Green Building Elements: Better Partition Walls

August 27, 2007

Construction, as many of you know by now, is one of the biggest single sources for waste and may be responsible for as much as 30% of the volume used in some landfills. And, because commercial space is turned over more frequently, the interior build-out of office space is one of the biggest sources of construction debris and waste. As companies change their staff, the space they occupy fluctuates, and often old spaces are torn out and new spaces built with different configurations.

Since the spaces in an office are not part of the structure (in most cases), the walls that divide offices and meeting rooms can be relatively quickly disassembled and rebuilt in a new configuration without affecting the building structure. This flexibility appeals to building owners and tenants alike, because space can be easily customized to meet the particular needs of any tenant. But it leads to an awful lot of waste, as well.

A new system of wall construction devised by Sean Dorsy, a graduate architecture student at The Catholic University of America, uses standard 4 x 8 sheets of plywood cut with slots so that the panel can be unfolded like an accordion to make a wall structure to replace standard stud construction.

This wall system provides savings of weight (138 lbs versus 245 lbs), wood (since plywood uses trees more efficiently than 2x4s), and money ($51.89 for the plywod system versus $55.89 for an equivalent section of stud wall). But also, unlike the standard wood stud construction, the system is much easier to disassemble, and therefore easier to re-use when the time comes to reconfigure the space.

A number of office furniture companies produce panelized wall systems that are used to allow businesses and building owners to quickly install and reconfigure spaces. These wall panels are also demountable and reusable, so that a space can be reconfigured rather than demolishing and rebuilding walls to reconfigure space as companies’ needs change or building tenants come and go. In addition to saving materials and reducing waste, these panelized systems are typically quicker to assemble.

Panelized systems have their drawbacks, as well. The look is usually not as nice as a gyp board wall, with more exposed seams and a less refined appearance. They are also frequently covered with vinyl wallcoverings, which have their own environmental costs many people would rather avoid.

Dorsy’s wall system makes somewhat less sense for residential uses, because in most typical home construction some of the interior walls are structural, and the walls are not moved as frequently. Building some walls with standard stud construction and others with the expanded plywood method might turn out to be more costly than having all walls built in the same fashion and from the same materials.

The problem with any system of demountable walls (whether using Dorsy’s system or a commercial panealized wall system or some other scheme) is that interior spaces rarely work out perfectly evenly within a space. If you have 4-foot-wide panels and you need 14 feet of wall, you still end up cutting pieces and producing waste. And then, when the time comes to reconfigure the space again, those already cut pieces are usually seen as waste and are consigned to the landfill at that point. Still, this typically produces less waste than a full build-out and tear-down would create.

via: Architect Magazine


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