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Why for generations have we fitted and discarded commercial fit-outs generating millions of tonnes of landfill waste per annum? Did we assume there was an infinite supply of natural resources or was it done for convenience?

by Jonathan O’Byrne

4 years ago

There are times when I step back and look at the ‘normal way’ we as a society have of doing things and think, ‘there just has to be a better way.’

My experience in coworking shone a light on the behaviours that are seen as ‘normal’ in traditional commercial real estate: units are leased to tenants bare. Tenants fit them out and at the end of their tenancy agreement, they’re required to reinstate the units back to bare, or in other words remove all the customisation, fit-out, furniture, decoration and services that they installed to make the unit serviceable. They make the space a blank slate again for the next tenant.

I can understand where this process came from.

This arrangement was fine years ago when businesses stayed in the same spot for twenty years. But, in today’s business environment where the pace of business is so much faster, this process leaves a significant and unfortunate ecological footprint. No amount of recycling offsets the volume of energy and construction waste this produces. It is a continual loop of fit out, rip out, repeat. The process is enormously time consuming, costly and ecologically wasteful. Even the fact we can recycling certain building materials like gypsum (into new gypsum board) and even the electrical cabling does little to reduce the environmental impact. What’s happening in this process is the unnecessary disposal of a completely serviceable fitout. That is the very definition of needless waste. And then to make matters worse, having been stripped bare the unit will be fitted again in a similar fashion again by the next tenant.

Businesses and landlords plan for this process. It’s just how things are done. It’s a dangerous status quo that means often spaces aren’t fitted as well as they could be and the reinstatement works are done as cheaply (not as environmentally consciously) as possible.

I believe generations will look back on this phenomenon in disbelief, they will try to work out why for generations we fitted and discarded commercial fit-outs as though there was an infinite supply of natural resources and infinite capacity for waste. The bigger problem is we know better. We don’t have an excuse - it's done to minimise inconvenience to the landlord.

There is a better way. It is possible to design a perpetual office - the coworking industry already developed it. By creating a space designed for multiple occupants coworking provides a medium to reduce physical waste and to break this fit out, rip out, repeat cycle. Not only that the pattern interruption gives them the opportunity to build environments that are better, healthier and more conducive to the people working in them.

It’s not uncommon, even in a fast-paced city like Singapore, for a business centre to go without major renovation for ten to fifteen years. So, when a space is fitted well, it’s fitted with good quality materials, good quality planning and it’s continuously maintained, iterated and revised and fine-tuned to continue to suit its market. We completely avoid the fit out, rip out, repeat cycle.

And as well as being ecological, avoiding that cycle has a really significant cash advantage to businesses. Avoiding significant initial outlays in renovation and amortising or spreading that cost over a running office for as long as a company needs, is hugely beneficial. It also presents us with an opportunity to build better environments for our people because it’s worth investing in space that will persist.

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