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Arcadis’s Elisabeth Selk explores the growing importance of applying circularity to building fitout projects and the key principles that building occupiers should consider when planning a sustainable fitout

Circularity is the new frontier for building occupiers planning to fitout new spaces or reconfiguring existing spaces. A circular economy approach seeks to reduce unsustainable material use, redesign materials, products, and services to be less resource intensive or more durable and retain end-of-life material value. Office fitouts typically rely on products with a short functional lifespan and can result in large quantities of waste. Application of the principles of circular economy in fitouts presents a huge opportunity to reduce environmental footprint as well as costs and time.

At Arcadis, we looked at how we could apply the principles of circularity in the fitout of our new London offices at 80Fen where we moved 18 months ago. For example, we chose to rely on exposed services design to avoid the use of suspended feature ceilings. We also installed foldable walls to allow greater adaptability of spaces and sought opportunities to use recycled content, e.g., in furniture and acoustic panels.

Organisations with a strong sustainability agenda are increasingly looking to ensure that their fitout projects align with their net zero carbon and embodied carbon values and commitments. Retaining resource value will assist in meeting overarching net zero goals, help achieve a strong sustainability certification or accreditation such as BREEAM or WELL, and boost ESG credentials. Re-using, standardising, and designing for flexibility will help create opportunities for cost savings, waste and programme reductions as well as generate social value through sharing materials onward to charities and schools for example.

Integrating circularity principles begins in the planning stages and focuses on the physical fabric of the fitout. The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) sets out five circular economy principles that can help guide a fitout project brief.

The first principle, maximising re-use, relies on re-using elements of the existing fabric, re-using furniture and other fitout materials, or passing them on for re-use. Furniture can be easily re-used through re-upholstering or wrapping for example to fit in with the new colour scheme. In the case of one of our clients, a large financial institution, all furniture, fixtures and equipment ended up being either re-deployed to other sites or sold and proceeds given to charity. The re-use of partitions or raised access flooring – by up to 80% in some cases is another key feature in many of our clients’ fitouts, but the re-use principle can also stretch to a wide range of applications including building services installations.

Designing for optimisation is the second principle. It emphasises flexibility to ensure that materials and products can accommodate future uses or be used again in other buildings. In the case of one client, a large financial institution, the mechanical, electrical and plumbing services were future-proofed to ensure they can adjust to new configurations and minimise impact on other areas such as ceilings, glazing. In another large financial institution, an innovative design for the floor layout allowed the creation of a free-standing versatile meeting room system which can easily be relocated. As fitout styles frequently change and elements tend to have shorter design lives, designing for flexibility, adaptability, and disassembly will increase longevity.

This links closely with the use of standardisation, which UKGBC identifies as another key principle. Making use of standardised elements or modular designs for materials and products can reduce production waste, enable higher spatial flexibility and help extend the life of the assets. At one tech company we have been working with, all standalone meeting rooms were formed from demountable, glazed and solid partition systems - with an integrated ‘lid’ and dedicated services to support future changing needs.

The fourth principle, increasing reliance on products as a service - PaaS, has the potential to reduce carbon through efficient maintenance, optimisation of refurbishment cycles and prevention of waste through takeback schemes that focus on recovering or adapting products for future use. While furniture or office floor coverings can increasingly be purchased as standalone services, the provision of services has been expanding. For example, one of our clients, a large financial institution, has just bought Video Conferencing as a Service - VCaaS.

The last principle, minimising impact and waste, is about reducing the demand for virgin materials. This means designing waste out, but also minimising finishes – floors and ceilings, and using recycled content or secondary materials, such as floorings where appropriate. At 80Fen, we chose 100% recycled acoustic panelling for our meeting rooms and avoided the use of suspended feature ceilings. We have also been encouraging our clients to use floor finishes that are magnetically backed which will allow easy removal and re-use and minimise the need for replacement.

As our experience and that of our clients help illustrate, there is a vast range of solutions to explore and many sustainability benefits to derive from applying circularity principles throughout all stages of the fitout cycle.

Before you start on this journey, there are some takeaways we’d like to share:

1. Shift away from tactical planning towards strategic planning. This is about identifying opportunities for both longevity and flexibility and how this will impact the useful life of your assets. But this is also a rethink of what to do with your existing set up and materials. What can you keep and re-use? What can you pass on and bring to market or share to create social value? How are you going to manage the churn between spaces?

2. Review and revise standards. You may need to update documents to specify new requirements. This applies to procurement of assets, materials and services which are part of your fitout where suppliers can be encouraged and supported to provide more sustainable circular solutions. It also applies during the project phase where regular reporting on recycling and waste transfer during the project will help monitor progress.

3. Engage with your suppliers. You need to actively engage in an early dialogue with your existing suppliers as well as with new market entrants to encourage circular solutions. This will help ensure that your values are in alignment throughout the supply chain, and that the required level of service can be provided.

4. Establish testing and evidence outcomes. Look for relevant assurance. What kind of testing and certification do you need to make sure that materials are suitable and safe? You should select suppliers that have the capabilities to refurbish, re-certificate and re-distribute materials and equipment.

Circularity is proving to be a huge opportunity for building occupiers, whether it is because they see the value of re-use and of waste as a resource or because they value the reduction in fitout costs. Are you ready to bring in circular principles to your next fitout?

Contact Simon Kempthorne, UK Workplace Solutions lead, to find out more.


Elisabeth Selk

Strategic Research Consultant