Sustainability: Focus on Wall Systems

July 1, 2007
Reduce and reuse with movable walls

By Mogens Smed  

While recycling is important, if it's the first (and possibly only) environmental consideration, then the cart is in front of the horse. Instead of coming first, recycling should be for clean-up after "reducing" and "reusing" are no longer viable solutions.

One of the best ways to reduce waste and reuse architectural elements in commercial interiors is with movable wall systems (also called demountable walls).

The Evolution of Walls
In Europe, modular/movable walls are a generic way of building out space. Until now, however, North American modular walls have been aesthetic and functional compromises. Additionally, they have been a more expensive choice when comparing lineal foot to lineal foot of drywall.

Recently, the price of conventional construction quickly gained ground on modular walls. Material and/or labor costs are up across the board. In many jurisdictions, when comparing apples to apples, conventional construction is now more expensive than modular interior construction.

Over this same time, wall manufacturers were able to achieve an economy of scale. Contracts for bulk purchases of materials and more automation in factories mean a much more competitive price - as well as a price quote that won't change from the time the project is ordered through installation.

Functionally, some movable walls now offer things like universal horizontal support for furniture and storage mounting. Some have the ability to start life as a shorter wall with the option to stack more sections for a higher elevation later on. Several movable walls house power and data, with a few offering easy access at any time before, during, and after installation.

Historically, modular walls were aesthetically impoverished. Connections between panels were obvious even to the untrained eye; choices of finishes were extremely limited. Now, finishes like glass and wood are available, along with the ability to make each side of a wall panel radically different both functionally and aesthetically. For instance, one side of a run of walls can be monolithic wood veneer with sconce lighting and the company's logo facing the lobby, while the opposite side can be a room that supports storage and worksurfaces.

The Environmental Benefits
In initial (conventional) construction, drywall is cut to fit the space, creating 1 pound of waste for every square foot installed (according to Ithaca, NY-based Cornell University). Landfills throughout North America contain between 20- and 33-percent construction, renovation, and demolition waste; of that, up to 15 percent is drywall. Several landfills will not accept drywall due to it getting wet and possibly releasing hydrogen-sulfide gas.

Attempting to recycle drywall is only appropriate during initial construction when the drywall is new and unpainted. Even then, energy and labor are required to police the recycle bins, drive the waste to the recycling facility, remake it into new product, and ship it back out to market.

Controlled factory environments generally have established recycling facilities and procedures. Once on-site, pre-manufactured walls create little or no waste. They also require fewer sub-trades driving to the site on a shorter schedule, lowering transportation carbon emissions and pollution. A 20,000-square-foot space built using modular power and data in an access floor with modular walls can eliminate 45 percent of the carbon emissions typically associated with the same build-out done conventionally.

During renovations, movable walls provide dramatic environmental solutions. Rather than knocking down drywall and studs, disrupting the rest of the space, creating dust and noise, trucking the waste to the landfill, re-procuring, and rebuilding it all again, movable walls tilt down, are relocated, and are tilted back up in the new configuration. (Most movable walls have leveling adjustment for base building floor deviations.)

With new developments in terms of universal horizontal support on movable walls, furniture and storage also have longer life-cycles because module size is no longer an issue during reconfiguration. They can hang anywhere along walls, not just in pre-existing vertical points determined during initial design.

Movable/modular walls now offer superior aesthetics and function suitable for any workspace, along with environmental sustainability that comes with reduction of waste and reusing of architectural elements - far more powerful than simply using recycled materials or recycling demolition waste. 

Mogens Smed is CEO at DIRTT Environmental Solutions, Calgary, Alberta. Get more information by e-mailing ([email protected]).

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