The circular economy is an alternative to the standard, linear economy of make, use and dispose. Read on to find out how it relates to construction and fit out.

James Shears

Environmental and Sustainability Manager

07th Feb 2022

7 minutes read time

What is the circular economy?

The circular economy is an alternative to the standard, linear economy of make, use and dispose. Instead, it aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible, and then recover or recycle the materials at end of life. It has become an increasingly prominent issue over the past few years, with the government now looking at new legislation to bring it into law.

A move to a circular economy is getting more important as Earth Overshoot Day gets earlier every year; Earth Overshoot Day is the date when humanity’s demand for resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can naturally regenerate in that year – in 2023 it was 19 May, and just two years ago in 2021, it was 29 July.

‘Transitioning to a circular economy entails decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources. This represents a systemic shift that builds long-term resilience, generates business and economic opportunities, and provides environmental and societal benefits.’ - Ellen McCarthur Foundation

Modern agile offices with a variety of colourful workspaces

BBC, Cardiff, BREEAM Outstanding

What is a circular office?

‘In a Circular Office, decision-making should seek to design out waste entirely and retain the maximum possible value of resources for as long as possible. The lifecycle of products and materials should be considered from the outset, with awareness of how the resources flow from procurement, through usage, to the end of service life.’ - The Prince’s Responsible Business Network.

Circularity is crucial to the whole lifespan of an office: from its design and construction, through to its use, operation, and eventual deconstruction.

Fit out and refurbishment projects are embracing the circular economy in the mere fact that the existing structure is retained and only the interior is changed, as opposed to demolishing and constructing a whole new building.

Design and construction
– To make sure the office space is adaptable to change without wasting materials or products, both its present and future use should be a key consideration during the design phase:

  • Waste should be designed out wherever possible through smart design, using new technologies and off-site prefabrication, as well as only ordering the amount of material needed.
  • Designers should be specifying materials that are reused, reclaimed, or refurbished, or that contain high levels of recycled content.
  • Spaces should be designed with easy deconstruction in mind to maximise reusability elsewhere at the end of their life.
Contemporary office fit out using natural materials

Channel 4, Leeds, Certified SKA Gold

Use and operation – Optimise use of existing resources within the office and minimise waste created during day-to-day use:

  • Office space users should endeavour to reduce the amount of resources consumed on a daily basis. For example, encouraging reusable bottles and cutlery; reducing printing. JLL managed to avoid 18 million printed pages through employee engagement and training.
  • Old or broken furniture and equipment should be refurbished and reused wherever possible, as opposed to being thrown away and replaced with brand new products.

Deconstruction – When deconstructing and stripping out an office, it is important that all materials are considered:

  • Deconstruction should be carefully planned, with time given to allow for different elements to be removed carefully to allow for potential reuse, such as ceilings, flooring and partitions.
  • You can also use manufacturer take back schemes that will recycle old material into new products.
Living wall and biophelia in office fit out

JLL, Manchester, BREEAM Excellent, WELL Platinum, certified SKA Gold

What’s the connection between circularity and carbon?

‘The bulk of emissions for new buildings are front loaded, and twice as high as those from refurbished buildings.’ Dave Cheshire, The Handbook to Building a Circular Economy.

One of the largest sources of carbon is embodied carbon - the carbon emitted in the sourcing of raw materials, and the manufacture, transportation and consumption of new products.

By reusing materials and products, keeping their value for as long as possible, we are reducing the need to source, manufacture and transport new raw materials, resulting in reduced embodied carbon.

Feature wall in cool office fit out

Media company, Brentwood , BREEAM Excellent

Designing out waste

Perhaps the biggest challenge for designers and contractors is creating an open mindset to consider ways of challenging traditional design, doing things differently and being innovative. This is needed to break away from the norm of what worked before in the linear economy.

One of the first actions for the contractor when thinking circularly is to identify ways they can design out waste from the design and construction process, thereby increasing material efficiency:

  • Ordering materials: Carefully consider the phasing and quantity of materials when ordering, ensuring that there’s no wastage from over-ordering materials. When materials are on-site, ensure they are adequately protected from damage.
  • Phasing of works: Carefully consider the phasing of works on the project to ensure structural elements are undertaken before finishing materials are applied and installed, preventing damage and the need for replacements.
  • Regular and linear sizing of materials and elements: Ensure the space has been designed to regular sizings, for example, regular sized doors purchased as part of door sets rather than individual doors and frames. Look to ensure items such as raised access flooring tiles and ceilings are in a linear layout to avoid wastage.
  • Maximising use of materials: Ensure you get the most out of materials you are using to reduce wastage. Dryliners should carefully think about how to cut the boards to get the most out of each board and minimise the number of offcuts. Offcuts can then be used around site for touch ups; for example, plasterboard offcuts could be used for the underlayer of columns. Where possible, use off-site manufacture and prefabrication of products.
  • Packaging reduction: Identify ways in which the amount of single use packaging and protection used on-site can be reduced. For instance, blankets can be used for protecting joinery on site; pallets and cable reels can be returned to suppliers; reusable drawer systems can be used to bring products to site.
  • British Gypsum board sizes: British Gypsum have the capability to cut boards to the exact size required by a project, reducing the wastage from cutting boards to size on-site.
Adaptable modular space in modern office fit out
Flexible floor layout in office fit out

JLL, Manchester, BREEAM Excellent, WELL Platinum, Certified SKA Gold (Left). Channel 4, Leeds, Certified SKA Gold (Right).

Designing for flexibility

When designing a space, consider the different scenarios that would change the use of the space, and design accordingly. COVID is a good example of how the use of offices has recently drastically changed, with a greater need for hot-desking, social distancing and collaboration spaces, rather than the traditional workspaces we are used to. Ensure that the spaces being designed are adaptable to future needs without needing large level changes and wastage of materials.

  • Building in layers:‘During refits or refurbishment, the ability to peel off layers and apply new ones ensures that the neighbouring layers are undamaged.’ Handbook to Building a Circular Economy
  • Onion skin model: In this model the core of a product (or office) is the structural elements, with the other elements of the product attached to this structure, moving out by each layer of the ‘onion skin’. This means that the elements that have the shortest lifecycle and will need replacing first should be the outer onion skin, which can be repaired, changed, or replaced without touching the remaining layers. In an office this would be the unfitted furnishings and furniture, then the fitted furniture and then the ‘scenery’ items such as partitions and ceilings, and so on. This concept is from 'Sustainable Materials with Both Eyes Open'
  • Reconfiguration rather than full fit out: Rather than refit a whole office, look to retain some of the ‘layers’ and reconfigure the space to meet the new needs of the occupants.
Collaboration in cool office fit out

Deloitte, London, BREEAM Outstanding, WELL Gold


Reusing existing materials is one of the best options for both reducing the carbon of an office fit out and embracing the circular economy. Through retaining the materials for their initial use, the quantity of materials having to be sourced or manufactured is minimised.

  • Before starting a design and fit out, conduct a pre-refurbishment audit to identify what is existing in the space and what could be reused in the new office. Materials that cannot be reused can be donated or sold to be reused elsewhere.
  • When selecting materials, consider specifying and installing reused or refurbished materials rather than new products.
  • Reyooz case study – On our SWB and Quad project for Kings College London we used Reyooz to collect reusable materials and furniture from the project, who in turn were able to reuse the products with local charities and initiatives. Through this we were able to divert 5 tonnes of waste from landfill and incineration, saving approximately 23 tonnes of embodied carbon through reuse of the materials and donated materials equalling an approximate value of £62,000 to local good causes.
  • RMF case study – On a project for BT in Birmingham we installed 17,000m2 of RMF’s Eco-range of reused raised access floor tiles. These are tiles that are stripped out from other projects, and cleaned, retested and refurbished before being reused. When comparing these tiles to a new tile from a leading manufacturer of raised access flooring, we saved around 97% of the embodied carbon.
Floor tiles that have been refurbished and reused

BT, Birmingham, BREEAM Excellent (Pending)

Recycled content

Recycling is the outermost ring of the circular economy, and so is less desirable than reuse or designing out waste. However, it is not always possible to use reused or refurbished products, and in these situations contractors should look to source products with high levels of recycled content within them.

Many manufacturers offer direct recycling take-back schemes where they take offcut and stripped out material to be directly recycled into new products; this is common in the plasterboard and carpet industries. Direct recycling means the material keeps its value and is recycled into a new product of the same value with the same material properties; this is a circular option, where the value is retained.

Recycled natural wood in trendy office

Media company, Brentwood, BREEAM Excellent

Be careful to ensure that you are using a manufacturer direct recycling take-back scheme, rather than a scheme where they simply send materials on for general recycling and are not recycled directly into new products. A lot of materials that are recycled are, in fact, downcycled, where the value of the material decreases until it cannot be recycled anymore.

For instance, solid wood will be chipped and remade into plyboard, which then may be chipped again and made into animal bedding where its life is likely finished before being incinerated or composted.

Interface take back: Interface operates their Re-Entry scheme, through which they take back stripped out and offcut carpets. On average, 60% of the collected used carpet will be reused through their social Reuse partner network. The rest will be sorted between recyclable and non-recyclable products. Anything that can’t be recycled will be sent to be incinerated, whereas the recyclable products are shredded where the yarn and backing are separated. They now use this material to make their CQuest backing which has 97% recycled or biobased material, which means the backing is a carbon negative material.

Beautiful tree in office fit out
Biophilia throughout cool office fit out

Interface, Birmingham, Biophilia throughout

Repairable products

Part of a successful circular office is ensuring longevity of the space and that it’s built to last. Often when a product has broken it is either in a sealed container or is too complex to be able to repair; for example, the internal components of iPhones are in a sealed unit that is difficult to take apart and fix. Longevity involves ensuring that the products installed are repairable, or replacement parts are widely available. Materials and equipment should be easily accessible throughout the space, including through access panels in the walls and ceilings for concealed plant.

Interface: Interface’s I2 tiling mimics the haphazard and random patterns of nature, where every tile is different in colour, pattern and texture. This means the tiles blend together no matter where or when they are purchased and installed, meaning if one tile is damaged it can be swapped out for a new tile without replacing the whole floor.

Philips lighting as a service: Philips lighting offers a ‘Pay per lux’ service, where a client pays Phillips for the light they consume rather than buying the lighting units themselves. Instead, they are paying for Philips’ designing, installing, maintaining, repairing and upgrading of the lighting. This means it is in Philips’ best interest to ensure the lighting is the most efficient, long lasting units they can be. At the end of the contract, the fittings are returned to Philips to be refurbished or upgraded to be used again.

Comfortable seating in office fit out

BBC, Cardiff, BREEAM Outstanding

Designing for deconstruction and end of life

Buildings should be thought of as ‘material banks’. The materials are ‘deposited’ into the building during its construction, but as they retain some value over time, they should be ‘withdrawn’ at the end of their original building’s life to be used for another purpose.

When designing and building a space, the end of life and deconstruction of the space should be given as much consideration as its install and daily use. The installers have the most knowledge on how to deconstruct spaces and products, it’s vital that this information is written down in a deconstruction guide or operation and maintenance manual for when the space is stripped out. This should include information on how the element, product or space has been constructed, the fastenings, that were used, the best techniques for stripping out in layers etc.

Where possible, mechanical fastenings should be used, as they allow for materials and products to be carefully removed and separated, whereas adhesives and glues can prevent easy separation of materials and can impede the recyclability of the materials. There should also be an aim to install materials that can easily be removed; demountable partitions, for example, can be removed with much less wastage of materials.

London office that supports wellbeing

Deloitte, London, BREEAM Outstanding, WELL Gold

Composite materials, made of different materials bonded together, should be avoided as they can’t easily be separated and recycled. Materials that are difficult to manage at end of life, such as PVC, should be avoided as well.

The programme of a project should be carefully considered to ensure enough time is given to the deconstruction process, allowing for removal in layers, which will maximise reusability and recyclability. A deconstruction programme that is too short will mean corners are cut, and the cut and carve process of traditional strip outs could occur.

Fit out of modern cinema foyer

Odeon, Manchester, BREEAM Very Good

Deconstruction guide

During our project for Five Bank Street, we have identified what we see as the missing piece of the fit-out circular economy puzzle- a ‘Deconstruction & Disassembly Guide’. This guide is developed in close collaboration with our subcontractors with input on each of their packages on how to disassemble/ deconstruct their various components, as well as paths for maximising material recovery and reuse and avoiding materials making their way to waste streams.

On the EBRD project, Overbury will be producing this guide ready to form part of the project training and handover period, allowing the end users to input and provide feedback. The guide will be in digital format (sitting separately from the O&M manuals) and contain descriptive and visual (images and videos) information.

Stunning modern office stairwell

Deloitte, London, BREEAM Outstanding, WELL Gold