Category C and the Office Fit Out

06 February 2023

Within the property sector there continues to be ambiguity in defining ‘Category C’ in the context of the workplace. For clarity ‘Category C’ can be defined as a concept of a circular economy – a closed loop within which raw materials, components and products are reused, together with renewable energy sources in a recycling loop.

The ‘Circular Economy Package: Policy Statement’ was released by the Government in July 2020 and presents a legislative framework minimising waste and promoting recycling. At a more local level the Mayor of London released the ‘Design for a Circular Economy’ Primer in 2020. However, how can we support our clients move toward Category C in anticipation of future legislation? Kate Paterson and Jessica England of Ridge Architecture worked with Paddy Kennedy of Colliers and Matt Kimber of Urbanise to consider how office fitouts can move toward the circular sustainability of the Category C Concept.

Extracted from ‘take, make, use, discard to re-make, use again’ courtesy of Circular Flanders

Currently a loop of recycled materials is completely juxtaposed to our pattern of workplace fitout: company A’s tenancy ends, as part of their dilapidations carpets, partitions, ceilings, kitchens etc are stripped out and disposed of. Company B moves in and replaces the ceiling with an identical grid and tile, a similar carpet and kitchen to those that weeks earlier had been removed. We adopt a linear approach which generates 140m tonnes of waste annually – 60% of the UK’s total waste.

A simple approach to minimising the number of waste generating fitouts is to minimise the number of fitouts. However, leases in the post pandemic market are shifting sharply toward shorter terms. While a blue-chip organisation may still consider a 10-year lease they are in a minority, a 3-year term is the new normal.

In addition the post pandemic office has become significantly smaller, in a recent move Colliers relocated Deloitte UK into 20,000sq/ft of space in Salford – this represented a 50% reduction in floor space.

Coupled together shorter leases and smaller offices could reduce waste with a shift toward more landlord fitout – CAT A+. For example a pragmatic landlord would clean the floor finishes between tenants and not utilise the traditional dilapidations approach of wholesale carpet replacement. Reducing the time and change between tenant’s turnaround time would also align with today’s fast-moving market.

In addition, flexibility is a key element in the promotion of a circular office fitout economy. Young businesses formed post pandemic are demanding flexibility from their space and the opportunity for rapid growth. However, the ‘one size fits all’ construction of our office buildings doesn’t support the flexibility required by the organisations that inhabit them. In future demountable elements could readily be formed within party walls between units or more radically sections of demountable slab within office spaces to allow additional space to be annexed by a growing organisation. Experience has also demonstrated that a growing business’ changing space requirements can also be accommodated by a thoughtful spatial replan – significantly lower in cost, loss of revenue and environmental impact than an office move.

Autocab recently relocated to the Square Circle in Manchester opening up the structural slab to form an internal staircase between the two floor of their demise. Image taken by Mike Dinsdale and courtesy of ADT workplace

Within a workplace the use of pod workspaces and demountable partitions also minimises waste. As needs change a pod can be unplugged and relocated within a building or demounted and moved anywhere in the world. The development of demountable panels allow flexibility and reduces waste, however the price tags associated with these high-end products may limit their attraction in today’s often short-term world.

Considered lighting design can also support a move toward Category C with TM66 CIBSE promoting component based light fittings that can be easily repaired and retained. The soon to be launched CEAM (Circular Economy Assessment programme) will also provide guidance to designers on the Category C robustness of the light fittings they specify.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity for change in the adoption of a Category C approach to office fitout is in the finishes specified. If the pre pandemic workplace was an exercise in optimising the number of laminated chipboard desks an office could accommodate today we look to promote workplace collaboration and communication for a workforce who need less desks, working at least partially from home.

An optimistic logic would suggest that as we occupy less space we should invest more in it. This aligns neatly with a Category C agenda: supporting manufacturers who are already embedded in a circular approach to their use of materials and resources and by specifying furniture made of recycled or reused content. Ideally this furniture can enjoy a long life and be economically repaired prior to its components being recycled once again.

Furniture and finishes that meet a Category C agenda can also reasonably be expected to improve workplace wellbeing – in addition to looking good a recycled waxed wood surface doesn’t emit the formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide or carbon monoxide into our workspaces as traditional MDF and chip board. Even workplace staples such as carpet tiles can now be formed of nylon made from discarded fishing nets and upcycled chalk backings. Within the contemporary workplace there are also opportunities for doing away with traditional finishes altogether such as the departure of the previously ubiquitous suspended ceiling.

In summary adoption of a Category C ethos can align with today’s workplace agenda by considering:​​​

  • Finishes that support a circular use of materials. These align with a current focus on increased workplace wellbeing.
  • Flexibility by using partitioning and ‘furniture’ pods which can be relocated and reused in multiple locations.
  • Minimising waste by reducing the number of office moves. This can be achieved by organisations considering design and a replan of their existing space before considering a move.
  • The adoption of knockout panels within walls and floors within the initial build of our office buildings. This will offer the flexibility and opportunities for growth demanded by today’s organisations.

As organisations require less space in the post pandemic world there is a valuable opportunity for us to invest in better quality finishes and more thoughtful design that meets the Category C circular economy. To paraphrase Vivienne Westwood: Buying less, buying once, buying better and making it last.

Written by Kate Paterson (Workplace Architecture Lead, Ridge LLP) based on a conversation with Patrick Kennedy (Practice Lead, Colliers Manchester), Matt Kimber (Director, Urbanise Construction Manchester), Jessica England (Interior Designer, Ridge LLP), Andrew Bissell (Partner, Lighting Design, Ridge LLP).

For more information about our expertise in workplace design and fit out, contact Kate Paterson, Architecture Associate.