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Wall panels: the specifier’s choice for public buildings

Wall panels are becoming increasingly popular in the public sector as the quality and variety of designs have improved. Scott Beattie, Managing Director of leading panel manufacturer Fibo UK, looks at the versatility of wall panels and how they can be used in new-build or refurbishment projects.

Fibo UK

Any publicly-funded project has to balance cost, practicality, logistics, speed and looks. Whether it’s for refurbishment or new build, the choice of materials is vital. And when it comes to walls, high-quality wall panels are now the preferred choice of many specifiers. At one time, panels were seen as cheap and cheerful; a short-term solution for public spaces where traditional ceramic tiling was either too expensive or not practical. But technology has changed, and panels are no longer a stop-gap measure – they are a practical, long-lasting and stylish solution which can be installed without the use of specialist teams.

Replacing traditional tiles is a time-consuming and, therefore, expensive job. It means removing the old tiles, which often damages the wall beneath. This, in turn, means calling in tradespeople to replaster damaged surfaces. Then, after another delay waiting for the new plaster to dry, skilled tilers can start work. By contrast, modern wall panels are quick and easy to install. They can be fitted directly to the wall, over existing tiles or onto stud partitioning, and with developments in design and materials, wall panels are now more rigid than old-style panels. They slot together simply and easily with joins that just click into place and can be handled easily by one or two people. This ease of handling and installation means panels are also up to five times faster to install than ceramic tiles and contractors don’t need to sub-contract the job to skilled trades, as any competent builder can fit them.

It’s also simple and cost-effective to achieve a ‘designer’ look with contrasting panels and feature walls, because installation is the same no matter what the design. Fixing attachments – mirrors, toilet roll holders, soap dispensers etc. – is easy too, as panels won’t crack when drilled.

Maintenance is another significant benefit with panels. There is no grout – although it’s possible to achieve the look of grout lines with panels – so there’s no problem with mildew and all its associated issues of hygiene, disease and appearance. Panels can be kept clean with a quick wipe down, making them ideal for kitchens, bathrooms, educational facilities or sports changing rooms.

A couple of recent installations illustrate the advantages of installing high-quality panels. Chiseldon Nursery near Swindon is a new-build timber construction built in the grounds of the local primary school. The build was designed by Swindon Borough Council’s architecture and construction management department. Panels were used for all the internal walls, in a selection of vibrant colours, different in each section of the building. The wipe-clean surfaces are ideal for a preschool nursery, and the colour and finish provide a stimulating environment for the children. The whole project was completed from scratch in just 22 weeks.

Paul Foggoa, Construction Manager for Swindon Borough Council, oversaw the building of the nursery. He commented: “Using wall panels was an easy decision. They ticked all the boxes – quick to install, easy to clean and they look great. They also come with a 15-year guarantee, so I don’t anticipate any problems in the future. This was the first time we have used wall panels, but I’m already thinking of different locations where they will be ideal. Our next project is to refurbish the main Chiseldon Primary School with the same panels.”

It’s important for public spaces to be clean and simple to maintain, but they should look good too. The age of ‘institutional’ tiles in depressing shades is over; pleasant surroundings have a profound impact on the mental wellbeing of users. The Hilltop Community Centre in High Wycombe is run by the charity Wycombe Multicultural Organisation (WMCO). It offers a variety of activities and services to the local community, helping to meet local social, economic and educational needs. The centre was founded in 1995 and by 2018 the toilet facilities, in particular, needed updating. WMCO decided to refurbish the ladies’, gents’ and disabled lavatories and chose high-quality wall panels for the job, as recommended by the contractor. WMCO chose a combination of finishes and colours for a clean, modern look. The designs they chose feature routed ‘grouting’ lines, so the finish is indistinguishable from tiles – except there’s no grouting to clean and replace, no mould growth to present a health hazard and no discolouration to spoil the appearance. The existing tiles were removed, and where the panels replaced old tiles, fitting was quick and easy because no replastering was required prior to the installation.

Penny MacColl, Director of WMCO’s contractor PPMM, remarks: “Wall panels are quicker to fit than tiling, which is a specialist skill and can be time-consuming as walls usually have to be skimmed first. Many more of my team, including kitchen and bathroom fitters and carpenters, are able to install panels as they can simply be fixed to the wall or, if necessary, to a wooden framework. And from an aesthetic perspective, we feel the panels look very modern and are a great addition to any bathroom.”

Chiseldon Nursery and Hilltop Community Centre both illustrate why modern, high-quality panels are the ‘no-brainer’ choice for public spaces. They are versatile and economical, and they can be installed quickly. There’s a huge choice of finishes available now, so any look from ‘modern industrial’ to classic simplicity is easy to achieve.

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