How workplace fit outs can tackle their hidden carbon footprint

The carbon impact of fit outs or refits is an area where companies must step up

For companies fitting out new workplaces or refreshing existing spaces, the carbon footprint from creating an amenity-rich, employee-centric designs is often overlooked.

A common misconception is that the base building accounts for most of the carbon emissions. Yet embodied carbon from interior renovations can substantially increase a building’s environmental impact.

Embodied carbon emissions are the total emissions stemming from a material’s lifecycle, from manufacture and transport to maintenance and eventual disposal. In fit outs and refits, embodied carbon emissions are markedly higher when procuring new products and sending existing items to the landfill rather than recycling or reusing them.

A typical office space can undergo around 10 interior fit outs during its average operational lifespan of 50 years. These fit outs include modifications to the layout, installation of new partitions, furniture, and technology infrastructure, as well as updates to the electrical and mechanical systems. While these such renovations or refurbishments are necessary to accommodate changing tenant needs, they can easily exceed 50% of the building's total lifecycle carbon emissions.

Rethinking fit out standards

It’s crucial to reconsider what needs to be built in the first place. Reusing or repurposing materials and furniture help by minimizing the embodied carbon from disposal and new procurement.

Raised access flooring, for example, is one area where it pays to retain the existing product. These carbon-intensive panels are difficult to recycle and are often replaced with functionally identical panels in a fit out. When the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership renovated its Entopia building according to sustainable building standards, it instead cleaned and reinstated the existing raised access to help reduce embodied carbon emissions.

When a fit out requires new materials, procuring ones with lower embodied carbon can significantly reduce the impact. There’s now a growing range of low-carbon products to choose from, including floor tiles and ceiling tiles.

Requesting environmental product declarations (EPDs) from suppliers and manufacturers is important to select materials according to emissions data.

Companies should also communicate their embodied carbon goals to fit out partners, guiding carbon-efficient procurement. However, while embodied carbon data is becoming more common for building construction, the volume of furniture, systems, fixtures and finishes involved in an interior fit out makes calculations more complex and many elements are likely to lack specific emissions data.

Companies can start by accurately tracking the quantity of materials used in their fit out, which allows them to go back and calculate total embodied carbon. There are many tracking tools available – for accuracy, it’s best to stick with one rather than trying to combine several.

Collaborating to cut carbon

Collaboration between tenants, landlords and developers can reduce the impact of fit outs.

Conversations should start when signing leases to identify opportunities for customized fit outs that can sidestep the need for carbon-intensive renovations when tenants move in. Developing flexible spaces also increases reusability and minimizes the scale of future fit outs.

A new generation of green leases promote better education, engagement and shared equity between landlords and tenants. These might set out sustainable fit out obligations to help both parties make progress towards their sustainability commitments.

Working together can also spur companies to go further and faster than they had initially planned. Instead of just aiming to minimize waste, companies can adopt more of a circular economy approach to retain, repurpose or recycle materials.

The recent fit out of the JLL London office prioritized a circular supply chain to reduce embodied carbon. It features refurbished task chairs, FSC-certified timber, optimized material design that reduces usage, and finishes made of recycled materials. Furniture and equipment that couldn’t be reused was donated.

More broadly, there’s a growing range of “cradle-to-cradle” products can be sent back to the manufacturer for repurposing at the end of their lifespan, bypassing the emissions of disposal.

Benefits beyond reducing carbon

There are financial benefits as well as environmental ones to low-carbon fit outs. Those that re-use materials early on can reduce costs, labor and project timelines, as well as contribute to more accurate lifecycle carbon assessments. 

British Land, for example, employed circular principles to refurbish a building on its Regent’s Place campus in Camden. Instead of stripping out the old fit out as per standard practice, it repurposed existing materials and furniture within the space. For the next tenant this meant saving on fit out costs, which are usually around one to two years’ rent, plus it enabled them to easily move into the space and focus on their core business operations. From British Land, the space was easier and faster to lease than unfurnished alternatives.

Then there are the less tangible benefits such as creating workplaces that reflect a company’s sustainability values and help attract and retain employees. Numerous studies show that Gen Z and Millennial employees want to work for companies playing their part in a more sustainable future.

Low-carbon fit outs can also have an important ripple effect on a real estate industry grappling with decarbonization challenges. When businesses request emissions data and favor procurement that lowers embodied carbon, this can ultimately push the industry towards more sustainable practices and standards.

In the journey to decarbonize the built environment, tackling embodied carbon will be critical in the coming years. Choosing low-carbon materials and adopting a circular economy mindset can help minimize the lifetime carbon impact of every workplace. 

For more information about how JLL can help your business with tackling embodied carbon, contact our experts today.

Alexandra Bull, Project Manager, Sustainability at JLL
Navid Pourmousavian, Senior Project Manager, Building Performance at JLL