Moveable Walls Allow for Space Flexibility

With tight budgets, savvy campus administrators are learning to do more with less. One trick of the trade is staying flexible when there isn’t enough money to build much-needed space. Moveable walls allow for space flexibility in both everyday and unique ways.

Moveable walls themselves come in two main categories. There are portable walls — they’re on casters so they can move from room to room and even from building to building. And there are walls that are hung from tracks. Within each of these categories are numerous options so that you can choose what best meets your needs.

Portable Walls

“Nothing is as constant as change,” says Rich Maas, vice president of Lake Zurich, Ill.-based Screenflex Portable Partitions.“No university is the same today as it was a year ago.” To that end, the firm manufactures portable walls that can be used to hide ugly construction in the morning and then divide a meeting room in half in the evening. They’re available in a variety of heights and colors; plus each unit can lock to another to create dividers of unlimited length.

The folks at Northern Illinois University use portable walls in a unique way, in addition to the normal daily student union use, says Maas. The sororities have an annual fashion show. Every fall, the facilities department would need to find extra weekend help and pay that help overtime to create changing rooms for the show. Then someone had a brilliant idea: Roll the walls in, arrange them in a circle, and use the last panel as a door. Presto! Instant dressing rooms with time and financial savings. The walls are tall enough (6 ft.) to afford privacy, plus the girls can arrange the walls themselves and hang their fashions from the top.

Administrators at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln made their first portable wall purchase to serve a practical need.“Like many universities, we do a lot of summer conference business,” says Ellen Hardy, a food and equipment buyer. “We use our residence halls to bring in revenue to offset the cost of room and board for our students.”

One 10-day conference the university hosts is a testing service. “We lease space at the state fair grounds to help with this conference,” says Hardy. “We needed some rooms, so to speak, for different functions at the fairgrounds. We originally purchased eight to 10 portable walls to create large and small spaces to meet the group’s needs.”

Transporting the 6-ft., 8-in. walls from the campus to the fairgrounds makes for an interesting story. “You don’t want to lay them down,” says Hardy. “It’s hard on the wheels and hard on the panels. We try to protect our investment.”

So, to transport the walls, administrators lease a truck owned by the Scarlet and Cream Singers, a university singing group. “The truck is like a high, cubed van, and the group doesn’t use it in the summer,” says Hardy. “We just roll the walls on and off.”

Hardy notes that the walls are flexible enough to create spaces that meet the needs of their customers. “We may have a group that needs a big space. Another group may want several small spaces. That’s one really good benefit.”

She also says that the walls are compact to store: “A wall that is 24 ft. long compacts to two ft. square.”

Finally, Hardy notes that the walls are easy to move around. “I’m only 4 ft., 10 in. tall, and I’ve helped push them where they need to be!”

Hung Walls

Hung walls, which can be divided into two large categories, are a little more complicated than portable walls.

First, operable partitions are a series of panels suspended from tracks that, when in place, look similar to a permanent wall. They’re also called movable walls, flat panels, movable partition walls, acoustic moveable walls, folding doors and folding walls. Janesville, Wis.-based Hufcor Inc., has three kinds of operable partitions: paired panels, individual panels (omni-directional) and continuously hinged (train) panels. The continuously hinged panels are available in manual or electric operation. Second, accordion partitions, which provide fast space division, simply pull away from the wall, stretch across the opening and latch. They’re also called accordion doors, folding doors and accordion walls.

Hung walls are usually installed in new construction projects, when it’s easiest to plan for overhead steel support. “Especially if you’re going to install electrically operable walls, it’s always nice if you’re able to plan for it ahead,” says Bonnie Swenson, director of Marketing Services for Hufcor. However, they can be installed in renovation projects, too.

While you might expect to find hung walls in classrooms, the truth is, they’re installed in a variety of campus buildings, including cafeterias, gymnasiums, meeting rooms and performing arts centers. “It runs the gamut,” Swenson sums.

For example, the Winter Park campus of Valencia Community College is just 50,000 sq. ft. Operable walls provide the flexibility needed to accomplish much on this growing campus.

“We have three classrooms with two operable partitions, which Hufcor calls Air Walls,” says Lois Brennan, coordinator of Operations. “In another area, we have two classrooms with one Air Wall. Because we’re a small campus, we have to be versatile. Most of the time, the space is used for classrooms. But, when we host an event, we push a wall aside. It allows us to be more functional and use the rooms for more than just one thing.”

Brennan has sage advice for anyone considering a hung wall for his or her next construction project. “I encourage you to get the best wall you can. Be sure the custodial staff and other users are trained in how to use it because, if it’s not opened properly and locked in place, you’ll have sound carrying from one room to the other. That’s not good.” Fortunately, hung walls don’t require much training to use them properly.

Additional advice comes from Mark Blanchard, Hufcor’s national sales manager. He notes that manually operated walls offer excellent acoustics and a long life span. Electrically operated walls reduce acoustic quality a little bit, cost more up front and cost more through time in terms of maintenance. One person can set up a manually operated wall in just a couple of minutes, so you don’t necessarily achieve greater convenience through an electrically operated wall. However, in large gymnasiums where a hung wall is used a number of times every day and is exceptionally large, convenience is achieved, and it simply doesn’t make sense to use a manually operated wall.

Whichever type of moveable wall you choose, you’re sure to have flexibility that will last for many years because of the product’s durability. For any campus, it adds up to an obvious way of doing more with less.