Story at a glance:
- With proper planning, using flexible building materials can help you earn LEED points.
- Fabric structures offer a flexible alternative to more permanent divisions.
- Acoustic panels are another flexible option, allowing designers to design for different acoustic needs.
What is design for flexibility? The USGBC defines design for flexibility, which can earn you a LEED point, as designing to “conserve resources associated with the construction and management of buildings by designing for flexibility and ease of future adaptation and for the service life of components and assemblies.”
Flexible building materials are one part of designing for flexibility, and they run the gamut from movable walls and glass partitions to fabric structures and acoustic panels. Here are 10 flexible building materials straight from industry experts—plus how to best use them.
Glass office fronts are a beautiful and sustainable option for projects, as they’re both recyclable and reusable. “Demountable by nature, many office fronts can be installed, taken down, reconfigured, and installed again—allowing companies to breathe new life to their office layout while saving money and reducing waste,” said Marc Valois, executive vice president and principal of Transwall, in a previous submission to gb&d.
Valois writes that glass and aluminum—the materials required for glass office fronts—are some of the best and easiest materials to recycle. “Glass is 100% recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without loss of quality or purity. Aluminum is one of the most efficient and widely recycled materials. Recycling aluminum saves 95% of the energy cost of processing new aluminum,” he said. (More on aluminum later.)
Aside from traditional glass fronts, partnering with other demountable systems for demising walls can increase the flexibility of the built space while providing a sustainable alternative to drywall at the same time, Valois said.
Pro: Demountable by nature; more natural light
Con: Reduced privacy; more distractions
Best Use: Evolving office spaces
Similarly, movable walls are another of the flexible building materials whose benefits may be obvious but should not be understated.
Wisconsin-based Hufcor Inc. knows a thing or two about making space adaptable with movable walls. The 118-year-old company made its name manufacturing and installing the giant modular panels often found in large hotel conference centers. The company has since developed many kinds of movable partitions, designed to accommodate everything from elementary schools to office spaces to SWAT team training facilities.
Beyond flexibility, the team at Hufcor cites improved acoustic performance as a major benefit of using their movable wall solutions.
Pro: Movable; improved acoustics
Con: Sizable investment
Best Use: Private office suite
Talk about fast flexibility. Solutions like the portable room dividers offered by Screenflex allow you to quickly transform spaces as needed—with durability and peace of mind.
Screenflex Vice President Rich Maas previously told gb&d that Screenflex portable room dividers allow you to reconfigure any space in minutes.
“In the workplace, our solutions help teams quickly and efficiently make training rooms, set up private interview spaces, or even prepare for blood drives. We’ve seen all of these scenarios and more,” he said. “This flexibility in design is more important now than ever, as many workplaces seek solutions for social distancing, too.”
Screenflex solutions are easy to operate and store with a compact storage feature. They are built to last, too, thanks to self-leveling casters, locking corner casters, and full-length hinges connecting each panel to the adjacent panels. A durable steel end frame adds to their sturdiness.
Pro: Quickly movable
Con: Limited aesthetic options
Best Use: Spaces that need to quickly change over
Fabric structures reduce construction and installation time, according to Frank Bradenburg of Shelter-Rite Architectural Fabrics.
In a previous gb&d article, Bradenburg explains how fabric structures offer permanent, seasonal, or relocatable options, though he says most architectural fabric structure designs are meant to be permanent. “They can have an internal metal frame, use an internal mast and cables, or use only air to support the architectural fabric skin. The architectural fabric itself can last 20 to 30 years and be replaced with a new skin after that time, just like shingles or single-ply roof membrane. The metal frames, masts, and cables will last 50-plus years. Permanent fabric structures are frequently insulated with fiberglass or other lightweight insulation and must meet all local fire and safety codes, just like conventional buildings.”
However, he says one great benefit of architectural fabric structures is their ability to be designed as seasonal or semi-permanent structures. “Air-supported fabric structures can easily install over artificial sports turf fields to provide a recreational facility during the winter. The structures can come down in the spring and stored for the following season.”
Pro: Affordable; easy and fast to install
Con: Air-supported structures must maintain a positive internal air pressure inside, requiring air locks to enter and exit the structure.
Best Use: Year-round sports and recreation facilities
Perhaps similarly but varied in scale, Sunbrella manufactures high-end performance fabrics like those used in shade sails—delivering durable, changeable designs in compelling styles.
Sometimes considering a shade structure isn’t top of mind for some design professionals, but when it comes to flexible building materials it should be, according to Vince Hankins, Sunbrella’s industrial business manager, in a previous article for gb&d. “It can enhance the facade. It can enhance the overall campus and site layout. It’s flexible. It can change and evolve. It can be styled over the lifespan of the building.”
Pro: High-performance; aesthetic options
Con: Customizing for best use can be costly.
Best Use: Restaurants and patios
The USGBC also suggests considering movable or modular casework for at least 50% of casework and custom millwork in projects. They advise that you base the calculation on the combined value of casework and millwork, as determined by the cost estimator or contractor.
The UGBC recommends using demountable partitions for 50% of applicable areas.
Pro: Contributes to earning a LEED point
Con: Design consistency
Best Use: Residential projects with an interior designer
Precast allows flexibility for expanding and modifying existing buildings. With Fabcon’s precast concrete panels, you can do everything from add a pedestrian door to remove 75% of a wall. Precast concrete walls can be designed to be reused for future building expansions.
“Fabcon can establish a larger completed footprint in a shorter amount of time,” said George Miks, director of engineering, in a previous article for gb&d. “If you think of a masonry wall, what they send out to the site are a bunch of blocks that have to be assembled and constructed out in the field.” When Fabcon sends panels to the job site, the pieces are ready to install.
As a result, some companies are able to open their doors for business months in advance, Miks says, which is much faster than construction methods like block or stud frame. If things go smoothly out in the field, Fabcon can install 20 to 30 eight-foot panels in a day.
Pro: Saves construction time
Con: High initial investment
Best Use: Any modular construction project or building that needs to go up quickly
Acoustic panels like the solutions offered by FSorb give designers the chance to further customize a space while implementing situational acoustic design.
“With the trend for open ceilings and a lack of physical barriers or walls, acoustical treatments need to satisfy the needs of the people residing within the space,” wrote Doug Bixel in a previous submission to gb&d. “In an office setting, it is common for teams to work on a particular project for a period of time. These teams are often situated with another team next to them. Their ability to be heard within their own team and not be distracted by the adjoining team is critical. As I examined this trend, I found that ceiling materials can be placed directly overhead of these noisy areas in patterns that diffuse and block the sound coming from the neighboring team.”
Bixel said this situational acoustic design approach—where panels are placed in targeted noisy areas—can create a nice break in sound from one space to the next, absorbing the sound where the noise source is.
And the solutions themselves are flexible. “By positioning acoustical screens between working spaces and common spaces, a physical barrier can also come into play. Acoustical screens with negative space patterns cut into them provide great absorption from both sides while still allowing light to flow through,” he said. “They can be suspended on a track system so that they can separate spaces where users can change the feel by simply rearranging panels.”
Pro: Allows for situational acoustic design
Con: Often need expert installation
Best Use: Office environments with varied employee needs, like group meetings, focused work, interviews, etc.
Aluminum is a helpful and sturdy building material that helps structures meet their energy efficiency goals.
With significant design flexibility and applications everywhere from building frames and all terrain staircases to windows and doors, aluminum is a cost-effective option to have in mind for future projects.
You can see one example of aluminum in action at Hewitt, which uses aluminum for their all-terrain staircases because it’s lighter than steel and wood but just as durable and even easier to work with, said Chris Shay, Hewitt’s sales manager, in a previous gb&d article.
While all-terrain stairs are commonly used in rural settings, there’s a growing demand for urban applications, too. “If you have a living quarters above a garage, or a second story on an apartment building or commercial complex, the all-terrain stairs are a more flexible and cost-effective solution than steel or wood stairs,” Shay said.
Pro: Aluminum is 100% recyclable and easily customizable.
Con: Not traditionally energy-efficient—requires modern technologies to work at its best
Best Use: Anywhere wood could be used but that requires more long-term durability and fire safety without significant maintenance
The structure of LED lights allows them to be used both functionally and artistically, making them another one of those flexible building materials that can offer design flexibility in spaces of all kinds.
Marti Hoffer of lumenomics previously wrote for gb&d that: “A truly occupant-centric smart lighting system should mimic the natural lighting pattern through tunable and dimmable LED fixtures to reinforce occupants’ circadian rhythm, with meaningful control systems to ensure ease of understanding and use for occupants.”
Pro: Long-lasting with many aesthetic options
Con: Not always dimmer compatible
Best Use: Industrial and commercial projects