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Beyond Movable: Manufactured Wall Systems Aim Higher

by Elizabeth West

“We never want the facility to be the reason why something doesn’t get done.”

Edward Dondero is the director of facilities for BioGen, a Cambridge, Mass.-based scientific research firm that completed construction on a pair of new headquarters buildings late last year. After years of being courted by companies manufacturing movable wall systems—and refusing them—Dondero took the opportunity to make a change, and then change again… and again. In fact, BioGen plans to change its building floor plans as often as needed to get the job done.

That job, according to Dondero, is to keep pace with the company’s ever-changing needs.

“BioGen is a research company. We innovate, and sometimes we get it wrong and a lot of times we get it right. If we get it wrong, though, we always have the ability to do more research and get it right. We wanted our new buildings to allow us to do the same.”

To achieve this, BioGen worked with Steelcase and dealer Red Thread to create a flexible floor plate, ceiling and wall system that could keep up with BioGen innovative spirit. The group fitted approximately 400,000 sf of a 500,000-sf building with low-profile, raised flooring that houses electrical and data, and 20×20-ft ceiling soffits that house the facility’s HVAC and lighting systems. Attached to those two utility channels, 30 to 40 percent of the wall space throughout the facility is comprised of a unitized demountable wall system that can be disassembled, reconfigured, and reassembled to create new offices, collaboration rooms, open spaces and more – all on demand.

How often does this happen? Very often, according to Dondero.

“Before we moved in, we went through a major design change to adapt to a more open office plan,” he said. “Because we had the raised floor delivering the electrical and power—and the walls that we could reconfigure at will—it was easy. And it saved us a lot of money.”

As planned, said Dondero, the facility has been in a constant state of change. “Adding furniture, changing furniture, rearranging it…BioGen is constantly in a churn,” he said. “Anything that makes that easier to perform, we are trying to facilitate it in the design process. The facility should never be the roadblock to innovation or efficient work.”

“We find the market is exploding around acoustical glass walls with high STCs,” says Scott Staedter, senior manager, brand development, Hufcor, Inc. “Acoustically rated glass walls—those that stop sound from traveling from one room to another—are extremely valuable for facility managers tasked with finding effective products for creating quiet, flexible spaces where natural light can shine.”

Manufactured Walls Systems: The Ins & Outs

Manufactured wall systems, while common in Europe and the Middle East, are still somewhat of an emerging product in the North American market. “Americans are tied to conventional construction,” said Mogens Smed, founder and chief executive officer of Calgary-based DIRTT Environmental Solutions Ltd. “But if you look at the future, the future is in these walls.”

Corporate, education and healthcare segments have taken the firmest grip on manufactured wall systems in the North American market. Valued for clean lines, uniform appearance, and liberal use of glass, manufactured wall systems fit neatly into modern interior design strategies that favor open layouts, daylighting, clear site lines, and a feeling of transparency within the built environment. However, multitudes of finishes, from wood veneers to textiles to whiteboards, have become part of the standard offerings of nearly all wall system manufacturers, allowing architects, designers and facilities managers to create high-impact visual appeal for occupants and visitors.

“Full-height glass and full-height pass-through doors that allow for direct or diffused light are what facilities managers really want,” says Staedter, commenting on Hufcor’s true moveable glass partitions that stack away when not in use. “The main benefits to these are full space flexibility and the continuation of interior day-lighted spaces critical for LEED projects and proven for workplace productivity and improved learning and retention.”
That is not to say, however, that all manufactured wall systems offer the same benefits and options. Indeed, manufacturers have created a complex and intensely competitive industry.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of manufactured wall systems on the market today: unitized and stick built. Many of the legacy wall systems—at Haworth, KI, and Steelcase, for example—offer a wall product with unitized construction, which means that they are assembled almost completely at the factory and delivered to the work site to be tilted up and “soft connected” to the building with minimal parts. Allsteel’s Beyond movable wall line has three fully integrated, designed to work together options: framed glass, frameless glass and solid. With unitized construction, Beyond serves as an agile movable wall solution that delivers movability and superior acoustic performance. Beyond meets user demand by providing a faster, more sustainable and flexible solution when compared to fixed construction.

Stick-built wall systems, such as those manufactured by Teknion, are constructed onsite from horizontal and vertical extrusions, with panels or tiles inserted into the framing system to build the complete wall. DIRTT offers both systems, stick-built and unitized manufactured wall systems.

Unitized wall manufacturers tout the idea that fully-assembled walls require 30 percent to 50 percent less labor to install, while stick-built wall manufacturers underscore the flexibility of their products on site, with multiple vectors for height and space adjustment that ensure fit and maximum access within the wall.

“Some people consider stick-built to be advantageous,” said Shawn Green, vice president of design and product marketing for Green Bay, Wis.-based KI, which manufactures the unitized Genius and Lightline wall product. “But when you are dealing with huge panes of glass why wouldn’t you ship assemblies? We are about 50 percent less labor intensive than stick-built solutions, and we are real passionate about that,” he said. “We don’t want to push our labor into the field – and make the client or installer responsible for it.”

The patented leveling mechanism offered with Allsteel’s Beyond allows for fast installation and reconfiguration to accommodate changing floorplans or just the individual space can be quickly modified, with the unique Privacy Tile System that hangs directly on the frameless glass. Materials can be showcased within the frame itself, including decorative or marker board glass.

Conversely, manufacturers like Haworth see the demand pendulum swinging the other direction, and they are chasing the market to secure a piece of the stick-built profits.

“Modular unitized gives you the greatest flexibility to move and reconfigure, and it is the most efficient in terms of labor to install,” said Ken Brandsen, manager of facilities design and management at Holland, Mich.-based Haworth, which manufactures the Enclose wall system and is gearing up for new debuts this year.

Calculating Value: Short and Long-Term



More costly than conventional construction at first blush, manufactured wall systems offer a fairly clear return on investment for organizations that keep an eye on their long-term facilities strategy. That said, there are several benefits of the investment that are realized upfront:

  • Reduced project timelines – Manufactured on a parallel timeline as interior construction is underway, wall systems are delivered to the site and installed quickly without invading the building structure.
  • Reduced onsite trades – Manufactured wall systems require fewer tradespeople onsite.
  • Reduced waste – Wall systems bring minimal waste to the worksite and they are virtually dust-free to install.
  • Accommodate design changes – Changes cost money onsite; the flexibility of wall systems minimizes the financial impact and maximizes facility potential even after construction has begun.
  • LEED Credits – For organizations looking for LEED certification, manufactured wall systems contribute to several point credits and have recently qualified for additional consideration in LEED v4.

Longer term benefits are also compelling:

  • Ability to reconfigure – As business requirements change, facilities requirements change. An organization need not have intense churn to realize value from moveable wall systems. In 2010, the International Facility Management Association estimated that the average organizational churn rate was once every three years. If planned well, organizations may be able to reconfigure manufactured wall systems without hiring trades and without displacing occupants.
  • Tax benefits – Manufactured wall systems are technically considered furniture and treated as such by the Internal Revenue Service. Depreciation on wall systems can be claimed after seven years—as opposed to 39 years for conventional drywall construction (or never if the organization does not own its building).

More (and less) than Movable: Adding Utility

While much emphasis is put on the value of movability and the return on investment that comes from multiple reconfigurations, wall systems manufacturers have all embraced the idea that their products should do more than divide space. Routing the wall with data and electrical, as well as HVAC and systems for delivering gasses and water in clinical healthcare environments has vastly expanded the viability and applications of manufactured wall systems when competing with conventional drywall construction.

Every manufacturer will have different capabilities in this area, however, so facilities managers must be sure to specify all their needs upfront when it comes to utilities. Some wall systems have as little as 2.5-inch internal clearance (which is adequate for electric and data, but not for HVAC) while others will offer a 4-inch channel, and the difference can be significant in terms of what can be achieved inside the wall cavity.

Ironically, however, what is likely the most significant innovation to date for manufactured wall systems is also the one that made the product less movable, rather than more. Once the end user chooses to route the wall with utilities, the wall becomes less efficient to reconfigure. While still movable and reusable, it is very likely that facilities managers would need to hire multiple trades to disconnect and reconnect the utilities running through the walls.

This is the primary reason that Ed Dondero opted to install a floor plenum and ceiling soffit throughout BioGen’s new headquarters buildings. “We chose not to route the walls,” he said. “We wanted to maximize the ease of putting the walls up and taking them down. This way, I don’t require anyone other than my guys – we don’t need any contractors to reconfigure our space.”

Renowned for his innovations in the architectural walls category, Eberhard von Huene paired extensive industry knowledge and exceptional design capabilities to his partnership with Allsteel to create Beyond. Meeting demands for agility, quality, and productivity that allows users to make changes, were among his goals for Beyond.

Recognizing the growing benefits to design and manage spaces by using Building Information Modeling (BIM), Hufcor uses BIM for most projects. Hufcor has complete Revit families for its products that designers can place into their project models and facility managers can use to set routine maintenance schedules directly from the building’s or tenant fit out BIM as-built model.

One of the advantages of BIM for the FM occurs when the FM may be working on the fit-out and the information is embedded in the main drawing,” Hufcor’s Staedter explains. “No one has to go back into the BIM. The actual BIM/Revit models content for operable glass walls and acoustical wall are ready to go.”

But, how does it sound?

When changing from conventional environments to movable wall environments, one of the concerns with movable wall systems is sound distraction. A product that addresses this issue is AcoustiCap, a passive sound management device. It was developed as a result of a research project conducted by a division of the National Institutes of Health.

Manufactured by Transwall, a Philadelphia suburbs-based manufacturer of movable and demountable wall and glass systems, the AcoustiCap design intent was to isolate and manage the ambient sound which is transmitted through open plenum ceilings in office buildings. The product sits atop the standard non-ducted return air grille/vent, typically in a suspended ceiling. It reduces the office-to-office sound in a significant manner in three different ways:

  1. Absorbs – The AcoustiCap is lined with a layer of recycled denim. This shoddy performs the first function.
  2. Block/Reflects – The Cap is made from 0.20 gauge galvanized steel. It is formed into an arch. It blocks and reflects sound back to the origin point.
  3. Redirects – The Cap is installed in alternating directions. Office A is installed with The Cap in a North/South orientation, Office B is installed with a cap in an East/West orientation, and so on.

A primary goal of the AcoustiCap is to ensure that return airflow is not obstructed as the air flows naturally back to the HVAC intake. Independent laboratory tests confirm that the AcoustiCap significantly reduces sound flow while not impeding air movement. The product can be installed by a facilities maintenance person, or by an HVAC contractor.

Form, Function & Finish: The Future Is In Flipping

Whether unitized or stick built, and at no matter what stage of utility integration, every manufacturer interviewed for this article had a clear vision for future innovation. That future is in surface treatments—from exotic veneers and textiles to high-tech transitional glazings to embedded screens and advanced technology—and the commercial facilities and design industry is just beginning to realize the opportunities.

“The old argument drywall vs. movable wall—move twice, they pay for themselves. That has changed,” said KI’s Shawn Green. “One thing that gets lost in the mix of moving the wall is the importance of being able to flip out the skins and manipulate the wall from floor to ceiling. I’ve been challenging our salesforce and the market to think of walls differently.”

Brian McCourt, director of architectural sales solutions for Steelcase, is on exactly the same page. “The vertical plane is the most underutilized asset of the real estate portfolio,” he said. “We do a plan view, but we almost never look at the elevations—so how can we leverage it to make connections, and give people choice and control?”

For Steelcase, the ultimate concept is to create a “palate of place” and to customize interior settings down to the individual users, whether they are physically in the space or need to be ported in virtually. The company is looking at such workplace trends as distributed teams and pedagogical methods that have become much more collaborative in nature. Steelcase’s latest introduction, V.I.A. is the outgrowth of this research, revealing an inclination toward large-scale video-conferencing integrations and collaborative technologies that will allow users in different locations to “sit together” in the same room and manipulate shared documents and information resources in real time—as they are projected onto vertical work surfaces.

Walls can last decades, so in addition to standard fabric finishes, Hufcor offers unique rotogravure painted faux wood faced panels, compressed fiber wall coverings made from 100% post consumer plastics, architectural fusion laminates that can be easily repaired or completely recovered efficiently, and a new line of “ecoustic” sound absorption materials that can be applied to walls that help reduce the reverberating sounds within a room. Wood veneers, decorative laminates, custom metals, painted steel faces, recycled leathers, add to the offerings. Hufcor, Janesville, Wisconsin, manufactures operable partitions, accordion doors, vertical lift electric partitions, sliding glass partitions, acoustically rated glass operable walls, huge interior and exterior bi-fold automated doors, and some other unique movable wall products to create flexible environments within buildings.

Kaerynne Nakamura, director of product management architectural products and casegoods for Teknion, sees this drive for choice and control in the number of special orders that are created in association with the company’s Altos and Optos products.

“If you are ordering from the standard kit of parts, there are limitations with the glass, laminated glass patterns and other finishes that Teknion is offering. But most designers realize that the sky is the limit if they want special glass, special laminate, film application on the glass or special fabrics,” said Nakamura. “We have an incredible capacity with our engineering department to design bespoke products. This year we are trying to show people our capabilities in helping them design spaces that they really need-and that’s a very different conversation.”

Elizabeth West is a content marketing specialist who has facilitated more than 50 webinars over the past 6 years and has contributed research and white papers to many corporate education missions both internal and external. She recently produced webinars with The McMorrow Reports and Lane Office on Interior Custom Prefabricated Walls; and with Patcraft on The Butterfly Effect.