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  Poorly Constructed Operable Wall Panels Pose Risk

School systems have long relied on operable walls to divide classrooms, gymnasiums and multi-purpose spaces. While the moveable panels are simple to use and provide needed flexibility to the schools, the low quality of some panels has led to a nightmarish scenario in which the operable walls have themselves become a danger to the students. Poorly constructed panels are putting students at risk as the panels experience structural failure. Inexpensive track systems and panel constructions require frequent maintenance and put a strain on maintenance budgets. Deferring needed repairs leaves the school with the unenviable choice between rescheduling and/or curtailing activities or continuing to use the walls but possibly endangering the students by doing so. 

Poorly constructed operable wall panels can pose a risk and also put a strain on maintenance budgets.
Inexpensive track systems along with poor panel construction can provide as little as five years of reliable service.Frank Manning, vice president of sales and marketing for Advanced Equipment Corporation (AEC) in Fullerton, Calif., a manufacturer of operable walls, says that the problem stems from a bottom-line mentality in which manufacturers pressure contractors and architects to use cheaper operable wall panel systems that may be less expensive in the short-run but which will not hold up over time. “There now seems to be a general consensus among many architects that all operable wall panel partitions, regardless of the manufacturer and construction method, are equal,” he says. “Working from that assumption, with the intent of securing the lowest competitive bid, these architects have reduced the acceptance standards to the lowest common denominator—the partition’s claimed laboratory acoustical performance—and ignored those standards that, in the past, have ensured safety and protected the taxpayer’s wallet—structural integrity, and actual acoustical performance.” 

Advanced Equipment Corporation (AEC) installed a 69-foot by 20-foot high 
electrical operated operable wall in Gatzert Elementary School in 1988. The school designed by BLRB Architects is located in Washington State. The operable wall system, photographed in March 2007, is still in full operation.During the 1950s and into the 1970s, operable panels typically were made of pressure-laminated wood construction. This type of construction was very durable but was limited in its ability at stopping sound. This type of construction was replaced with mechanically fastened panels in which the face sheet was assembled to a steel or aluminum frame. Particleboard and plywood face sheets were eventually replaced with gypsum board or a composite of thin sheet steel laminated to the gypsum board. Concurrently, some manufacturers developed all steel panels where the composite face sheet was riveted or welded to the steel frame. Certain manufacturers increased the gauge of steel and eliminated the gypsum board thus producing a lighter but much more durable all steel, welded panel. As owners on projects became more focused on competitive bids and reducing costs on projects, these heavy gauge, steel panels have frequently been ignored in favor of the much less durable laminated or mechanically fastened panel, Manning says. Now, manufacturers frequently glue a thin steel face to gypsum board and assemble the composite face to a steel frame. Many projects get panels with only a gypsum board face (no steel). Similar degradation in track and trolley quality has also occurred. It is not unusual to find many walls using plastic tired trolley wheels and small track sections. “Over the years, everybody’s seeking a more competitive product, and they’re [sacrificing] the durability of the product,” he says. 

The Anaheim Hilton Hotel installed an operable wall system by Advanced Equipment Corporation in 1984. The 20-foot high with carpet finish system has manual operation with each panel able to be moved individually. The wall, shown now in 2007, is still operational with its original track, trolleys, and panel trim and finish.According to Manning, operable wall partition panels constructed from 16-gauge or 14-gauge steel face sheets correctly fusion-welded to steel frames of the same thickness will result in a panel construction that will last the life of a building while the less expensive products may only provide as little as five years of reliable service. 

AEC, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has produced a number of its “ALPHA,” welded steel panels over the past 25 years. These panels have stood the test of time. Manning says that he is not aware of any of these panels having been replaced because of structural failure or poor acoustical performance. 

The operable walls at the refurbished Marriott Hotel at San Francisco airport are one example of this durability. Twenty-two years old at the time of refurbishment, the hotel was given the same 10-year warranty as if the panels were new upon completion of the work. Refurbishment included new panel trim and finish as well as acoustic seals and seal mechanisms. Panels and tracks were reused. When the Anaheim Convention Center in California expanded a few years back, it reused approximately 300 panels that, at the time, were approximately 10 years old. AEC applied new finish and provided an as-new warranty for these panels. The facility saved approximately $280,000 compared to the low bid for replacement. 

Not only should owners such as schools, hotels or convention centers choose operable wall partitions that are ruggedly constructed, they should make sure that the walls actually perform the way their manufacturers say they do by hiring independent laboratories to do proof-load testing and field sound testing. “We advocate proof-load testing to verify products’ strength and durability,” Manning says. “Field sound testing assures that a wall is performing its primary function of stopping sound and gives the owner the leverage to demand correction or replacement if it is not.”

Noting that any manufacturer is capable of providing durable and ruggedly constructed operable partitions, Manning says that the problem will not get better until architects begin demanding that more durable products be used. “It’s time that architects act on behalf of their clients and not the partition manufacturers. Those firms that do not currently make welded steel panels will commence to do so once the standards are set and specifications enforced.” 

In the case of schools, “the architect and school district have no obligation to purchase inappropriate products simply to foster the illusion of competitive bidding and save a few bucks. Continuing to do so will cost the school districts many times the few dollars they saved by purchasing the less expensive operable panel partitions.” 

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