UCL Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering


Miguel Casas Arredondo

Circular economy and office fit-outs – developing a socio-technical descriptive framework of office fit-out processes based on material flows

The built environment is the most resource intensive sector of the economy, accounting for a significant share of the extracted materials and the total waste generated. Within the built environment, the most recurrent replacements of building materials and components take place during fit-outs, which are the process of installing interior fittings, fixtures and finishes. These materials and components are more frequently replaced in non-domestic buildings, so non-domestic building fit-outs are responsible for a significant consumption of materials and a large source of waste. However, these processes tend to go unnoticed and unmeasured in the research about sustainable buildings. This work aims to study this research gap and to analyse the potential for fit-outs to become more sustainable. The approach of this project ties in closely to the concept of circular economy, where materials are kept at their most useful state for as long as possible.

This work analysed fit-out processes within UCL Estates and London through mixed research methods, including quantitative material flow analyses and the qualitative analysis of interviews. In total, 31 supply-chain stakeholders related to the fit-out industry were contacted,  and five fit-out case studies as well as two Waste Contractor case studies were considered. The structure of the fit-out supply chain was mapped out,  and the roles and interactions of the relevant stakeholders were analysed. Key materials and components installed and removed at fit-outs projects were defined,  while waste streams generated were measured, and their paths and final destinations were traced. The socio-technical descriptive framework developed for office and higher education institution building fit-outs was used as a base to recognise key incentives,  and mechanisms that encourage higher rates of reuse, remanufacture and closed-loop recycling, from the design stage of building fit-outs and products to the treatment of wastes. 

It was concluded that the fit-out supply-chain generally showed a linear tendency in terms of both decisions and material flows, and a “reuse third party” in the supply chain would facilitate salvaging building components otherwise treated as waste. The rate of replacement for building products was generally shorter than their lifespan and the main barriers to potential reuse were both the lack of size standardisation and the lack of modular installation. Material flow analyses conducted for fit-out case studies showed that most waste streams got down cycled into products or uses that require inferior material quality and little waste got closed-loop recycled. Mixed waste was the top waste stream generated, followed by plasterboard and wood.