What the Italians can teach us about home security

07 - Desmond Castle DoorBy Simon Davies

For some decades, many Americans have felt deeply anxious about their personal security. This anxiety became so embedded that by 1980 two-thirds of the nation reported feeling “highly fearful” of becoming a victim of violent crime.

You might imagine that this fear would be reflected in an obsession with proven and robust domestic home security, but no. Americans, by and large, have engaged the same security theatre for their homes that the NSA has engineered for the Internet (i.e. a lot of sound and fury that signifies nothing).

Many locks are a security illusion while some are works of art

Many locks are a security illusion while some are works of art

Even in the rougher areas of New York or Los Angeles, where fear of crime had reached an endemic level, people’s idea of good home security is often to attach four impressive-looking chain bolts onto their entry door by way of screws set into softwood.

I’d like to see anyone get through that” they might boast, overlooking the fact that one dedicated kick would probably take the door out from its hinges. Even when the door is made from solid hardwood an inch and a half thick, drilling out the space for a lock assembly leaves only three eighths of an inch of wood remaining to resist a break-in. Nevertheless, many Americans continued to delude themselves that they had good home security.

One exception to this syndrome was the development of gated communities – security-fixated compounds for the rich (or near-rich) which often become panopticons riddled with fear of anything different or unknown. In general however, many people still labour under the mistaken belief that they have unassailable door locks.

British households often display similar thinking. While being, overall, less fearful than Americans, the fear or crime is still intense in many parts of the country (as always, usually at its highest among those groups that are least at risk). Still, it’s overwhelmingly the case that a strong wind would blow most British doors down – never mind the effort of a seasoned housebreaker.

Indeed one study showed that a single 100 LB blow was sufficient to break most wooden doors. Consumer Reports Magazine also reported in its test results that door frames often split with little force applied and lower quality deadbolts simply failed when force was applied to the door. In all but two cases, a cordless drill could disable the lock cylinder within two minutes. So much for home security.

In many parts of northern Europe it’s not uncommon to hear locals say “I forgot to lock the door… oh well.” Such would be unheard of in the US – pointless as the home security may be.

The home security situation is similarly lax in many other parts of Europe. In the Netherlands it’s common for households to leave their curtains wide open at night so passing traffic can see every activity in the front room. In many parts of northern Europe it’s not uncommon to hear locals say “I forgot to lock the door… oh well.” Such would be unheard of in the US – pointless as the home security may be.

If these countries really want a lesson in domestic security they should take an excursion to Italy. That country has taken the idea of door security to a level that is truly breathtaking.

International surveys indicate that the fear of crime in Italy is only marginally higher than the median, but for reasons that escape even Italian experts “security by design” has been embedded into the Italian building industry for many years. Visitors to the country are often stunned by its rigour.

In many apartment buildings it’s not unusual to be confronted by three or four security hurdles before you can enter a home. First, there is the almost inevitable perimeter gate, many of which would do justice to a military facility. It’s not good enough to build “just” a door; many properties have external floor-to-ceiling steel gates that weigh half a metric ton. After negotiating this level you might encounter a less glamorous common interior door and possibly even a stair gate and lock-activated lift.

But the masterpiece of the Italian domestic security industry can only be appreciated once you look closely at the locks used for apartment entry doors. Some of these devices are works of art woven with the best of obsessive engineering – and it’s not just about image either.

In Britain, the common or garden Yale lock sends a message to housebreakers along the lines of “I’ll let you come in, but just please don’t hurt me”. But – like the awe-inspiring front doors of Strasbourg Cathedral – an Italian entry door lock embodies the might of God. It sends a clear message that evil shall not enter here.

Italians have historically been exceptional clock makers and this skill has migrated to the lock industry. They may just be sophisticated variants of the popular lever tumbler lock (or more likely a well engineered 5-level Mortice lock), but turning the key can be like engaging Venice’s glorious St Mark’s clock. Each turn of the key smoothly disengages, one by one, a series of bolts that often reach deep into not only the outer edge of a steel door frame, but also reinforced hinge edge, floor and ceiling plates. You might have to turn the key four full rotations before the door finally opens.

Inside the apartment it’s not uncommon to find parallel security. This isn’t just grand theatre in the Italian style. Windows may have heavy shutters and complex locks. Doors – even the internal doors – can be more solid than most American entry doors.

One has to feel at least a little pity for Italian police who face the task of breaking this security without default access to military hardware. But the greater share of pity must go to those poor sods who believe they actually have security when all they really have is a wish and a prayer.