for wide-span doors. “My clients’ primary source for examples are websites, like Houzz,” he says. “They’re always telling me to look at things online.”

Wide-span doors’ beauty helps them stand out on these design and decorating-idea websites, but, as with any product, remodeling professionals still need to educate their clients about the cost and appropriateness of the doors for their specific project. “We aren’t automatically proposing them for every client because it’s a cool idea,” Choudhury adds. “Homeowners are asking for them, but we have to tell them about the price and determine whether they can afford it.”

In addition, Choudhury, who has specified Wausau, Wis.-based Kolbe & Kolbe’s Folding Door, likes wide-span doors because of the way they can transform a space. However, he’s cautious about where he is specifying them. “We deal with bugs here; we don’t have southern California weather,” he says. “Just recently I put them in a family room leading to a screened-in porch. The doors literally doubled the space.”

The Cool Factor

Despite their premium cost, wide-span doors can offer new aspects to a client’s living situation that he or she hadn’t considered, including improved daylighting, an expanded living space into the outdoors, energy efficiency, weathertightness and beautiful views. These characteristics and their aesthetic appeal will continue to offset the doors’ potential sticker shock.