Open mike: Prospective office tenants seem to want less waste, less energy consumption and lower costs. Impossible? Actually, it isn’t – if you use ‘smart cat A’, says William Poole-Wilson

If you take a sample of brochures from a cross-selection of property developers, one theme will be constant: they will claim to be progressive, innovative or cutting-edge. Although this is probably true of the creative building design process, property development is still pretty staid in its approach, particularly to commercial office space and its status at handover.

We probably all know that there are several stages of office completion:

  • Shell and core: the bare bones of the structure – no internal finish but with shared areas fully finished.
  • Shell-and-core completion: generally reserved for large tenants and incorporating specialist Category A fit-out components.
  • Category A fit-out: this gives a little more, with internal finishes to walls, raised floors and suspended ceilings, complete with M&E services. The windows might get blinds, and developers will usually offer payment towards some basic items such as carpet tiles. It’s also common to fit out one room in the development to appeal to would-be tenants, but this is just a veneer.
  • Category B fit-out: this delivers a tenant’s interior design: everything from cellular partitions to, quite literally, the kitchen sink.

Pretty straightforward, you’d agree. Everybody understands it, everybody’s comfortable with it; we’ve done it for years. So why change it?

The reality is that cat A fit-out, as it stands, is ineffective, wasteful in both financial and environmental terms, and when the outlook is on the hairy side, doesn’t make it any easier to let space.

No two tenants are the same. The industry has recognised this broadly, which is how cat A came about. Give them little more than a shell, and they can do what they like. But companies no longer work the way they used to and now favour blends of open-plan and modular offices.

Let’s not overlook sustainability, either. We claim to want to be more environmentally friendly, yet it’s fairly standard to install thousands of square feet of false ceilings and carpet tiles that will only be ripped out.

Category a fit-out is ineffective, wasteful in both financial and environmental terms and, when the financial outlook is on the hairy side, doesn’t make it any easier to let space

Easy solution: stick to shell and core. But property developers believe, and they may be right, that prospective tenants don’t get the right feel from a concrete shell. They need something a little more visual, a little less open to interpretation.

To sum up: tenants want greater efficiency, less waste, lower energy consumption, a reduced carbon footprint and less cost. So, it’s time we got progressive, innovative and cutting-edge. The answer is “smart cat A”. This allows developers to offer tenants more choice and greater control. It’s based on four common configurations:

  • Type 1: no cat A, just shell and core with a fit-out guide to assist but not prescribe.
  • Type 2: 80:20 open plan/cellular offices with pre-engineered zones anywhere the tenant stipulates.
  • Type 3: 30:70 cellular/open plan.
  • Type 4: open plan with pre-engineered zones wherever the tenant stipulates.

With all these types, the ceiling tile and grid is left out. High-level air-conditioning, grilles and lighting can be provided without extensive M&E adaptation work. Distributing the air at floor level means no limitations on partition options. Lastly, wastage is massively reduced, both in terms of fit-out costs and the subsequent disposal of ripped out materials.

It’s not a turnkey solution and it doesn’t provide a perfect office for immediate handover. But it’s a step in the right direction. And, as for fears that tenants can’t visualise their space, think for a moment about the tremendously powerful software we use to design and visualise our buildings. How easy, green, adaptable and cost-effective would it be to just have a marketing suite with computer visuals and walkthroughs?

William Poole-Wilson of Pringle Brandon, along with Jerry Lehane of Chapman Bathurst, is working on producing a detailed smart category A guide