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Considerations for Moveable Walls
By: Mario Fyfe

If you consider the most common vertical construction markets (educational, hospitality, residential, commercial, religious, etc.), religious structures are by far the most diverse and demanding in terms of meeting the needs of its occupants and the community that it serves.

At any given moment, a church could be one or a combination of a sanctuary, chapel, youth center, classrooms, cafeteria, offices, library, or gymnasium. In times of need, churches also become a place for refuge, sleeping, and medical care. The building must be dynamic, durable and flexible, able to adapt quickly and efficiently based on requirements.

Because of these demands, operable walls (also known as moveable walls or airwalls) are often used to configure the interior of religious buildings in order to adapt to the needs of the moment. Therefore, much thought and care should be given to the design, configuration, and features of the walls to maximize the potential of the system, as well as minimize potential future problems.        

Ease of Movement
Panels that are easy to relocate are much more important in a multi-purpose religious facility, as they are often moved to accommodate the need and very often by the people (sometimes women) who will actually be using them. This is not the case in other vertical markets. You should always use a trolley system with wheels rather than a single sliding "puck." Use a mechanical (moveable) top and base acoustical seal system rather than fixed finger sweeps in order to reduce friction.      

Minimize Accessories
There is a tendency to try and make the walls do more by adding accessories and features that really are not necessary because most will never be used. The function of a wall system is to divide space visually and acoustically and do so in an aesthetically pleasing way. Other than to meet fire codes, the use of built in pass doors should be minimized. Pass doors are expensive and potentially problematic because of the internal mechanisms required to make them work and meet ADA requirements.

"Walking around" rather than "walking through" is most often the better solution. If you believe that movement between divided rooms is required, consider using a hinged closure panel (a panel permanently attached at the trail end of a wall used to facilitate final closure) sized as a pass door. They work just as well as a pass door in the wall. If you want to "attach" paper or other items to the wall, use steel faced wall system on which you can use magnets for fastening purposes rather than a built in cork tack board or a gypsum board exterior skin, both of which require sharp and dangerous stick pins. Rather than have marker or whiteboards on the panels, consider the use of portable writing surfaces that can be wheeled into the rooms when required.  

Plan for the Future and the Present
Very often, religious facilities are over budget financially and items have to be eliminated to reduce cost so that the building can proceed. Operable wall systems are at the top of the list of expendable items. If a decision to not install walls is made, consider installing the panel structural support system and operable wall track only.

The cost for the support steel will be minimal because it is usually part of the overall building structure and is there anyway. The operable wall track for future wall systems will be about 25 percent of the cost of the final complete wall system. Panels can then be installed when money becomes available. Usually anyone's panels can be installed on a track system as long as matching trolleys are used, so you will not be committed to the original manufacturer, should you decide to use someone else. 

Finish Considerations
The initial decision to be made regarding panel skins is the material. The most common skins are steel only, steel over a gypsum board substrate, gypsum board only, or MDF board. By far, the best for many reasons is a steel exterior laminated to a minimum 1/2" thick gypsum board substrate. This combination typically offers the most durable, more than adequate tested sound control characteristics, is user friendly, and can be repairable should damage occur.

Final finish materials are really endless, ranging from wood, carpets, fabrics, vinyls, etc. The best option is to select from the standard finishes available from the manufacturer. Do not use high-maintenance materials, such as fabric and wood, that look nice but wear rather quickly, finishes with patterns that may not match up panel to panel, or add-ons such as chair rails, moldings, mirrors, etc. The overall best and most economical choice is a heavy duty (minimum 20 oz) vinyl from the manufacturer's standard color selection.

The other consideration is whether the panels will be "trimless" (no vertical trim where panels meet) or "protective edge" (a narrow visible protective molding on the vertical edges where panels meet) design. If appearance is more important than longevity and durability, then choose "trimless." On the other hand, a "protective edge" design will provide protection for panel edges, provide a location to grip the panels when moving, and generally allow for faster and more economical replacement of panel surfaces.       

Acoustical Needs
There is no such thing as "soundproof." Question anyone who makes this claim. The acoustics of an operable wall are only as good as the acoustics of the surrounding construction. You may think that the wall is not working acoustically, but before you make this assumption, remember that the sound you hear may be going over, under, or around the wall.

Ask to see a copy of the independent sound test for the wall under consideration. If the test is more than 12 years old or if the wall you are considering does not match the detailed description in the sound test, it should be questioned. Avoid carpeted floors. Sound will leak through the fibers under the wall (a flanking path). Do not waste your money on field sound tests. If the wall is installed properly, the contiguous construction has an STC value (50 to 53 is sufficient) equal to the wall (again 50 to 53), the wall sound test is current (tested no earlier than 1998) then the wall system should function acoustically. A field sound test only proves that something is wrong and will identify problems that may be too late to correct. Do your due diligence before you buy. 

Preventative Maintenance and Warranties
In order for an "operable" wall system to be "operable," then it must be "operable." Invest in a contractual twice yearly maintenance agreement with a qualified contractor and it will reduce downtime as well as maintain aesthetics. Read warranties carefully. Most are "limited" (some severely), maximum two years, have too many clauses and are for material only no labor. Know what is covered, what to do, and who to call if a problem arises.

Finally, resist the urge to do it yourself. Every religious body is blessed with members with varied skills: architects, contractors, acousticians, carpenters, etc. There is more to the operable wall business than what you see. Let a reputable manufacturer do his job, and you should be more than pleased.

Mario Fyfe is an architect and general sales manager for Moderco Inc., www.moderco.com.

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Religious Product News