The following was taken from a recent interview with the director of the Office of Research Operations at the Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) ,located outside of Washington, DC. As part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), NIAID conducts and supports basic and applied research to better understand, treat, and ultimately prevent infectious, immunologic, and allergic diseases. Central to the content of this article is the planning, engineering, installation, reconfiguration and relocation of 29,000 lineal feet of moveable walls over an 8 year period. Project completion in the final consolidated facility was in spring of 2014.
NIH/NIAID’s Judy Quasney doesn’t necessarily think of herself as a visionary. She’s a pretty pragmatic person, but being a visionary may be an unwritten part of her job description.
Quasney is director of the Office of Research Operations at NIAID in Bethesda, MD.
Over the eight years she’s been in this position, Quasney and her team members have moved quickly, providing space resources for “tiger teams” leading research efforts to combat the worst diseases ever seen, from HIV/AIDS to Ebola.
That’s why Quasney was an early champion of demountable walls. “We started to look at how we could keep up with the speed, efficiency and flexibility we needed,” she says. “We began searching for alternatives on how to do it.” Prior to joining the government, Quasney was a design architect; she knew that taking a modular approach toward the organization of space allows changeability relatively simply. “It became my job to find products that could last and would allow us the ease of moving walls from one place to another,” she adds.
In an average year, Quasney reconfigures 100,000 square feet of workspace. “There are two categories of relocations,” she says. “In the first, moving people from one work setting to another, without changing any physical conditions.” The second, physical changes such as moving walls and furniture occurs, which is more complicated. We’re in the infectious disease business, where things can be very unpredictable so we need to be prepared for quick adjustments.” She created working settings for “tiger teams” that need to work together in close quarters, and has had space reconfigured to accommodate White House staffers and visiting federal officials who took part in various collaborative efforts, both short and long-term.
So, back in 2007, NIAID began a project to configure space in its Bethesda, MD office. Quasney moved toward a reusable approach and demountable walls from Transwall, a manufacturer of demountable walls based outside of Philadelphia. It wasn’t an easy task: the project required 45 different panel types, with special window conditions and soundproofing, and vinyl wall coverings. Systems furniture that met NIAID’s specific needs, such as work surfaces and overhead storage units that attached to those walls, were also mandated.
The need for soundproofing did not stop at Transwall’s standard methods of achieving high STC ratings. This need lead to the invention of what would later be labeled the AcoustiCap. The AcoustiCap was designed to go over top the open-air return vent in the open plenum system the NIAID building utilizes. The ingenious engineering of the AcoustiCap provided an inexpensive and extremely effective solution for limiting sound from leaking from one office to the next, to the tune of an approximate 30 percent decrease in noise transmission.
“Product durability was a key consideration,” Quasney says. “We knew we’d be moving pieces around, and we needed products that would sustain throughout our projected churn rate. We also needed the ability to take out a panel and not obstruct an entire row. We’d put in a door and put in a wall; that was a pretty novel concept back then.”
The vinyl coverings made sense from several perspectives. “Our choices were drywall, painted metal or a wood-veneer product. We went with vinyl for several reasons. It was a durable, high quality covering, which gave us a softness that helped in acoustics, where metal, wood or drywall would not. Second, vinyl wall covering eliminated the need to paint drywall. Vinyl, if you treat it correctly, lasts a long time.”
And it did. But not even Quasney could have anticipated what was coming down the pike, putting her visionary abilities to the test.
Early in 2012, the Federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a directive calling on federal agencies, like NIH, to consolidate their offices in an effort to reduce the budget deficit and save taxpayer money. Quasney and NIAID realized consolidating four expiring office building leases into one offered an opportunity to address this cost-saving mandate.
The modular walls they had installed in the Bethesda office proved to be of immense practical and financial value. “We became fully standardized with offices and work stations back in 2009, using the modular wall components in installations in our buildings,” Quasney says. “We knew the product well and had confidence in our ability to move it from one configuration to another. Our early concepts of flexibility through a modular approach offered huge cost savings to taxpayers. We also understood that the logistics involved would require considerable detailed planning.”
“It’s all taxpayers’ dollars that’s at stake here. We knew the product is of good quality, so let’s put it to good use.”
Quasney and the NIAID team did precisely that: they were able to integrate and reuse more than 86% of the Transwall components that had been previously installed, achieving at least a 25% cost savings in labor and materials over what it would have taken to build out the new offices from scratch, which amounts to millions of dollars. In addition, she was even able to maintain equality in the office layouts, which was especially important for staff morale and to maintain future flexibility of space use. “We don’t have any windowed offices, so natural daylight from the windows can penetrate far into the floor plate. Natural light is one of the most important factors in a high functioning work setting. Staff with offices have a few glass demountable panels from which to see out, and viewing to the outside is possible even if an office is located close to the interior of the building. This design decision allowed us to offer natural light to nearly all of our staff, which has been well received and appreciated by nearly all,” she says.
There are several lessons learned over time, Quasney notes. “The first is the tremendous savings of product we achieved. Second, we were environmentally responsible and sustainable as we didn’t just throw stuff out. Third, we demonstrated how modularity does create efficiency and equity. NIAID staff were accustomed to more personalized work settings previously, but with a more streamlined and modular approach the equities achieved provided everyone with the basic needs of a work setting while also demonstrating true cost savings. Fourth, the new work settings for NIAID staff have a uniform look and feel that’s pleasant and appreciated.” NIAID’s new offices have glass panels that allow natural light into the core of the building, which Quasney calls very uplifting. “We’ve achieved an aesthetic connection to our external environment. We’re in a beautiful area, adjacent to woods, and a pleasant urbanscape. Even the lower floors offer quality light to create a comfortable work setting appreciated by many of the staff. ”
Traditionally, reusability of wall components is accomplished on a smaller scale; Quasney and NIAID proved it could be achieved in a far greater setting, if it’s done properly, with both primary and secondary benefits that go far beyond first cost.
“The logistics need to be carefully looked at on a detailed level, because they drive how it will all occur,” she notes. “Moving from one location to another involves far more than merely a simple analysis of how much product you have on hand. Finally, it starts to really establish a culture of equity in the workplace. It’s no longer about ‘my private work setting’ and ‘me’; instead, NIAID staff are realizing the value of a work setting that offers common goals more equitably and consistently to benefit all. ”
Spoken like a true visionary.
For 50 years Transwall has developed, manufactured, sold and serviced demountable and moveable walls and partitions. The company’s involvement with the AcoustiCap project is an example of a solutions focus. Call 610-310-0079 or visit www.transwall.com.
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