Home Features TECHNICAL: Operable walls to be put to the test

There are plenty of operable wall systems available to contractors throughout the UK, but can clients always rely on their stated performance levels?  Paul Thompson reports.

“The operable wall market is very fragmented and product quality does vary,” said Peter Slaney, regional director for UK and Ireland at Hufcor.

“Acoustics is the main issue and walls need to be installed properly. Clients want to be sure about what they’re buying as we see a lot of off-setting of products.”

The operable wall sector, which is worth around £40 million per annum, has been flourishing as more clients look for greater flexibility in the spaces they occupy. As a result education, offices and hospitality are examples of where the use of operable walls has grown and they are now an integral part of any contemporary building design.

Julian Sargent, from Style Partitions, said: “There’s been a lot of high-end corporate activity, especially in London, and clients are looking to maximise the efficient use of office space that can be very expensive to rent. They also expect performance levels that allow them to work securely.”

However, some occupiers have voiced concern over the performance of walls after installation, claiming that in some circumstances stated performance levels pre-installation are a long way off those experienced in use. Test data has shown better performance levels than those experienced, with some of that data being supplied in a foreign language or from a non-acceptable standard.

And it’s these variations in performance that have driven FIS’s Operable Walls Group (OWG) to take steps to  protect standards in a move to make sure that clients have a clearer and more reliable benchmark for assessing performance standards and installation quality.

Robert Barker, who co-ordinates OWG at FIS, said: The group’s aim is to provide clients with an independent test result verification scheme that is robust and provides greater certainty of performance when specifying operable walls.

“As operable walls are being used more and more to provide flexibility for clients, it is important that the industry can prove that these systems are able to deliver exactly  what they claim. It is vital that clients can have information and figures they can rely on,” he said.

Mike Tingey, commercial director at Accordial Wall Systems agrees. With clients and specifiers being influenced by the product manufacturers’ performance claims, he believes the introduction of independent verification of test results is the only way forward for a section of the industry that is growing in its influence.

“More and more clients are seeing the benefits flexible space can bring them. Within the construction industry, architects and specifiers are becoming increasingly interested in the performance levels of systems, particularly acoustic performance.  The last thing they want is for there to be unacceptable levels of sound transfer,” he highlighted, adding, “What we at the OWG want is to create a level playing field that sees the acoustic tests results of all group companies independently verified so that clients can feel safe that the information they have available to them is completely reliable.”

FIS has brought in independent verification specialist engineering consultancy Cundall Johnston to operate the FIS acoustic test verification scheme. Companies that sign up to the OWG will be able to demonstrate a particular wall system  acoustic test results have been independently scrutinised and verified by an expert. . This OWG test verification will occur every time an OWG member wants to claim acoustic performance for a wall system whether it is a new system or an existing system tweaked.

To back up the independent test verification scheme, the OWG has also set up a standard form of definitions for use by all companies, as well as introduce a focus on the standards the wall systems must be tested to. The group company must only use these standard definitions and can only state attenuation performance on sales literature or websites if its tests satisfy the FIS test result verification process.

The sector welcomes the move to independent testing. Mr Sargent from Style said: “A lot of jobs are price driven and the availability of independent test information will clearly demonstrate the performance of wall types. It will also give confidence to architects and interiors designers that they are selecting products that have been proved to achieve performance levels.”

Of course, the quality of installation of any system is of paramount importance to its final in-situ performance. Like any partitioning system an operable wall will not meet its acoustic performance targets if it is poorly installed, no matter how good the manufacturing quality and testing regime.

Once again the OWG believes it has the answer to any potential issues that may arise. “Our group members are all experienced suppliers and installers with fully trained staff that are well versed in installing their own products. They offer the complete package and this helps ensure that walls stay in tip-top condition and maintain their performance,” explained Mr Barker.

Mr Slaney said: “Our installers are all trained extensively and we also have approved distributors and installers. It’s important that fitters have the right skills and fully understand all the issues such as dealing with ceiling voids to ensure that there is no sound transfer.”

Clients need peace of mind throughout the supply, installation and maintenance process, according to Mr Tingey. “We will stand by these products as manufactured, as built and as maintained. We want the rest of the construction industry to be able to look at our products and be confident that what we say we can deliver, we do,” he added.

The OWG hopes that by ensuring these moves are put in place, the growth of the operable wall sector will continue – and it welcomes its own expansion. “We would like more companies to become part of our group. The more the merrier. We want the sector to be self-regulating and we want clients to have confidence in the performance of our products,” concluded Mr Tingey.

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FIS Operable Walls Group; aims and objectives

  • Develop technical standards as required
  • Promote best practice in the market
  • Educate and inform clients and specifiers about operable walls
  • Promote the products and skills of FIS members in this field
  • Shape the market so that the correct adherence to standards is recognised and adhered to by all to the benefit of clients

Contractors and manufacturers who are interested in joining the FIS Operable Wall Group please contact FIS either by telephone on 0121 707 0077 or email info@thefis.org

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