Don’t close the door on idea of pocket doors

Do­ing it right isn’t easy, but it is el­e­gant

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - HOMES - MIKE HOLMES

POCKET doors have been around a long time, but their tra­di­tional de­sign also works with a mod­ern look. But home­own­ers have a love­hate re­la­tion­ship with pocket doors. I’d like to open that door and shed some light on them.

Let’s first un­der­stand the ba­sic prin­ci­ple of a pocket door. The door slides on a hang­ing track or rail and dis­ap­pears into a cav­ity on one side of the door frame, so that when the door is com­pletely open, it can’t be seen. It’s a very stream­lined and sexy in­te­rior de­sign con­cept. And it’s es­pe­cially use­ful when the in­te­rior space doesn’t al­low for the stan­dard hinge door, such as a small pow­der room, when the arc of door swing would oth­er­wise catch on the sink or toi­let.

It all sounds good, so why aren’t there pocket doors ev­ery­where? The an­swer: prac­ti­cal­ity, pref­er­ence and price. On the prac­ti­cal side, it’s a mat­ter of space, be­cause each door ac­tu­ally re­quires a door span that is twice as wide a tra­di­tional hinged door — the space for the door in the closed po­si­tion, and the ad­join­ing space in the wall for the door when it’s in the open po­si­tion. Half of this space is ac­tu­ally hid­den from view be­hind dry­wall. There are many sit­u­a­tions where that ex­tra space sim­ply isn’t avail­able. If the house is de­signed to ac­com­mo­date pocket doors, that’s one thing; if the doors are go­ing to be retro­fit that’s a whole other ball game.

In a retro­fit sit­u­a­tion, a pocket door in­stal­la­tion be­comes a chal­lenge for the con­trac­tor. The space that will even­tu­ally be­come the pocket is prob­a­bly al­ready oc­cu­pied with elec­tri­cal such as the light switch and its wiring. There may also be other things hid­den in the wall like a vent stack, plumb­ing or duct­ing.

Then comes the mat­ter of the wall it­self. It might be a struc­tural wall, which means the fram­ing is not some­thing to fool around with and cut out. Even if the wall isn’t struc­tural, proper fram­ing has its own set of chal­lenges. Of­ten a con­trac­tor will just ro­tate the studs 90 de­grees to al­low clear­ance for the door. This makes them more prone to bow­ing. Many home­own­ers who have a retro­fit pocket door have ex­pe­ri­enced the frus­tra­tion of when a typ­i­cal home ex­pands and con­tracts from win­ter to sum­mer and the pocket door jams when the in­ter­nal rail shifts ever so slightly.

The next con­sid­er­a­tion is per­sonal pref­er­ence. We have all be­come ac­cus­tomed to open­ing doors that push or pull, not slide. Slid­ing re­quires slightly more ef­fort to fully open a pocket door, and that trans­lates into home­own­ers opt­ing to squeeze around a semi-open door.

If you have a pocket door that is used of­ten, it will take quite a beat­ing and the lead­ing edge gets dirty from hands grab­bing the door it­self — and not the han­dle — to push it open. The other com­mon sit­u­a­tion comes from peo­ple who aren’t fa­mil­iar with the door and, without think­ing, try to open it as they would a tra­di­tional door. All that push­ing or pulling even­tu­ally loosens the track hard­ware in­side the wall.

This brings me to the fi­nal point: price. The cost of retrofitting a pocket door is high be­cause of all the el­e­ments in­volved, from de­mo­li­tion of the ex­ist­ing wall to cre­ate the space for the pocket, mov­ing ex­ist­ing me­chan­i­cal, re­struc­tur­ing, fram­ing, and in­stalling new dry­wall. It’s a multi-step and labour-in­ten­sive process.

There is a pocket door kit avail­able at re­tail­ers, but the wooden struc­ture is just for the pocket en­ve­lope and doesn’t ad­dress the ex­tra span re­in­force­ment that should be in place. And when the door is sub­jected to a lot of use — and mis­use — from door-open­ing-chal­lenged peo­ple, there is no easy way to re­pair the rail sys­tem. The dry­wall hid­ing the pocket would need to come down.

Don’t get me wrong. I still like the idea of a pocket door. And there is a bet­ter way to build a pocket door that ad­dresses some of the po­ten­tial prob­lems, but it re­quires the wall en­closed around the pocket be thicker to ac­com­mo­date a stan­dard two-by-four stud frame on both sides of the pocket. The idea is to have enough struc­ture to re­sist any un­wanted move­ment and pre­vent the wall from bow­ing and the door jam­ming.

Pocket doors aren’t for every­one, and the trick is to put them in lo­ca­tions where they are best suited — where a tra­di­tional hinged door won’t work and in door­ways that only see light to moderate us­age. A great lo­ca­tion is on closet doors — a far more el­e­gant so­lu­tion than the old bi­fold door. Re­mem­ber to fo­cus on mak­ing sure the guts of the project are cor­rect, and your pocket door won’t end up go­ing off the rails.

— Canwest News Ser­vice

Pocket doors re­quire twice the size of door open­ing and unique fram­ing to re­main trou­ble-free, but are

worth the ef­fort in the right cir­cum­stances.

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