ROWS OF SOULLESS cubicles surrounded by closed-door private offices were once common throughout corporate America. Then came open floor plans, complete with noise and distractions for employees and executives alike. Today, modern offices are morphing into “palettes of place” — spaces designed to improve worker productivity and well-being and encourage creativity and collaboration while also allowing for sufficient privacy.
This latest iteration of office design has U.S. facilities managers integrating movable partitions and architectural walls better known in construction parlance as “demountable” walls.
Office partitions and modular architectural walls are common throughout Europe. They’re gaining popularity in the U.S. because they provide structure to open floor layouts, improve an interior’s aesthetic appeal and, unlike drywall or sheetrock, enable multiple reconfigurations as space demands change.
Two main types of movable office partitions are manufactured today: stick-built and unitized.
Stick-Built Systems. These offer a high degree of customization. They usually arrive in sections to the project site and are assembled by trained technicians through a manufacturer’s dealer network. Constructing a stick-built partition typically involves a ceiling- and floor-mounted structural frame, which is then fitted with interchangeable panels or tiles that can be composed of a wide range of materials — from clear glass to acoustical soundproofing. Options for personalizing these systems include slider doors, LED lighting, whiteboards, LCD displays and video conferencing technologies.
Unitized Partitions. These can either be freestanding or temporarily affixed to ceilings and floors. They are prefabricated and factory-shipped as a complete unit to the project site in easy-to-assemble parts. They can be installed quickly with minimal labor. Like stick-built partitions, unitized panels are movable and reusable, so they can be easily disassembled and reconfigured into different shapes and sizes. They come in a variety of materials and feature options such as glass, whiteboards, prewiring and mounts for TV monitors.
Innovative technologies are enabling more customization of both types of partitions. Electronically switchable smart glass lets users create instant privacy by changing the surface of clear glass to opaque or total black with the flick of a switch. Avery Dennison’s Vela Dynamic Display uses polymer-dispersed liquid crystals controlled by an electrical current to turn glass partitions and walls into interactive digital displays and high-definition projection screens.
The partition market today is highly competitive, with offerings from hundreds of North American and European manufacturers — some with high name-brand recognition, others less well known.
A number of companies combine stick-built and unitized office partitions and architectural walls in their product lines, including Steelcase, DIRTT Environmental Solutions Ltd., KI, Transwall, Teknion, Haworth, Allsteel and Nxtwall. Others, like VARIDESK, Wausau and Infinium, offer only unitized systems.
Stick-built manufacturers tout their products’ flexibility for onsite adjustments to ensure optimal fit, easy installation and portability. Makers of unitized partitions underscore their flexibility, ease of installation and cost-effectiveness compared to fixed construction. Although the initial costs of both stick-built and unitized partitions can be higher than constructing fixed drywall, manufacturers say the life cycle and eco-friendly benefits of movable partitions can make them a better investment over the long term.
Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Steelcase entered this market in 1998 after purchasing the North American rights to modular office products manufactured by pioneer Clestra Hauserman, Inc. In 2005, Steelcase began designing and producing its own movable systems, setting out to create agile “palettes of place” for clients seeking to reduce their real estate costs, improve employee productivity and nurture well-being in the workplace.
“In the past five years, we’ve seen a huge increase in the growth of modular partitions in North America,” says Jan Carlson, general manager of architecture marketing for Steelcase. “A lot of that is coming from demand for privacy. As real estate footprints get compressed, the need for people to have private spaces has increased.”
Giving workers peace and quiet in an open office setting is one reason why Steelcase developed its Vertical Intelligent Architecture (V.I.A.) system. Flexibility is another.
“Walls have become the new work surface,” Carlson explains. “In our research, we see people using vertical planes as an active surface. The ability to change that surface to make it part of the work process is key. Today, you might have a solid or glass surface in the center of one wall. You could remove that surface and replace it with a monitor shroud for managing acoustics, wiring, cabling and electrical. In the future, as displays change, you’ll be able to have your computer integrated in the glass.”
“A perfect example is the Microsoft hub,” says Brian McCourt, director of architectural sales solutions for Steelcase. “Our two companies joined forces to combine Microsoft Surface devices with Steelcase’s architecture and furniture so that people, technology and place coalesce into one ecosystem. We incorporated Version 1 of their hub easily into the V.I.A., and it will accommodate the next generation just as easily.”
In addition to its V.I.A. system, Steelcase offers five other modular office options, including sound-proof pods that “clients can drop into a space very simply to create a private setting — one that can be moved around quickly, within a couple of hours, to a different location,” McCourt says.
Steelcase’s headquarters and Learning + Innovation Center in Munich, Germany, serve as real-world laboratories for testing ideas and prototypes. For example, staff are given a choice of ”habitats” in which to work based on their individual styles — whether it’s standing or sitting in a private office or perching in a communal lounge. Every employee, from the CEO on down, uses, evaluates and provides feedback about their product experiences to the company’s R&D teams. Researchers also analyze streams of data from room-embedded sensors that track the functionality of work spaces for employees.
Standing-office desk entrepreneur VARIDESK, headquartered in Coppell, Texas, unveiled its new QuickFlex Walls™ system in October.
“One of our founders, who also happened to own commercial buildings in Dallas/Ft. Worth, was constantly tearing down drywall between tenant moves and having to guess what prospects might want in the reconfigured space,” explained John Moyer, VARIDESK’s vice president of strategic accounts. ”Inevitably, they changed their minds, even if it was moving walls just a little. As a landlord, he saw this as wasteful and not cost-effective. When VARIDESK moved to its current headquarters, both of our co-founders already had experience using movable walls, so they brought in their own to start our space. Their inspiration soon led to development of our QuickFlex Walls. Today, everyone at VARIDESK uses these partitions – from private offices to break rooms, collaborative spaces to conference rooms.”
Like Steelcase, VARIDESK’s CEO and staff field-test every prototype before launch.
“We treat our 70,000-square-foot headquarters as a living, breathing showroom,” says Moyer. “We can test products in the battlefield and make tweaks in real time, taking into account feedback from our employees.
“QuickFlex Walls can be installed in minutes with absolutely no special tools and are much more affordable than others in the industry — about one-third to one-half less. You could easily construct a 12-foot-by-12-foot freestanding office using 10 panels for $9,950. Because QuickFlex Walls also don’t require construction permits, the labor cost is substantially less than stick-built or fixed construction.”
Tim Weatherly with Mizzen+Main, a men's clothing company headquartered in Dallas, agrees.
“We chose VARIDESK partitions for their functionality, versatility and cost,” he says. “Being able to assemble conference rooms and use the space efficiently has been great for us. They have a clean look and have worked for us with our open-office feel.”
Audra Capas is the president of 5StarPR, LLC.