Julian Sargent, group md for partitioning experts Style, explains the different applications for modern moveable wall systems, offering solutions to future proof your teaching facilities to accommodate a changing timetable of daily activities, as well as to meet evolving demands for social distancing
Education establishments have all been challenged during the pandemic and there is no doubt that temporary measures, such as deep cleaning, the use screens and the creative implementation of teaching bubbles, have all helped to keep pupils in school. However, the most forward- thinking schools, colleges and universities are already considering long-term options that will not only ensure a more effective response to any future pandemic but also add practical value to available teaching space.
Allowing almost any teaching area to be used more effectively, modern movable walls can be used to quickly divide a classroom into two or more sections, depending on the demands of the teaching day. The space can then be rapidly opened out again as required, allowing a single teacher to work with a larger group of socially distanced pupils.
Here we will outline the options for dividing space, as well as offer practical advice on choosing an appropriate system for your location, considering cost-effectiveness, longevity, acoustic performance, as well as sustainability.
Modern partitioning solutions – what’s new
Folding partitioning walls have been around for decades, but technology has leapt forward, and current systems can deliver a truly solid divide between areas. Suitable for retrofitting into almost any location this is often the simplest option, offering rapid installation with minimum downtime.
Quick and easy to manually move into place, a folding wall can easily be opened and closed by a single teacher, as often as required throughout the day.
Sliding moveable walls consist of individual panels, or elements, that move along a ceiling track to form a more substantial partition. Rubber seals between the elements are expanded either manually, or through semi-automatic operation, which has the advantage of ensuring the optimum acoustic seal is achieved every time. A fully automatic version of this system moves the wall into place at the press of button. Pass doors can be accommodated to allow easy access between areas and to add even greater functionality to the space.
An extensive range of finishes can add functionality to a dividing wall including options for white board or magnetic elements, aesthetically impactful graphics, as well as fabric and laminate alternatives to enhance surrounding décor.
Elements can be neatly stacked to one side of the room when not in use, or in a purpose-built cavity.
At the premium end of the market is a vertical-rising partitioning wall that automatically unfolds from a space in the ceiling cavity. Apart from being incredibly impressive, this option has the obvious advantage of maximising floor space when not in use. It can also be used to divide a stepped room such as a lecture theatre or auditorium, greatly increasing the use of a prestigious facility in any school, college or university.
For a more personalised and innovative solution to divide an area, creative tracking options allow individual elements to spin and glide in multiple directions, creating small areas for collaborative learning.
Acoustics – reality check
The acoustics within any teaching facilities have been shown to have a dramatic impact on the quality of teaching and consequently, the ability of pupils to learn.
Dividing walls do not always need to offer an acoustic barrier though and it is important to consider how the areas are going to be used.
A better understanding of noise penetration, combined with the development of effective sound absorption materials, has greatly improve acoustic performance of modern moveable partitions, realistically allowing a lecture to take place alongside a noisy drama class, for example.
To make a meaningful comparison between different moveable wall systems you need to use the Rw dB rating. This is the acoustic performance achieved under strict laboratory conditions. Installed acoustic performance is given as the R’w and can be as much as 12-15% lower than the Rw dB, due to sound leakage, and will vary between different installations. Clearly, installation is key to maximising acoustic performance and it is essential to check the credentials of the team doing the work. It is worth noting that system manufacturers must approve any supplier to install their partitioning system, otherwise acoustic test certificates are understandably invalidated.
As a guideline, any system boasting 60Rw dB will deliver impeccable acoustic performance, giving privacy to both sides of the moveable wall. Anything above 50Rw dB should be a good quality solution that will allow the space to be used flexibly. Glass partitioning walls are popular and, with integral blinds, can deliver a good compromise between light and the need for privacy. Acoustics should still be in the region of 40-50Rw dB which is perfectly adequate for general teaching situations.
An independent verification scheme is run by the FIS (Finishes Interiors Sector) website, where you can check the authenticity of any acoustic test certificates - https://www.thefis.org/knowledge-hub/specifiers/acoustic-verification-scheme/
Protect your investment – service contracts
Routine servicing and timely repairs can dramatically extend the lifespan of a moveable wall, helping deliver an excellent return on your investment. A risk-assessment will indicate the frequency and nature of your maintenance schedule but as a general guideline, we recommend that for a fully automated system, a trained engineer should visit the site bi-annually.
Helping reduce the risk of unscheduled downtime, a service contract provides regular testing and repair, ensuring the wall is always safe and legal. You do not have to use the manufacturer or installer responsible for the initial work. Take the time to compare quotes and check the small print to ensure any contract offers a full service rather than a ‘due diligence’ visual inspection which may not satisfy health and safety obligations.
The green divide – sustainable schools
Any building development within the education sector needs to consider the project’s carbon footprint. Any operable wall system that carries an Environmental Product Declaration ISO 14025 (EPD) offers verified and comparable information about its environmental performance and is the pinnacle of product sustainability for anyone seeking BREEAM, LEED and SKA rating certification.
If an EPD is not available, consider the recyclable content of the system, aiming for at least 97%. Creative use of rapidly renewable resources such as soy or eucalyptus is an obvious plus, as are fabric finishes.
For a long-life span, individual elements of the partitioning wall should be easily separated, allowing for easy replacement or system upgrades in the future.
It would be useful if the chosen installer has accreditation under the ISO 14001:2004 Environmental Management System, ensuring all operational processes will maximise sustainability goals whilst limiting wasted resources.
Adaptablity is key - beyond the pandemic
Improving the flexibility of available space in your education establishment is not just relevant to allow social distancing measure in the event of a pandemic. Adaptable teaching space ensures resources are maximised at all times, allowing greater creativity in the daily timetable and the ability to create a forward-thinking educational environment that is welcomed by both students and teachers.