Material specification is core to every fit-out. Alongside Layout & Space Planning and Furniture selection, material choice can help showcase an occupying organisation’s brand. It can directly impact on occupant health, wellbeing and productivity by impacting internal conditions, as well as lead to additional maintenance costs. Beyond the space, the source and types of materials procured have wider environmental and social impacts that risk contradicting CSR commitments if not managed responsibly.

The process for materials selection should take a whole lifecycle approach, assessing environmental and social considerations from material source, the extraction & manufacturing process, through to use and ultimately disposal.


Implementing responsible materials selection principles through fit-out design can deliver multiple benefits:

Protecting occupant health by selecting materials that do not contain and emit harmful pollutants such as VOCs. 


Reducing maintenance and replacement intervals by adopting a whole lifecycle approach to costing.


Reducing carbon emissions by factoring embodied carbon into procurement decisions.


Reducing waste and the extraction of virgin materials by specifying reused and recycled materials.


Showcasing and communicating corporate values to stakeholders through the responsible sourcing of materials.


Reducing negative environmental and social impacts by factoring such considerations into procurement decisions.


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Principles for Responsible Material Selection

1. Review Opportunities to Reuse Materials


There may be opportunities to make use of materials that already exist within the space from the previous fit-out that can be used rather than stripping out completely and starting from scratch. This can help reduce costs, whilst also minimising environmental impacts associated with raw material extraction, manufacture and supply chain.

The first step in identifying material requirements should be to undertake an audit of the existing fit-out and identifying opportunities for re-use and refurbishment.    

2. Base Procurement Decisions on Lifecycle Costs & Impacts


The specification of materials should be based on whole life of the produce over the term of the lease, rather than just concentrating on initial purchasing costs. This should include the benefits of extended refurbishment or replacement intervals, lower operational costs, reduced maintenance requirements, as well as, disposal costs and impacts. Principles that should be considered include:

Designing for enhanced durability

Selecting suitably resilient and robust materials factor for every day use and weather conditions can reduce lifecycle costs for cleaning, maintenance, repairs and premature replacement. Best practice principles include:

  • Select hard wearing materials in highly used, exposed and trafficked areas.
  • Incorporate surface protection measures to identified vulnerable areas.
  • Optimise use of more natural and easily repairable materials.
  • Identify suitable cleaning and maintenance regimes in building management strategy.
  • Select materials that are resistant to UV, durable and easy to maintain.

Designing for flexibility

Selecting standard products or systems that can be easily demounted, reconfigured or re-used allows for a much more flexible use of space and help to reduce future refurbishment or refresh costs whilst maximising the design life the fit-out. It can also minimise disruption when there are changes in operational requirements.

Designing for end of life disposal

Reducing negative ‘end of life’ impacts associated with disposal of materials is key in maximising resource efficiency within the fit-out process. Best practice principles include:

  • Exploring options for leasing materials instead of direct ownership e.g. internal floor finishes, carpets (see also Furniture)
  • Prioritising and using manufacturer’s take-back schemes to reduce end of life waste and maximise opportunities for re-use and recycling.
  • Adopting circular economy principles by ensuring high levels of the disposed material can be either reused or recycled. The ideal scenario where the manufacturer manages or is part of a closed-loop waste management system.

3. Prioritise Materials with Low Environmental Impacts


Any material or product lifecycle assessment should also include the environmental impacts associated with the resource extraction, transportation, manufacturing and fabrication of a product manufacture. A responsible procurement approach should prioritise options that have the lower environmental impacts.

Environmental aspects to consider include:

  • Impact on local environment during sourcing
  • Level of recycled content
  • Level of biodegradable materials
  • Embodied carbon and water usage

The use of material certification standards can help guide and support decision making and specification by providing an independent assessments and assurances of products’ environmental impacts.

Such schemes include:

  • BRE Green Guide to Specification
  • Cradletocradele
  • EPD
  • Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for timber

4. Specify Materials with Low/No Pollutant Levels


Substances used in the manufacturing of materials and surface finishes can impact on indoor air quality, which in turn can affect the health and wellbeing of occupants.  Sick building syndrome is officially recognised as an illness by the World Health Organisation and includes a wide range of symptoms which can be linked to internal finishes and fittings.

Best practice principles:

  • Specify zero or low-VOC materials and products e.g. paints, varnishes, coatings, adhesives, sealants and any composite wood products such as plywood and MDF.
  • Avoiding the procurement of products that contain hazardous materials e.g. heavy metals such as lead, mercury and chromium, and phthalates. WELL X08 provides a list of recommended thresholds.

It should also be noted that the HVAC design and Metering & Monitoring strategy will also impact the management of indoor pollutants.

5. Review Suppliers Responsible Sourcing Policies


Occupiers can go beyond the selection of products themselves and influence the overall activities of their supply chains wider business activities from a social and environmental aspect.

Best practice principles for consideration include:

  • From an environmental perspective, requiring the supplier or contractor have a certified environmental management system (e.g. ISO14001) or have an informal environmental management system in place for SMEs.
  • From a social perspective, requiring the supplier to pay all staff the national living wage, requesting evidence they fully comply with the Modern Slavery Act or are certified to BES 6002 Ethical Labour Sourcing Standard.

6. Prefer Locally Sourced Material & Services


Preferring locally sourced products and suppliers that help support the local economy and minimise travel which can subsequently reduce transport emissions and costs. An occupier may want to set a target/ requirement to their design team and contract relating to the amount of materials or labour that must be sourced locally.

7. Embed Principles in a Procurement Plan


The agreed principles above should be formulated into a plan, including any minimum requirements, aspirations and targets, for all procurement decisions to be reviewed against. Not all design principles will necessarily be applicable or feasible for each material choice but the design team should continually be challenged with developing an optimised specification.

Product & Supplier Certification Schemes

The use of product material and supplier certification standards can help guide and support decision making and specification by providing an independent assessments and assurances of products’ environmental impacts.

Such schemes include:

  • BES 6001 Framework Standard for Responsible Sourcing: a scheme that provides manufacturers with a means by which their products can be independently assessed and certified as being responsibly sourced.
  • Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard: a certification scheme that rates a product on - material health, material reutilisation, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.
  • BRE Environmental Product Declaration Scheme: an independently verified and registered document that communicates transparent and comparable information about the life-cycle environmental impact of products. The scheme supports organisations in meeting the compliance requirements of EN 15804 Environmental Product Declarations.
  • BRE Ethical Labour Sourcing Standard: a scheme that specifies the requirements for organisational management to demonstrate an on-going commitment to the principles of ethical labour sourcing in relation to the provision of products and services.
  • Forest Stewardship Council (FSC): allows consumers to identify, purchase and use wood, paper and other forest products produced from well-managed forests and/or recycled materials.
  • GreenScreen: a globally recognized tool that identifies hazardous chemicals and safer alternatives.
  • Living Product Challenge: A framework for manufacturers to create Living Products that are free of toxins, socially responsible and environmentally net positive.
  • International Living Future Institute Red List: chemicals that may not be included in materials used in construction that seeks to meet the criteria of the Living Building Challenge.