We’re all aware of the threat that climate change poses, and August’s IPCC report was the starkest warning yet that without major change we are headed for a climate catastrophe. The Paris Climate Agreement aims to keep temperature rise below 1.5C and the report’s authors state that this will not be possible without huge cuts in carbon. Buildings have a key role to play – perhaps more than most people realise.

Dr Joe Croft

Head of Environmental & Sustainability

20th Oct 2021

The role of buildings in carbon reduction

According to the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), the built environment contributes around 40 percent of the UK’s total carbon footprint. Furthermore, 80 percent of buildings that we’ll be using in 2050 have already been built. While new buildings might be more energy efficient, decarbonising existing stock will have a much bigger impact on reducing carbon emissions. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) reports that an estimated 11 percent of UK construction spending is on fit out, and that buildings may have 30 to 40 fit outs in their lifecycle, including more minor changes.

Modern low carbon fit out

What is a low carbon fit out?

A low carbon fit out is an interior development of a building that is low carbon in its design, operation and entire lifecycle. Carbon output can be categorised into two areas – operational carbon and embodied carbon. Operational carbon refers to the carbon emissions from the operation of a building. Typical causes of operational carbon include lighting, ventilation, heating and cooling. In recent years, a lot of emphasis on reducing carbon has been on operational carbon and big improvements have been made. Smart lighting and temperature systems have helped building managers adjust usage depending on building occupancy. With the rise in hybrid working and smart buildings, we can hope to see operational carbon reduced further in the years ahead. The other type of carbon output is embodied carbon. This encompasses all the carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) emitted in producing materials. For example, for a marble worktop the embodied carbon would include the energy used to extract and transport the raw materials, emissions from the manufacturing process, emissions to transport the worktop to the building, the maintenance of the worktop and even how it is recycled or disposed of at the end of its lifecycle. Though important, the operational carbon in fit out is often less compared to embodied carbon, which is why there's been a recent shift in focus.

Biophilia in low carbon fit out

Benefits of a low carbon workplace

As discussed, buildings have a huge role to play in reaching carbon reduction goals. In addition to international action, many companies are setting their own net zero commitments – 2030 is a common goal. For most, that goal will not be achievable without a significant reduction in embodied carbon. Targets can be hard to set and measure without outside support. The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) is an international organisation that supports companies in setting science-based targets to reduce emissions and ratifies that those targets are in line with the Paris Climate Change Agreement. The SBTi provides a step-by-step process and is an excellent partner in the fight against climate change. Companies must also consider their Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions before setting goals. These form the basis for mandatory greenhouse gas reporting in the UK.

Scope 1 – The emissions that a company makes directly, such as vehicle emissions

Scope 2 – Indirect emissions, such as energy bought for heating a building

Scope 3 – All the emissions that an organisation is indirectly responsible for, including supply chains and from products that its customer’s use.

Office getting benefits of low carbon fit out

Businesses have the most control over Scope 1 and 2, which usually include most of their operational carbon. In construction especially, Scope 3 is the big one to consider when looking at embodied carbon, and although it is the hardest to address, it’s where the biggest impact can be made. Away from the environmental benefits, companies must also consider that clients, customers and employees want to work with a sustainable company.

A Deloitte survey into sustainability and consumer behaviour from March found that in the last 12 months, 34 percent of respondents had chosen brands that have environmentally sustainable practices and values. The same survey asked respondents which sustainable practices they valued and reducing carbon footprint was the second top answer with 43 percent. This is a trend that has been accelerating and will likely do so as more people become aware of the climate crisis we are facing. Companies that take steps now to start reducing their carbon output will position themselves favourably with this growing consumer segment.

Town hall meeting room fit out

Designing and specifying a low carbon workplace

Perhaps the most critical element, before even considering the materials and design, is working with a fit out contractor that can measure and reduce carbon. This needs to be an expert that can advise on lifecycle, maintenance, reusability, and end of life options. This is especially important considering the current lack of benchmarks and product information – more on that later. When it comes to construction materials, furniture and furnishings, the key is being really meticulous with product selection. Consider the carbon lifecycle of products, what is the carbon impact of making, maintaining and disposing of the product.

Natural wood and plants in office fit out

Reusing products as much as possible can dramatically reduce the carbon impact of the fit out. The embodied carbon has already been spent, and it’s also more cost effective than buying new. After reuse, consider products with a high recycled content as these are almost always better when calculating carbon emissions. Ongoing maintenance is the next consideration and ties in with the lifecycle of products. For example, paint has a marginally lower embodied carbon than fabric. However, a wall will need to be repainted many times over the course of a building’s lifecycle, whereas fabric might last much longer. These are areas where a fit out consultant will be able to provide invaluable guidance.

When thinking about waste reduction, consider whether a product can be reused at the end of its cycle. If not, can all parts be easily disassembled and recycled? With materials and maintenance covered, it’s time to plan the design. The next frontier in design will be designing more intelligently to use less material. Designers will need to think about becoming more minimalist without making spaces feel empty, and how to make materials go further. For example, plasterboard has low emissions for embodied carbon. However, if a design uses a lot, then the only way to reduce emissions is to use less rather than being able to find a better product.

Designers will also need to create flexible spaces. Companies scale up and down all the time, and the rise of flexible operators may see fit outs happening at a greater frequency. Designers must take this into account to ensure that the carbon impact is minimal when changes are made and that spaces are designed to be easily adjusted for future changes in occupancy or use.

Waste reduction in office fit out

Challenges in low carbon fit out

As touched on earlier, there is currently a lack of independent benchmarks for low carbon fit outs. The accreditations might cover some aspects but none give a standard benchmark and embodied carbon is largely ignored. The absence of a benchmark is in part down to a lack of insight or data, which can make it hard to judge the success of a project. More and more projects are planning to publish carbon numbers, but without an independent body to verify these it will be difficult to compare any two projects as the scope of fit outs can vary dramatically. Furthermore, some carbon assessments have excluded difficult to measure packages such as M&E and furniture, two packages which may represent a large proportion of a project’s carbon impact.

Channel 4 office fit out with natural light

The most commonly accepted scale for measurement is kg of CO2 / m². Our lowest carbon project to date was the UK Green Building Council office. The 139 kg CO2 / m² is the lowest ever recorded in the UK. Since the start of 2021, we have begun measuring the embodied carbon of many of our projects. While it is still early and we want to accrue more data, we believe that any fit out below 200 kg CO2 / m² is doing very well, but until industry benchmarks are set, we don’t have a definitive figure. This may in part explain why the built environment is slow in addressing carbon emissions. A report from RICS and the World Built Environment Forum found that 70 percent of respondents say no operational carbon measurement is taking place in the lifecycle of their projects, while more than half said they didn’t measure embodied carbon.

This raises the issue of carbon assessments. The more thorough a company is with an assessment, the higher the end figure will be. That might encourage companies to leave elements out of an assessment in order to produce a ‘better’ value. We must ensure that all businesses follow the same assessment structure so we can compare different projects and then share best practice when projects innovate. Another challenge is the lack of Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) on products. EPDs provide verified information about the lifecycle environmental impact of products and are extremely useful for planning a low carbon fit out, but as yet a lot of products do not have EPDs.

Low carbon breakout area fit out
Colourful wall feature in office fit out

Opportunities for the future

It’s not all doom and gloom as there are reasons for optimism alongside the challenges. More products will come to market that are self-defining as net zero and EPDs will become more common. We’ll also see ongoing innovation and new products on the market. The total carbon costs of a fit out will come down as the range and availability of products increases. The heightened awareness around climate change, in part spurred by the IPCC report, has crystalised the need for urgent change. The private sector has an opportunity to make a big impact. That there are business reasons as well as environmental reason should see more companies aiming for net zero by 2030. Landlords also have an opportunity to market low carbon workplaces.

Indeed, the RICS and World Build Environment Report found that half the respondents could command a higher rent for a green building. On the other hand, 30 percent of respondents reported offering tenants a discount for a building that was not sustainable. There’s clearly a motivation for building owners to reduce the carbon footprint of their spaces. Moreover, building owners are being pushed by the latest iteration of the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) legislation to improve their buildings operational energy performance.

Energy efficient office fit out

Summary

We are at a critical juncture in the fight against climate change and the built environment has a key role to play. By considering embodied carbon and the entire lifecycle of products, organisations can support the commitments made by Government and their clients, as well as demonstrate to their customers and employees their commitment to net zero. There may be challenges and roadblocks along the way, but the end goal is more than worth it.

reclaimed wood in office fit out