Over the past 20 years the offices in which people work will probably not have changed as much as the technology people use to get their work done. Technological changes and in particular mobile technologies are shaking up the traditional layout of fixed workplaces and partitioning by enabling people to work more flexibly. As a consequence more and more businesses are starting to adopt novel office layouts which, in turn, are starting to drive innovation in the partitioning sector. Andy Pearson reports.

“The office environment is rapidly changing,” said Ian Strangward, MD of interior fit-out project management firm Architectural Wallsz and chair of the FIS Partition Forum. One of the changes resulting from the evolution in mobile technology, according to Mr Strangward, is a move towards what he calls “the sharing economy”,  or collaborative consumption, as it is sometimes known. This is where individuals can rent space in an underused part of an office, for example. “Companies are recognising that their offices are a big asset that is often underused,” he explained.

Of course, having a stranger or group of strangers sit in the corner of your office will necessitate changes, the main one being an increased need for privacy. “The sharing  economy is starting to drive a  different style of office that  partitioning manufacturers will have to adapt to,” he continued. “You will still need the acoustic isolation of private meeting rooms but you may not need conventional offices with desks.” He anticipates sharing economy offices will “probably start to morph into mini hotel receptions with a coffee bar in the corner and maybe a gym at the side to make the place attractive to workers to lease”.

In these new offices,  Mr Strangward explained how “acoustic pods” will be in demand from innovative partitioning  suppliers. “In terms of innovation it will make acoustics far more  important; not just in reducing sound breakout from a space but also in reducing the reverberation within a room to improve clarity of audio and spoken word,” he said.

Furniture manufacturer Orangebox, for example, has  already muscled in on this  developing market with its Air range of acoustic pods. However, steel and glazed partitioning manufacturer Troax Lee is already active in this market. “We make meeting pods for firms such as John Lewis,” said Cassandra Pelkey-Hook, export sales and marketing coordinator at the company. Its 4-sided self-enclosed pods are assembled from the company’s various single and double skin partitioning systems to suit a particular application.

Patrick Devlin, MD of  partitioning and interiors contractor Vosseler, agrees that there is now an increased focus on office acoustics, particularly the increased use of audio visual equipment and video conferencing. “We have introduced a perforated panel system which incorporates acoustic absorption to both improve the sound quality in a room and stop noise break-out from the space impacting the surrounding areas,” he explained.

In response to this growth in audio visual and video conferencing in offices, Vosseler’s innovative new partitioning solutions integrate audio visual technology into the partitioning system to speed up installation. These new systems enable the installation of cabling, for example, to be undertaken by the partitioning contractor.

Steve Neilson, MD of  Worksmart Contracts, says doors and door frames have been a main line of innovation over the last few years. In particular he says the  development of double-glazed doors from a few of the system manufacturers has led the way  “in increasing the sound  performance and quality while retaining a fully glazed solution  rather than losing acoustic  performance through the door”.

Kye Edwards of partitioning manufacturer SAS International acknowledges the impact that changing work styles are having on office layout. “Pods are becoming more prominent for meeting  spaces, particularly in media and tech offices where the move is  away from cellular offices,” he said. However, he highlighted how  lawyers and accountants will still need privacy afforded by good  partitioning solutions.

In addition to technology driving change in the partitioning sector, Mr Edwards predicts that future changes to environmental and health and safety standards could start to drive change. “Increasingly rigorous environmental standards such as SKA and BREEAM could drive the market for reusable, relocatable partitions,” he commented. Similarly, future evolution of health and safety legislation may start to have an impact on the design of  partitioning systems, particularly those systems with large glazed panels. Mr Edwards continued:  “Designers want big glazed  partitions in old buildings that are being refurbished, but the problem is that these are often too large to fit in the lifts and so heavy glazed panels have to be carried by hand up the stairs.” Future changes to health and safety rules could bring an end to this practice, ending the trend for large frameless glazed partitions with, instead, the industry seeing many more smaller panels used “perhaps with transoms  introduced into the system”.

Partition glazing is an area in which Architectural Wallsz’ Ian Strangward also predicts change.  He expects a move to modular  glazing solutions manufactured off-site. Currently most partitioning systems are fitted by installing a supporting frame; the areas left open to house the glazing are then site-measured and the bespoke glass is then manufactured, which generally takes about seven days before it is delivered to site for installation. “There is a market for glazed units to be assembled as a semi-finished product in the  factory to cut down on-site  labour,” he explained. “The  innovation will come from  manufacturers that can develop an innovative, flexible product that has the capability to create a bespoke office environment.”

The biggest driver for innovation in the whole of construction, and not just the partitioning sector, is Building Information Modelling (BIM). This is the year – the deadline is April 2016 – when all government projects will have to be developed in a BIM environment. “Partitioning companies that are developing  digital data for input into the BIM project model are going to be the ones that will win all the large-scale projects,” said Mr Strangward.  However, he highlighted that there are some demountable partitioning suppliers using BIM as an  opportunity to steal a march on their competitors by developing software that not only generates installation drawings and cost information but that also enables occupiers to  reconfigure the partitioning layout virtually. The software then identifies that, say, 85 per cent of the  partitioning system can be reused  in the new layout and then  produces a list of the additional partitioning components that need to be purchased to adapt the  existing partitioning system for the new application.

With all these developments a foot, perhaps the next 20 years will see the offices in which people work change faster than the  technology they are using to carry out their work.


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