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Choosing External Doors

External Doors

Timber is still the most widely used material for external doors but whereas it once enjoyed a near monopoly, it now has to share the field with other materials. Timber doors tend to be the cheapest to buy off-the-shelf, but they are not universally loved because they are prone to twisting and warping. Switching to hardwood is one option but, by many accounts, hardwood doors are almost as likely to move as softwood ones. A reasonable compromise for those who want something better is to go for hemlock, a durable North American softwood particularly well suited to doors.

There are two timber options that promise even greater stability. One is laminated or stabilised timber (usually oak), which consists of small sections glued together. The other is Accoya acetylated timber, which promises to be the most dimensionally stable of all. It’s a new process, developed in Holland, which improves softwoods so that they outperform hardwoods. The final result is usually finger-jointed which makes it more suitable for painting than staining.

What are the other options? All are more expensive than softwood and all share the plus point of dimensional stability. PVCu tends to be the cheapest alternative. Because there is very little inherent strength in PVCu, the doors are built around a steel frame and invariably come with multipoint locking, which is generally needed because of the innate flimsiness of the material.

Aluminium is still widely used for sliding patio doors, but it is not ideal because the frames conduct a lot of heat through them, though the channels are relatively small.

Steel front doors are widely used in North America, but have tended to be used primarily in social housing in Britain: steel has an aura of security about it that is perhaps unjustified, since a door is no stronger than its frame (which is usually softwood) or its locks (which are no different whatever the door). Steel takes paint well but is susceptible to bodywork damage.

Another option is GRP (glass-reinforced plastic), which we tend to refer to as fibreglass. The woodgrain effect is far more realistic than anything PVCu can achieve and the material can be stained to match other joinery.

Unlike timber and steel, PVCu and GRP are cladding materials. These doors all require a subframe which can be either timber or steel. They are, therefore, sometimes referred to as composite doors. One of the big plus points for composite doors is that the hollow core can be packed with insulation, improving the thermal characteristics of the doors.


Clockwise from top left: This ultra-contemporary, sleek Sorrento cedar door from Urban Front is stained in a Light Oak finish and includes glazed side and centre panels (01494 778787 www.urbanfront.co.uk); The Georgians usually favoured solid, six-panel doors, as in this example. Here, a cast stone canopy sets off the entrance perfectly; Mumford & Wood’s Conservation entrance doorset is classically styled with distinctive mouldings. Fitted with a mobility threshold as standard, with factory-fitted double glazing (01621 818155 www.mumfordwood.com); Steel is a popular material for those after a contemporary front door. This design is from Bisca (01439 771702 www.bisca.co.uk); This original Georgian front door features six panels and chunky brass door furniture typical of the period. The four glazed panels above ensure the hallway beyond gets plenty of natural light; Designed in a style to match the 1920s house, this door features nine small glass panels above a solid lower half and sits alongside a matching glazed sidelight. Custom-made by The London Door Company (020 7801 0877 www.londondoor.co.uk)

Access and Security

External doors are the interface between the inside and outside worlds. They have to perform two distinct and contradictory functions: they have to be easy to get through for residents and guests but secure against unwanted visitors.

Generally, we have two separate locks on our front door. The mortice deadlock is the one that sits inside the door housing and needs to be key-operated from both inside and out. It’s the one we lock when leaving the house empty. But we also fit a night latch or rim latch (still often referred to as a ‘Yale’) which can be hand-operated from inside to facilitate escape in the event of a fire, when the last thing you require is to have to look for a key. Night latches are less secure than mortice locks – it’s much easier to force a door open on a night latch – but priorities change when the house is occupied.

It’s not essential to have two separate locks, but it does form part of the NHBC recommendations for new homes and as such has been widely adopted by insurance companies. The deadlock should be fivelever and should ideally meet the BS3621 standard. There are alternatives: the socalled Eurolock is a cylinder key-operated deadbolt lock that can be opened from the inside without a key.

Other features regarded as good security in front doors include fitting a door chain and, on solid doors, a viewer.

There is an enhanced security standard, PAS 24, which is only available on factory-built doorsets. To meet this standard, the doorset is subjected to a three-minute attack using a selection of hammers, crowbars and drills. The PAS 24 standard is required if your home is to meet the Secured By Design standard, which is specified by the police. In truth, not many self-builders are minded to build to such security standards, but it is worth noting that meeting the Secured By Design standard gains points in the Code for Sustainable Homes, which is set out as a blueprint for the future of our Building Regulations.

Fire Doors

Houses over two storeys are required to have half-hour fire doors fitted to habitable rooms leading off the main corridor and landing areas. Fire doors do not, contrary to popular belief, have to look ugly, and there are now plenty of companies offering complementary fire door ranges alongside their standard internal doors.

Disabled Access

In 1999, the England & Wales Building Regulations were amended to improve access for the disabled. The Regulations are referred to as Part M. Scotland and Northern Ireland have similar regulations in place. One of the main changes was a requirement for front doors to have a level threshold so that wheelchair users could come in and out of the house without having to go over a step. At the time of its introduction, it caused a fair amount of controversy and housebuilders worried about potential problems with flooding, but by and large the change has been accepted now and most builders are familiar with the concept and know what is required.

Normally, what is defined as a level threshold is one that has a lip of no more than 15mm. The doors themselves do not have to be altered in any way, though there is a requirement that the Part M compliant door should be at least 838mm (2’9”) wide. The frame around the door should also be Part M compliant – i.e. have a threshold of no more than 15mm – and there should be no step either inside or outside the door. There are several ways to design such a detail, but a common one is to have a ramped approach to the front door and to have something like a sunken matwell inside the door so that people coming into the house can wipe their feet. With a reasonable amount of forethought, it’s possible to create a level threshold without it being intrusive in any way.

It’s worth pointing out that each house is required to have one level threshold but it doesn’t have to be at the front door. Sometimes it’s more convenient to use another external door instead. Renovations and extensions to existing homes do not have to comply with Part M.