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Operable Partitions: A Space Odyssey
By: D. Sean Bail

Space.  Just the word conjures thoughts of infinite distances and unimaginable possibilities.  Unfortunately, the term as it applies to everyday construction and facilities is much more limiting. This is probably where the phrase "thinking outside the box" probably originated.  

For all of the advances in architecture, space management continues to be treated as the box within a box instead of the innovative abstract that allows a building to be transformable from single use to multifunctional.

Traditionally, operable partitions have been used to simply break up larger spaces into smaller areas as the activity required. This has allowed larger rooms, like fellowship halls, to be used as conference rooms or divided into small group meetings.

Is that the only application? What if the sanctuary could be expanded to satisfy a growing congregation or to accommodate a special event?  What if multiple service styles could be offered simultaneously to attract a larger demographic simply by reconfiguring the existing space?

Imagine tailoring services to different age groups or non-native speakers. What if your facility was more like a transformer than a box?

Sometimes the psychology of space can make a major difference in how it's perceived. A large space half filled does not feel as energized as a smaller space that is filled up. Being able to modify a space can create an intimacy that is lost in the cavernous rooms of normal worship.

Obviously, there are certain limitations to what an operable partition can do because there are other considerations that impact how sound is managed. Rather than drone on about what to look for in an operable partition or this feature over that option, as an end user, the need is to focus on two things: determine what your current needs are and consider how flexibility might be introduced to maximize already limited resources. 

Start with considering your specific need and then build on that. Whatever your inspiration comes up with, there is likely an operable wall system that can be tailored to fit it and professionals at the ready to make it work.

How do you determine what you need?  First consider all the possibilities in which you would like to use your existing space. Maybe you have missed out on opportunities to serve the community because the space was too big.

The church that is ready and able to reach out to community always earns the respect of that community, which reaps benefits for all. Looking to the past may be the best way to look into the future.

Stepping away from linear thinking can present options never before considered. A space is a space is a space except when it is a changeable space.

Of course, it's easier to think big than to pay for it, and that pesky thing called budget always factors into the decision process and can limit even the simplest design in the short term. 

But, the long-term vision is just that…long term. Operable partitions, by virtue of their composition, can be planned for in advance introduced in stages. Once the big plan is visualized, it can be divided up into manageable pieces.

Infrastructure is the basic facilities, equipment, services and installations needed for the growth and functioning of a community or organization. The one thing that must exist for an operable partition is a structural steel overhead support structure. 

Ceilings can be redone, grid can be modified, but without structural steel, operable partitions cannot work. Every project has its own unique requirements and specifications that are best delineated by a qualified professional representative.

It's about protecting the investment. Operable partitions are no different than any other building system in that periodic upkeep is essential to their proper performance. 

Depending on use, service schedules can be discussed with your local representative. It is also not uncommon for dedicated in-house facilities personnel to receive training on minor adjustments and other maintenance tips.

Operable partitions have been around for more than 50 years. Hinged wood panels hanging from the ceiling have evolved into automated, pre-programmed divide/combine rooms and acoustically sealed glass partitions.

And, from those humble beginnings, innovation continues and will continue into the future. 

If you have been considering change and or expansion of your facility by adding more flexible use of the space, your first design element should include operable partitions. Whether it's for the short term or long haul, the solution is waiting for you.

D. Sean Bail is a sales consultant for South Eastern Acoustic, Inc., www.seainc.us.

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