Modular wall systems from I-M-T are some of the most innovative, paradigm-shifting technology to come along in the last 50 years. They have completely changed the way developers and designers in the USA view office space and allowed companies large and small from all different sectors of the economy to realize significant increases in productivity and the kind of flexibility to adapt to changing business and economic realities that was simply unthinkable just a generation ago. But they’ve also contributed to the contemporary scene in another, equally important fashion: environmental responsibility.
Fixed Wall vs Modular Office Walls: The Environmental Impact
There are 3 major areas of environmental concern when it comes to building materials:
- Their potential to impact climate change – That is, the amount of CO2 and potential CO2 generated during their harvesting (if applicable), processing, fabrication, installation, demolition and disposal.
- The amount of primary resources they use – The total amount of primary energy sources such as petroleum and coal extracted from the earth and consumed during the course of their harvesting (if applicable), processing and fabrication, installation, demolition and disposal.
- The amount of waste generated by the materials or manufactured components – The total amount of waste generated during production, construction and demolition as well as the long term negative impacts of said waste.
In all three areas of environmental concern modular walls outshine their fixed wall counterparts, and by a significant margin. Below we’ll take a closer look at how the two types of office building materials compare.
It’s a Marathon Not a Sprint
At the time of initial buildout the environmental advantages of modular walls are not readily apparent. However, when the entire lifecycle is taken into consideration modular walls have a distinct advantage when it comes to which material is better for the environment. And it’s not really even close.
CO2 Equivalent Emissions
Because of the nature of their composition – that being the higher levels of steel and particularly plastic used in their construction – modular partition walls will have a slightly higher potential impact on climate change at the time of their installation than the fixed wall alternative. To measure this scientists use a something called “carbon dioxide equivalents” which is a theoretical system of measurement too involved to try and describe here, (though we urge anyone interested to spend a bit of time researching the term). Once a year has passed however the CO2 equivalent scale tips significantly in favor of modular partitions over fixed casements. And over 10 or more years the amount of CO2 equivalent emissions from fixed casements is nearly twice that of modular.
This is the area where modular wall systems separate themselves dramatically from that of fixed wall systems. Simply put modular walls are almost 100% reusable, meaning there is almost no environmental impact related to replacement. The old materials can be recycled and there is no landfill impact. In addition, only a small portion of new materials (typically less than 5%) is needed to complete the replacement process.
Fixed wall systems however are an environmental dead end requiring 100% material replacement at the end of their life cycle. This has a significant impact on natural resources, and not only in the area of resources needed to create the new fixed walls, but in the energy needed to harvest the new resources, process them, fabricate and ship them as well. In addition the old material is destined for the landfill where it will take many years to degrade while leeching potentially harmful byproducts into the soil.
Not only do fixed wall systems fail the environmental test at the end of their lifecycle, that lifecycle is destined to be significantly shorter than modular partitions as well due to the fact that fixed wall systems cannot be repurposed or otherwise reused. If you need to reconfigure your fixed wall office you’re going to have to engage in demolition and disposal of the old walls and their replacement with environmentally wasteful new materials. If, however, you need to reconfigure your modular office walls zero demolition is required, zero new material is required and zero material winds up in a landfill. The existing partitions live on in a new place and will continue to live on no matter how many times you need to relocate or repurpose them.
In a typical office the inability to reuse fixed walls will become an issue of some importance after 5 years and substantial importance over 10 years and beyond. Whereas with modular partition walls reusability is simply not an issue.
When it comes to replacing fixed wall systems the waste involved is not limited to the debris that winds up in the landfill and the primary resources required to create the replacement components. Demolishing and constructing new walls requires the participation of tradespeople; sometimes quite a few of them. Each of them uses primary resources on their way to and from the jobsite. The power equipment they use during the demolition process also consumes primary energy. As do the trucks needed to cart the material to the landfill and the energy the heavy equipment uses at the landfill to process the newly received waste. The equipment then used during the construction of the new walls also consumes primary energy sources.
Modular office walls represent a significant step forward in the battle to reduce the impact of office construction on the environment. When compared to fixed wall casements modular wall systems generate less potential climate change by-products, create virtually no replacement related waste and use virtually no primary resources in their replacement. They are also reusable again and again whereas fixed walls are simply not.
In short modular walls are helping the office build out industry in the USA do its part to save the planet one modular component at a time. And, just for good measure, all those environmental savings have a wonderful way of adding up to substantial financial savings as well. So next time you’re faced with the prospect of building out an office remember: it’s modular walls or material waste.