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The Varieties of Door-Opening Experience

Last winter, the lock on the primary entrance to my house broke. We’d been in the house for three years and still hadn’t changed the locks, so I decided to replace all of the exterior door knobs together. Around the same time, an interior door knob broke and I replaced it and all the door knobs in the same hallway, so the styles would match.

Door knobs might just be one of the most ignored objects we interact with every day. When I’m headed from the office to the kitchen, I’m usually thinking about the coffee I’m about to pour in my mug, not the door knobs that I turn along the way. I expect door knobs to be transparent to my intent, to not need any conscious awareness of them to navigate through my house. I thought of that as the default state of a door knob, but replacing eight door knobs in quick succession disabused me of that notion. Many of those brand new door knobs had their own personalities from day one, which have persisted over the last year.

  • The basement door doesn’t latch unless you give it a good shove.
  • The dining room door opens fine when you turn the knob counter-clockwise, but not clockwise.
  • The knob on our office door works well, but the door is misaligned with the door frame and sticks on the top, requiring a bit of extra force to get it open or closed. This has also led to routinely thinking it’s latched when it’s actually just sticking – which, in turn, means that our two year old believes that ramming doors open is a reasonable strategy.
  • The door knob on our exterior side door won’t latch when it’s really cold, so the door blows open on windy winter days if we forget the deadbolt.

I could probably fix some of these problems, but over the last year our habits have adapted around them – and I suspect that fixing these quirks would probably only create new ones1. I also kind of like that our doors have personalities. I could go through my life assuming all door knobs are high-fidelity instances of the Door Knob Platonic form, but then I’d be carrying a constant expectation counter to reality. Manufactured objects are a leaky abstraction: their function depends on how they are embedded in their physical environment, with all the thermodynamic and mechanical stresses that entails.

No matter how steady or stable you think your house is, the ground moves underneath it. The water table rises and falls. Frost heaves shift your foundation unevenly. Temperature and humidity cycle with the season, so door frames expand and contract until they are off-square. No structure can withstand these forces forever. Instead of violated expectations and frustration, I try instead to let a door that sticks be a little puzzle to solve, bringing me back into the moment. Over time, these doors have just become old friends.

  1. It’s possible that I’m just really shitty at changing door knobs. ↩︎