Waste a key issue in office fitout

Copyright: David Lawson - published in Property Week April 2007

Energy labelling of commercial buildings will arrive next year amid a flood of rhetoric about separating green sheep from unsustainable goats.  But how accurately will it show the real environmental impact of commercial property?  I recently sat through a long presentation by a developer with an unrivalled reputation for sustainability. Slide after slide revealed ‘friendly’ building materials, tough controls on suppliers and innovative waste policies: but not a mention of carpets, partitions, furniture or kitchens.

  These are the responsibility of occupiers, and polls suggest that 94% of them think sustainability is important.  The problem is whether they will pay more to back up their good intentions. Most are not prepared for the extra outlay.  ‘Materials that have been recycled or have a sustainable stamp seem to cost more,’  says Ira Wishuda, design director of interiors consultant Connaught Mason.  She suspects that real change may require stiffer regulations.  Tough building controls are helping but have exposed potential difficulties.  For instance, fitting a tea machine to the set height under new Part M regulations led to problems finding a suitable appliance. ‘No doubt sustainable issues have the same hurdles,’ she says. ‘Unless suppliers provide components that we can use, it does make our job very difficult.’

   Designers and contractors have a responsibility to work with clients to show how business needs can be balanced with green demands, says Matt Titcombe, a director of Workplace UK. Some solutions can be less obvious, such as using fresh drinking water systems which eliminate need for bottles and fuel-hungry deliveries.  Space planning can help at little extra cost, such as reducing paper through shared printers in a communal location.

  Landlords should think harder about potential problems.  A tenant in a multiple-occupation building may find it impossible to switch to combined heat and power [CHP], says interiors contractor Overbury.  In fact any kind of fitout can be difficult when working around other occupiers with only a single goods lift.

   Waste is a key issue. Tougher controls are already hitting refurbishment and the trend for occupiers to switch around internal layouts. Plasterboard can no longer be casually ripped out and dumped, says Glan Blake Thomas, MD of Advanced Ergonomic Technologies, who sees need for innovations such as durable coatings so partitions can be reused. One perennial concern is the waste generated when occupiers upgrade landlords’ basic ‘Cat A’ fittings to their own ‘Cat B’ standard. Titcombe says Workplace is using walk-through animation to show how completed interiors can look so developers can skip the initial fitout. 

  Overbury has found another chink of light by discovering that only a handful of its 300 fitout and refurbishment jobs last year involved a complete strip-out.   Projects costing less than £1m tended to recycle materials, such as re-fitting existing ceiling tiles where mechanical and electrical services needed upgrading. This was probably due to cost saving rather than environmental concerns, says Overbury.  It may be more labour intensive or time consuming but is still cheaper than starting from scratch with new materials. It shows that economics and green issues are sometimes aligned.  But there is still no standard way to measure waste generated at any stage of refurbishment, so Overbury it is planning to setting up its own system to make such decisions more businesslike.


Green intentions can fade when occupiers see the potential cost. In fact, these can often be written off against taxes but more than half of occupiers don’t know allowances exist, says John Lovell of tax specialist Lovell Consulting. This blindness spreads through all kinds of fitout.  Developers are not slow to claim for initial Cat A fitout but contractors lack incentive to push claims for Cat B as they just want to get the work done rather than complicate projects.

 Plant, fittings and fixtures can cost between 10-40% of a building’s value, so potential savings are enormous. Allowances can save £300,000 on every £1m spent on fitout and all green costs can be written off [see www.eca.gov.uk].  Even where consultants help claw back allowances, a specialist can often find more savings, says Lovell. Instead of lumping all painting together, for instance, extra can be claimed by showing what was slapped onto plant and machinery. Obscure differences mean demountable glass partitions qualify for allowances but not fixed ones. Floors and ceilings acting as plenums for air handling qualify for allowances while simple raised floors and suspended ceilings do not.

   Claims can also be made long after the work is done. Lovell saved £2m in unclaimed allowances for an investor who bought a £30m building and £3m on a shopping centre costing £50m. Last month’s surprise Budget changes mainly relate to reducing the speed that allowances may be claimed and the phasing out of industrial buildings and hotel allowances. A new 100% allowance has been created for empty commercial buildings in deprived areas.