Ban The Knobs? The Doorknob Could End Up On The Scrap Heap Of History

Some people apparently struggle with doorknobs, and would benefit from a universal lever design. To those people, whoever you are: The city of Vancouver, which just banned doorknobs, is your oyster.

Ban The Knobs? The Doorknob Could End Up On The Scrap Heap Of History
[Image via Shutterstock]

Are doorknobs set for history’s garbage bin? This might sound like a strange question, but in Vancouver, they could be. In September, its council amended the city’s building code to require lever-handles on all new doors and taps.


The rule won’t apply to existing houses. But they are betting that knobs are on the way out, and “universal” door-opening devices are in. And now this precedent-setting development gets us wondering whether Vancouver’s handle-reform could herald change across North America.

Writing in the Vancouver Sun, Jeff Lee explains that the city is making the change so as not to disadvantage certain groups who have a tough time with round knobs. Handles are easier and don’t discriminate, he says:

Vancouver’s interest in door handles instead of knobs stems from a little-known but important and developing concept called universal design.

Tim Stainton, a professor and director of the School of Social Work at the University of B.C., says the concept is based around building a society as open as possible to everyone, rather than creating exceptions to fit a few.

We’d not heard that doorknobs are hard to use for certain groups. But there’s lots we don’t know. The new rules come in this March. And the city is already removing knobs from public buildings. Last year, it took away Art Deco specimens from City Hall, replacing them with “utilitarian gold-coloured levers.”

Lee delves into the history of knobs, finding that the “first patent for pressing glass knobs by mechanical means was granted in 1824 to Pittsburgh’s John P. Bakewell.” After that, it was one innovation after another, with “highly decorative and collectible knobs” reaching their zenith at the end of the century and before World War I.

He may just be a Vancouver booster, but Lee reckons that the city holds wide sway when it comes to building trends and that the council’s amendment could be replicated elsewhere in Canada (and after Canada, the world!):

Vancouver is the only city in Canada with its own building code, so the changes made here are often chased into the [British Columbia] Building Code and Canada’s National Building Code, and then put into practice in cities and towns across Canada. Vancouver’s influence is wide. And as go the codes, so too goes the construction industry.

It seems a shame and all, but you can’t hold back progress. And, as Will Johnston, Vancouver’s former chief building inspector argues in the piece, there is a strong rationale for universal handles. “When I look at what we are proposing, it is simply good design. It allows for homes to be built that can be used more easily for everybody,” he says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.