Common Mistakes: Movable Walls

May 1, 2007
When analyzing flexibility needs and expectations, don’t fall into the trap that all movable wall systems are equal

In the open-office world of collaboration and communication, where most walls are coming down (not going up), movable walls - floor-to-ceiling, demountable, modular "dividers" - accommodate privacy needs today and offer the flexibility to reconfigure tomorrow. Teaming and conference rooms, hoteling spaces, training areas, and private offices can now comfortably and economically coexist with more open plans, thanks to the efficiencies that movable walls can provide: tax advantages (when categorized as furniture and equipment), faster installation, reusability, etc. Although first costs are more significant than the initial dollars relegated to fixed walls, the life-cycle and eco-friendly benefits of movable walls can make them an excellent investment.

"However," cautions Liz Peterson, vice president at the Washington, D.C., office of VOA Associates Inc., "the need for flexibility should be carefully analyzed. Sometimes, companies think that if they [plan for flexibility] everywhere, that's the best use of their money. I've been at sites where furniture and demountable systems have never moved from their original location." Ask executive management the following questions: How long will we be at this location (factoring in whether it's owned or leased space)? What's the rationale for using movable walls (churn and task-specific projects or asset depreciation)? How much stock are we willing to keep on hand to ensure flexibility during future reconfiguration? Will we train staff to understand and adhere to the necessary parameters (HVAC, lighting, sprinklers, acoustic ratings, etc.) and grids for the most productive allocation of space in the future?

Steven M. Staszewski, president at Holladay Construction Group, South Bend, IN, finds the initial/future-ready coordination of cubicles and delivery of power as most problematic. "Access floors can work well in these situations, but that's big money," he says. "Ceiling plenums will work, too, but most office scenarios don't incorporate floor-to-ceiling everywhere - and nobody wants a sea of power poles. Therefore, we usually core-drill the slab to run electrical from underneath to accommodate both full-sized walls and cubicles. The layout of furniture is so critical in the early stages."

Lead time is also key, he explains, noting that a 12- to 16-week delivery for modular walls is commonplace. "But," he adds, "once the systems are there, the space looks like it's done."

Jane W. Sullivan, designer, associate at Boston-based Margulies & Associates, encourages professionals to look at different systems. Having recently worked with an accommodating movable-walls supplier, the system she chose is easy to use; offers multiple finish options, including a paintable surface; and featured a 6-week delivery time. "When I saw this one, I said, 'A green system with great detailing! This is a wall system - not a furniture system that grew up to be a wall system.' "

SIMON SAYS: Movable wall systems that offer panel tiles on a grid can be easily customized for individual workspaces by your in-house staff. If a user wants to lower a glass tile for better viewing or relocate a writing surface on the wall, these tiles easily pop in and out.

Other common mistakes:

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