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The design of public restrooms usually pays great attention to hand washing, providing facilities like wash basin - sometimes with touch free taps - soap dispenser, hand drier or paper towels... All quite expensive or maintenance heavy equipment.

But when leaving the restroom, in too many cases the design of the facility requires you to open the door inwards usually by pulling a handle.

enter image description here

The problem is obvious, whoever didn't wash his hands after using the toilette has touched that same handle passing germs and contamination onto it. In many cases the construction of the doors really requires you to grab the handle, unlike on the way in where you can simply push the door with a shoulder or feet.

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

UPDATE 1: Please note that the door in my picture is transparent allowing you to see who is on the other side. It leads to a short dedicated corridor, not an open public space. Both attributes greatly reduce the chance of knocking a passerby on either side of the door.

UPDATE 2: I am starting a bounty on this question to get more quality answers. So far all of the highly rated answers are based on assumptions and personal experience not referencing sources or data.

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great question, I too have that problem with these doors, and my technique is to use a paper tissue, or if I'm lucky have someone else open it for me (someone entering for instance). –  jackJoe Mar 6 '12 at 18:10
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because some rileys throw the door open. (dangerous for bypassers) –  jberger Mar 6 '12 at 18:26
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if the hallway is a high-traffic area, opening outwards into the hall causes a detour. –  jberger Mar 6 '12 at 18:29
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A lot of public restrooms (for instance, on the New York Thruway) have no doors at all, with a bent hall that occludes any line of sight twixt outside and in. –  Jon Purdy Mar 6 '12 at 19:17
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Smart facilities managers make sure there is a trash can near the door, so that people can throw away the paper towel they used to open the door. Otherwise, you might find a pile of paper towels by the entry. –  tajmo Mar 6 '12 at 20:00

15 Answers 15

up vote 53 down vote accepted
+100

Of things you might touch, you should possibly be least worried about the exit door handle (see, Enteric Bacterial Contamination of Public Restrooms, Dr. Germ: Charles P. Gerba, etc.). But, as you say, touch-free flush, sink, and soap are often available, and urine is sterile (potentially no need to wash up anyway), leaving floor, air, and door.

Perhaps there are no official sources to cite because the codes don't prevent doing it right:

A representative for the [Massachusetts] Department of Public Safety told the newspaper that the state building code does not specify the direction public bathroom doors must open.

Yet there is still the issue of opening a door into the path of traffic:

Doors that swing outward allow one to exit without gripping a surface but they must be configured to avoid hitting passing hallway traffic.

The International Building Code for New Jersey mentions:

Doors opening into the path of egress shall not reduce the required width to less than one-half during the course of the swing.

I think what you have, as with so much bad design and user experience, is convention and a lack of incentive to do the harder/more expensive thing (no law requiring it, no directive from the client, etc.). Do you think there needs to be more behind it than that?

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From your answer it seems to me that the bacteria contamination on the door handle (especially E-coli) is of greater danger for the user than the possibility of being hit by the door opening to any side (especially if the door is transparent and doe's not lead to large public area directly) or the possibility of being struck inside the restroom where the door is blocked from outside. my conclusion is that the answer to my question is that the pull-handle-to-leave-the-restroom design is pure madness. –  daniel.sedlacek Mar 18 '12 at 11:12
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The most logic reason they would swing inwards is because nobody is in there so the door doesn't obstruct anyone, if you would swing it outwards you could hit a waiting person. Also, doors that go outwards obstruct your path if you have to go urgently... –  Tom Wijsman Mar 23 '12 at 14:01

With a toilet there are cases where you want to be able to get into the toilet as fast as possible. Getting out of the toilet as fast as possible isn't as important.

It takes less time to get into the toilet if the door opens inwards.

As far as I understand the cases where doors are regulated to open outwards is when it's in the interest to be able to evacuate the building as fast as possible.

It makes sense to have doors open in the direction towards which speed is more important.

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It might be for many reason , but this is what my friend who is a bio-scientist had to say,

*

The wind blows inwards when the door opens inwards. This helps fresh air to go inside the restroom and not let the bad air to come outside.

*

When you open outwards the bad air comes out, This is the same principle followed in labs as he said.

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as a physicist I doubt the way the door opens has any effect on the direction of the air flow –  daniel.sedlacek Mar 17 '12 at 17:04
    
I see , but I do feel the wind blowing when door opens ..may be you are correct .. i dono !! –  Pratheep ch Mar 18 '12 at 13:05
    
Why would the wind follow the way a door has been opened into ? For the wind, there is no door, there is just an opening through which air can pass. –  Nicolas Barbulesco Feb 13 '13 at 4:19
    
@daniel.sedlacek Once the door is open, its position wouldn't impact air flow, but while it's opening the position of walls nearby could have an impact. Think of the door as being like a baseball bat hitting a baseball. If it swings into the room it could hit the ball directly into the restroom, and as it swings closed, it could hit the ball into the wall just inside the restroom. The force is equivalent in both directions but interference from the wall would make a difference in the overall directionality of air flow. This odor-containment explanation is plausible. –  3nafish Dec 20 '13 at 4:31

Roger's pretty much hit on the head with his answer,from an usability point of view its easier for someone who is in a wheelchair to push in the door (hence it opening inward). Similarly when people are exiting from inside,they could invariably knock someone on their nose if the door opened out outside.

However from a disabled person point of view,I am just wondering how effective it is for a disabled person to maneuver with a door which swings inside when you are inside a small cramped place like a public toilet.

Hence in that context,here are the specifications for any bathroom which is designed for disabled people which do make accommodations for the ability for wheelchairs to rotate a complete 180 degrees

At least 30" x 48" of floor space must be available for one wheelchair. Part of the space can be set below fixtures or other accessories. This is provided the toe and knee clearances for individuals in wheelchairs are met. The mounting heights of the toilet and grab bars have to be accounted for as well.

The turning space for a wheelchair is at least 60" in diameter (for a 180 degree turn). To meet this demand, the dimensions of handicap bathrooms can feature a T-shaped space fitted with 36" wide aisl

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Actually - I meant that for disabled users it makes sense for doors to open OUTWARDS. –  Roger Attrill Mar 6 '12 at 18:28
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Well its a double edged sword it,would be easier for them to push in while going in but then it would be easier for them push out while going out –  Mervin Johnsingh Mar 6 '12 at 18:29
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it may be easier to enter with a wheel chair, but then difficult to leave. Seems like a wash to me. –  DA01 Mar 6 '12 at 18:31
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Disabled facilities require at least a 1.5m turning circle for precisely the reason that it would be otherwise too cramped. –  Roger Attrill Mar 6 '12 at 18:34
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The door must be capable of opening outwards. It can also open inwards if the cubicle is large enough, but it must be capable of opening outwards in an emergency - eg if the occupant is lying on the floor. –  Roger Attrill Mar 6 '12 at 18:36

I've seen one very nice solution to this problem in Japan: In Tokyo, even some public toilets have automatic doors.

A different solution to the problem is used in public toilets in the Amsterdam Airport (Schiphol): They've simply don't use any doors, and rather have a bit twisted entrance for privacy.

In some countries I've seen swing-doors, but they tend to lead to issues when someone is going in at the same time someone leaves the restroom, which always creates an awkward moment of coordination...

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Did you notice that Japanese house doors open outwards? (At least, they do in the area around Tokyo where I live.) I think it’s because of the risk of the door being blocked by falling furniture in during an earthquake. –  Pitarou Mar 13 '12 at 14:10

I believe the answer is actually because of building codes. If a room has only one entrance, it MUST open inwards. This is because if anything on the outside is blocking the door, it can still be opened, and then the person can clear the obstruction manually

Trying to push the door forward might not be enough to clear the obstruction depending on a number of factors, primarily that when pushing on a door, most of your force is going to be distributed across the door and can't be in a focused spot for knocking over the obstruction.

EDIT: I've not had much luck tracking down a direct source for this. There's a ton of information on Google for building codes -- all of it painful legalese-- and while I might find it eventually, I could also note that this doesn't have to be a building code-- it could just as well be a convention.

I offer the following experiment:

  1. Find a room with an outward swinging door. Lock down other exits so that they cannot be used.
  2. Locate the fresh excrement of an animal, and place it in this room.
  3. Take a younger sibling with a propensity for building things and a distaste for rancid odors, and also place him in the room.
  4. Walk outside, close the door, and place your foot at the base of the door, and lean forward to place all of your weight on that leg.
  5. Do not move. Remember, you are simulating an obstruction.
  6. When you are satisfied that the sibling is properly frustrated, move from your position and allow him to exit.
  7. Wait for the sibling to become an architect.
  8. Check to see which way the bathroom doors in his building swing.

Alternatively, you can reason that either a code or convention is in place by checking several office buildings, finding all rooms which have only one entrance and are made for small capacity (larger ones usually have multiple entrances and swing outward to avoid crowd crush), and seeing which way they open. If they all invariably open inward, a code is probably in effect (If it were a matter of whim, there would be variance). If most of them open inward with a few exceptions, it may be a convention instead (though it could also be that the doors were modified after inspection).

Presumably, if my above answer is the case, this won't only happen with bathrooms, but with all similar small rooms with a single entrance.

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Building codes or not, this line of thinking is extremely pragmatic. It is very difficult for an external force to accidentally imprison an internal member if the door swings inward. –  Farray Mar 6 '12 at 23:27
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hadn't we invented a door that can swing both ways two million years ago? –  Lie Ryan Mar 7 '12 at 8:39
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Can you back up your claim with any citations or resources? –  daniel.sedlacek Mar 7 '12 at 9:46
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As I've now added in my answer the National Fire Protection Association (US) states that doors for rooms capable of taking 50 people must open outwards as a crowd of people pushing on the door in an emergency may prevent the door from being able to be opened, and that a door that is not restricted by any of the other rules, (or by accessibility guidelines) may open inwards or outwards as sapce and safety allows. So it's really not as simple as having a single rule to follow. There are multiple factors to consider –  Roger Attrill Mar 7 '12 at 10:34
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I thought that building codes actually requires you to have your door opened outwards? Suppose there is an emergency inside the room: everyone will flee towards the door and it will be impossible to open the door if it opens inwards because all the people are pushing to get out. –  Bart Gijssens Mar 7 '12 at 10:36

Actually I have come across toilets in a motorway rest area that has doors that open outwards.

It was a disabled toilet - one that was separated from the main restroom area, so the cubicle door was the only door. I used them occasionally when my kids were smaller and I needed to take a pushchair in with me, they have the larger maneuvering space required for wheelchairs.

When I came out, I nearly knocked out several people who were passing by.

"Hmmm, that's dangerous," I thought.

See also Naked Gun clip on YouTube.

Single room toilets and stall doors for disabled users

It definitely makes sense for doors to open outwards and the associated danger for others fades into the background in comparison with a disabled person needing the loo - and more to the point, potentially getting into trouble while in the cubicle. The reason for outwards opening doors is that in an emergency the occupant may be lying on the floor. The door can also open inwards if space permits, but bearing in mind the additional need for at least a 1.5m maneuvering circle.

Main restroom doors

If considering the door between the larger restroom area itself and the the outside, as opposed to the stall/cubicle doors themselves. I think generally the same principle applies. Certainly people inside a room are in the context of the facility and its purpose, whereas people outside are not necessarily in that mindset (yet) and maybe have no intention of going in but just standing chatting, waiting or passing by. People inside are rather less likely to be just standing there and more likely to be on their way out.

The solution for that particular problem, (where space allows) would be to have a L-bend or U-bend corridor or similar so that there are no doors and no-one can see round the bend. You'll frequently find exactly that in places of high footfall like airports and shopping centers.

Fire regulations

According to the US National Fire Protection Association FAQs there are circumstance that must drive the direction of swing. Quoting from the FAQs:

Except for a special form of horizontal sliding door and a couple of other exceptions, the Life Safety Code requires doors in a means of egress to be of the side-hinged or pivoted swinging type. Further, the Code requires the swinging doors to open in the direction of egress travel under any of four conditions: One, when the door serves a room or area with an occupant load of 50 or more persons; Two, when the door is used in an exit enclosure (such as the door into an enclosed exit stair); Three, when the door serves a high hazard contents area; and Four, when the door is in a horizontal exit. If none of the four conditions applies, then the door is permitted to swing back into the room or space.

The rule involving 50 people is related to a panicking crowd of people in an emergency pushing against a door that if opening inward would be impossible to open.

So if the restroom area counts as one of those four methods of exit then it has to swing outwards (in the US at least). If not, then logic, space and general safety should prevail.

Conclusion

At this point, it's obvious (and unsurprising) that there are many factors which affect whether a door should swing inwards or outwards. I'm sure that top of the list for installers are matters of safety, regulations, accountability. Consequentially matters of hygiene are lower on the list for many commercial and residential installations, but of course of high importance in medical or 'clean room' applications.

Some workarounds are available like the StepNPull and similar but these are retro-fit applications and certainly not suitable for use on their own.

A final tip

Personally, and depending on the establishment I tend to pull the handle at a point that is least natural to others, and perhaps tend to assume that others who do the same are those that also wash their hands properly.

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Knocking people can also happen on the other direction, can't it? –  jackJoe Mar 6 '12 at 18:11
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True, but if you're inside and near the door the likelihood is that you're on your way out and therefore more aware of the door. If you're just walking past then the door is not in your mind and would therefore be more unexpected if it flings open in your face. –  JonW Mar 6 '12 at 18:33
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Sorry I don't see the difference between the danger of being hit on eitherside of the door. Moreover the door on my pic has transparent areas and leads to small dedicated corridor. From this it looks to me that the danger of infe tions is much higher than potential danger of being hit more often on certain side. –  daniel.sedlacek Mar 6 '12 at 19:36
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@Shauna. For disabled toilets, there is usually no distinction between the cubicle door and the outer door. They are one and the same. –  TRiG Mar 6 '12 at 22:36
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@daniel.sedlacek - obviously the 'danger' will be the same on both sides but the consequences will be quite different. On the inside, the door will be locked and immoveable until you're ready to leave. If at that moment someone tries to get in then you will be pushed backwards a bit. On the outside, if you're walking past and the door opens then you're likely to run up against the edge of the door and more than likely the door will not give but transfer the force through its hinges. The likelyhood of injury is much greater in this case. –  paul Mar 8 '12 at 6:23

As others have said, I think the core reason is that there is a great danger of knocking someone over when opening the doors if, as is often the case, the entire area is compact. Also, in most public areas, where there are doors that are usable both ways, it is common to have a window, so that you can see whether someone is coming the other way. Obviously, this would not be appropriate in this case, so opening inwards makes sense.

I have seen at least one place where most cubicles open inwards, but the disabled one opened outwards, which is sensible. The risks of knocking someone over are still there, but only from one door, the accisibility is increased significantly.

The other reason that it can make sense is that if doors are left open, when they open inwards, they are not a problem, but if they open outwards, they would be a danger. Including door closers makes it harder to know if a cubicle is occupied, and the construction of the cubicles is often not up to ensuring they swing shut on their own.

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If you’re interested, there is a great book which has been around for more than twenty years discussing usability, by Professor Donald A. Norman. Norman started his usability career with a similar question like yours – why door usability is so poor. If you have the time, I would highly recommend this book, since it’s one of the “must read” books if you want to learn more on usability.

And to answer your question: my view is that the restroom interior manufacturers and designers don’t manufacture doors and vice versa. Probably there’s not a strong enough project manager having hygienic design close to heart - instead the main focus is (1) budget and (2) delivery on time. There could also be a third option, which is similar to when you take your first programming learning skills. Presume that everything goes right, instead of focusing on when things go wrong. In this case – if everyone washed their hands appropriately, this would not be a problem. design of everyday things book cover

Ref: The Design of Everyday things.

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Really? Do you really think which way the door opens is a result of a project manager worried too much about the budget? Couldn't it possibly a competent project manager weighing more important concerns (e.g., fire safety)? –  benzado Mar 7 '12 at 5:45
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@benzado Yes, it could be. But I'm not saying that is the case for a fact, just that it might be that way. If there were security concers, the door would open both ways, right? If there were healt concerns, the door would open outward, but it opens inward. In my mind, hygiene nor safety is the main priority for the project manager responsible for the building site. –  Benny Skogberg Mar 7 '12 at 7:02
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Um, what's the difference between outward and inward opening doors, from the construction point? I don't think there's any. It's just matter of installment. –  Mladen Jablanović Jan 8 '13 at 8:21

In simple sense , i feel it is because it is more easier to push then pull n as it is for public , public convenience is more important. I actually refer to banks and other such places where public should feel comfortable with all the services.

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Welcome to Stack Exchange! If you didn't know, the purpose of this site is to provide factually sound answer as opposed to personal opinions and anecdotes. It would be great if you could cite some studies on the direction, in which doors open. –  dnbrv Mar 7 '12 at 3:44
    
So… it is “more easier” to push the door from inside than to pull the door from inside. Especially when inside you typically have very little space. Hence it is better to be able to open the door outwards from inside. :-) –  Nicolas Barbulesco Feb 13 '13 at 4:14

If a door opens outwards, especially in a crowded restroom, then there is a high risk of someone who is walking by getting hit with the opening door. As such the risk and liability for the organization of getting sued is greater. To mitigate that risk, the doors open inwards. In some areas this has been lobbied and turned into building codes.

There is also the space factor where opening outward takes up more space as they require room to move around an open door.

Both of which come down to money. Too expensive to get sued, too expensive to make the room bigger to accommodate outward swinging doors.

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The space factor is in both ways. Indoor too, you need space. And often there is very little space inside these places. Hence the problem. –  Nicolas Barbulesco Feb 13 '13 at 4:03

Depending on country there are architectural regulations regarding the opening of the doors. Usually:

public doors => open outdoor to facilitate the exit in case of fire or other emergencies.
residential exterior => open indoor to avoid being blocked by snow and stuff
residential interior => special cases like bathrooms should be open outside so persons are not blocked inside

Public baths should not even have doors, just parallel openings like this:

=====================      ==========

=============       =================

The rest should open in a way to obstruct the least the traffic and to prevent accidents.

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One addition. In many hurricane areas (Florida, USA) residential doors frequently open out. That way heavy winds blow the door more firmly closed instead of forcing it open. –  Brad Bruce Mar 8 '12 at 0:29

In general, I have found that when entering a room, doors open inwards. It's not just restrooms. Likely for the safety reasons issued.

If I'm leaving a room, I'm aware of the door, it's what I'm walking towards, and looking at. If it suddenly opens towards me, I'm more likely to see and react. If the doors opened outwards, it definitely wouldn't affect me. However, if I'm disabled, there is a chance that I could fall against an inward swinging door, which is why most disabled restrooms have outward swinging doors, because a person outside might REQUIRE access to the room which is otherwise blocked. And if the room is small, opening the door with a wheelchair would be challenging if it swung inwards.

If I'm in the hall and not entering the room, I'm not paying attention to the door. It swinging open will catch me off guard, potentially causing injury. Which is why doors open inwards normally.

If I'm in the hall and entering the room, it doesn't really matter which way the door goes. But, in the sake of a disabled person in a wheelchair, opening outwards is again, preferred, as there is probably MORE space outside the room, than inside making maneuvering and opening the door easier.

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I believe that in some places it is against building/fire regulations to have bathroom doors opening outwards. Rational or not, I think the reasoning is that an outward-opening door could allow for 'backdraft' if a fire were to start in the bathroom.

One solution I've seen is the foot pull (see below), but those are not particularly usable either. When I've used them, I've worried that someone will open the door while my foot is in there.

foot-puller

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Do you have anthing to support the fire regulation theory? Ps: nice pic :) –  daniel.sedlacek Mar 6 '12 at 19:39
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@dinko628 - Really? The exterior door thing must be a UK/EU thing. US public buildings require exterior doors to open outward (they can also open inward, but they must open outward when more than 60 people would be using it as an escape route) to keep from trapping a large group of people that is likely in a commercial building. Why the same rule doesn't apply to US restrooms (they generally open into the restroom), I don't know. –  Shauna Mar 6 '12 at 20:47
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@Shauna: Maybe because you don't expect a stampede of 60 people in the restroom? –  Neil G Mar 7 '12 at 9:15
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@NeilG - You've never seen a women's restroom on a busy night at a theater or sporting even. ;) –  Shauna Mar 13 '12 at 19:01
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@daniel.sedlacek when I was researching this, I was having trouble finding details of building regulations in the US... it turns out that there's a reason for this. Check out this article on BoingBoing today: boingboing.net/2012/03/19/liberating-americas-secret.html –  Gordon Kennedy Mar 20 '12 at 20:16

I don't know the reason why so many public toilet doors open inwards, but for me, some solutions could be:

  • Make the door smaller in height, so it doesn't touch the floor, and leaves enough room for a foot to pull it.
  • If for any reason that can't be done, then place something floor size (at the door), so you can pull it with a foot.
  • Or even if that isn't possible, maybe a door handle that you can grab/knock with an elbow (so not touching with a hand).

  • Or, a way to push the door, and with a spring, it returns to you open.

(Some people may think this topic is for the paranoid or ultra-hygienic people, but trust me, many people don't wash their hands).

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I've seen a product that addresses #2...it's a little metal 'shelf' attached to the bottom of the door that, at least in theory, lets you open the door with your shoe. –  DA01 Mar 6 '12 at 18:30

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