Putting a stop to the strip-out craziness

Case Study5 min13 September 2017By Vanessa De Groot

An end of lease defit of eight floors in one of Sydney’s iconic office towers set a new standard for reducing waste and proved that at least 60 per cent of a commercial fitout can be reused or recycled.

When a business vacates an office space, as much as 80 per cent of the fitout might go to landfill. In other words, recycling rates in office strip-outs are often as low as 20 per cent.

Based on those figures, only around 5,000 tonnes of waste is recycled from the estimated annual churn of 400,000 square metres of leased office space in Sydney each year, with the remaining 20,000 tonnes going to the dump.The Better Buildings Partnership, formed in 2011 by leading commercial and public sector landlords including Dexus, aims to reduce this gross waste by encouraging greater reuse and recycling rates. It does this with better economic outcomes for owners in mind, as well as for sustainability purposes.

One of its exemplary projects to date, conducted in conjunction with the Sydney Industrial Ecology Network, has been a structured (well-managed) defit of eight floors in Sydney’s Governor Macquarie Tower (GMT).

The project tripled the industry standard for reuse and recycling to 61 per cent. Along the way there were lessons learned, and also challenges identified, which must be overcome in future projects.

The eight floor defit in Sydney's Governor Macquarie Tower set the new benchmark.

Environment the top priority

The drive to reduce fitout waste has its origins in the concern that industry veterans have long felt about the environmental impact of historic practices. Talk to any demolition contractors involved in a defit, says Esther Bailey of the Better Buildings Partnership, and they’ll tell you how the wastage jars with their personal values.

“They’ll sweep through up to 10 floors of 1,000 sq m floor plates and smash up everything with a hammer and throw it into the tip,” she says.

“The first time you walk around, the waste literally makes you weep; it’s all such great stuff that’s far from its used by date.”

There could be 1,000 desks, 1,000 wheelie chairs, flat screen TVs, 1,000 credenzas and kilometres of cable, which has a lot of valuable copper in it.

“You could take one wheelie chair, maybe even 10, but what are the practicalities of that? And it doesn’t solve the problem.

“There’s huge tempered glass walls in meeting rooms, each of which would suit a new office space or make a dramatic conference table, but that doesn’t happen.

“The next architect comes in, wants it moved slightly to the left, or the next building requires a slightly different size, so it’s just easier to destroy it, take it back to road base and start all over again.”

The first time you walk around, the waste literally makes you weep; it’s all great stuff that’s far from its used by date.
Esther Bailey, Better Buildings Partnership

Over the 9,500 square metres that made up the eight floors in GMT, there was almost 900 tonnes of waste.

Unfortunately, in this case only 1 per cent of the fitout waste was able to be reused. Most of that was furniture, removed prior to the defit.

Dexus organised for Good 360 to take items such as sofas, armchairs, desks, coffee tables, bookshelves and ottomans to distribute to charities, while Buildings Alive took items including workstations, doors, office chairs and cabling to reuse in their new office.

The remaining 60 per cent that the project team managed to divert from landfill was recycled, with materials including hard fill, plasterboard, glass and metals being re-processed.

The 39 per cent that went to landfill included:

  • painted, composite and laminated timber products
  • loose furniture
  • broadloom carpet
  • ceiling tiles

The business case

In addition to benefiting the environment, reducing waste from abandoned fitouts also makes good business sense, says Bailey.

Everything that goes to landfill costs a building owner money, she notes, and those costs are typically higher than for recycling and reuse.

In the case of GMT, the cost of sending waste to landfill was estimated at $250 per tonne, while re-processing costs ranged from zero to $150 per tonne.

Bailey observes that if building owners want to keep leftover furniture and sell it to an incoming tenant, or do a deal where tenants get free furniture with the space, then they get two bites of the cherry: they save money, and make money, too.

“It’s about reconceptualising waste as a resource that you could monetise,” she says.

Reducing waste from abandoned fitouts also makes good business sense.

The new benchmark

GMT was a crucial defit project because it demonstrated what could be achieved when the process is carried out with care and attention to repurpose or recycle as much as possible, Bailey says.

“What GMT taught us was that by using good practice you can get the recovery rate to 60 per cent – that’s really important,” she says.

“It set a high, but achievable, benchmark for others to set their sights on, and we hope it gets taken up on a national scale.”

By following the framework set by the GMT project, the industry can realistically achieve an 80 per cent resource recovery rate in future defits, Bailey believes.

“As we solve the challenges with other materials, we expect to push the envelope on this again,” she adds.

Sorting materials for recycling.

The challenges

Prior to the GMT defit there was very little research about how to reduce the waste associated with strip-outs. This project providing a real-life example of what was possible and how to achieve it.

But it also showed that improvements can be made, particularly in terms of reuse.

Reuse is better for the environment than recycling, since it takes less energy, Bailey points out. This is where future efforts will be focused in order to get the recovery rate up from 60 per cent to 80 per cent.

Doing so will mean an emphasis on furniture repurposing. More must be done to ensure a greater proportion goes to those in need than being sent to landfill.

The GMT project also demonstrated that recycled materials including hard fill, plasterboard, glass and metals are 100 per cent recyclable and therefore should be completely recycled in future projects.

Investigations are now underway to determine how other items that were taken to landfill, such as carpet, composite timbers and ceiling tiles, can be recycled to help reach the new 80 per cent recovery rate target.

The key is in developing markets from both the supply and demand sides to maximise material reuse and reprocessing. 

Glass is 100% recyclable.

Bailey says, “We are now working with the Innovation Centre at UNSW to make a new building material from old furniture that’s not good enough to be reused. 

“This would create yet another fabulous economic opportunity for thoughtful building owners and the local economy.”

However, it’s also important to note that maximising resource recovery requires more time than the industry usually gets, in order to plan the strategy. 

After tenants move out there is usually a transitional period where the space can sit vacant. By the time a building owner is able to step in and organise a demolition contractor, there’s often just a very tight time frame of around 12 hours in which to get everything out.

Ideally, says Bailey, this will change. 

“We’re trying to embed into the guidelines a requirement for building owners to give demolition owners a minimum amount of notice and prior access to the site. 

his would enable them to make calls to furniture dealers, for instance, to see if they can sell some of the furniture, which would be a much better way to get great outcomes.

ldquo;If we can give them 24 or 36 hours, that’s the opportunity.”

Metal is 100% recyclable and investigations are underway to recycle other materials that end up in landfill.

At GMT, Dexus provided immediate access to charities after the handover but they only had three days to access the site before the defit started.

If they had more time to plan, much more could have been salvaged and reused.

Once the GMT defit was in full swing, it operated with three shifts. The goods lifts were used up to 18 hours per day, with the only limiting factor being that the impact on other tenants in the efforts had to be minimised.

More time would allow a better logistics plan, which would ultimately benefit the building’s owners, the secondary market for goods and materials, and, most importantly, the environment.

Read on for more insights

Prism Mailing List
Back to top