Unwinding the knot

You could argue that product testing has been following ever-decreasing circles, but new regulation and industry efforts focused on safety are set to reform the sector and support broader changes in construction, says James Cash.

The construction products sector is experiencing considerable change and, by extension, so is the entire construction sector. While this article is written from a UK perspective, this change is a common issue being addressed in supply chains throughout the world. Reform has arguably been a long time coming as standards, regulation and protocols catch up with the rapid pace of innovation and technology that goes into new products and their associated systems. However, the tragic events of Grenfell Tower in 2017 and their aftermath represent a critical inflexion point for the building industry and product sector.

Building engineers and architects need confidence that the products presented to the market are safe and that the third-party certifications, technical and marketing literature provided are accurate, based on evidence and complete. The Grenfell inquiry showed that this was frequently not the case. Criticism has been levelled at some manufacturers for gaming the system by going to any private testing body in any country and potentially selecting those that will give better results. The inquiry revealed evidence of insulation manufacturers modifying the test rig to improve products and marketing material of different composition from that tested.

Reforming safety assurance is paramount, but add the pressures brought about by Brexit, Covid-19 and a predicted post-pandemic building boom – not forgetting commitments to a carbon-neutral future – the demands on the product sector are considerable and complex.

Golden thread of safety

Vast amounts of work are happening at both a government and industry-wide level to meet these challenges. Peter Caplehorn, Chief Executive of the Construction Products Association (CPA), says: “There’s a lot going on. Front and centre of everything is the issue of building safety and, of course, we’re all concerned by the evidence given at the public inquiry. The industry must look forward and the government’s answer to that has been the regulatory framework being put in place as a permanent response.” It’s also vital that the sector adapts and helps usher in a culture change running across the entire construction industry.

Building a Safer Future, the report that came out of Dame Judith Hackitt’s review in 2018, sent shockwaves through the industry, setting out more than 50 recommendations for the government to provide a more robust regulatory system. The report set out the need for a golden thread of information throughout the design, construction and maintenance of complex buildings to uphold the buildings’ safety and integrity of use. A critical feature of that review focused on the safety, testing, identification and appropriate labelling of construction products.

Caplehorn says: “That’s about making sure the quality of product is dependable, that the information put out by the sector is trustworthy, but that we also work with the rest of the industry to make sure it has the skills and the competence to enable the products to be installed correctly.” These efforts are vital to claw back the loss of confidence – not just in the product sector but the whole construction industry.

New construction products regulator

With many changes afoot, the product sector is making significant progress on that trajectory. The whole industry is in the middle of a raft of different legislation.

In January this year, the government announced a new national construction products regulator to ensure that homes are built from safe materials. The new regulator will operate within the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS), which will be expanded and granted up to £10m in funding to establish the new function. It will also work with the Building Safety Regulator and Trading Standards to encourage and enforce compliance.

Notably, the regulator for construction products will have the power to remove any product from the market that presents a significant safety risk and prosecute any companies who break the product safety rules. Among its strong enforcement powers is the ability to conduct its own product-testing when investigating concerns. Manufacturers must ensure their products are safe before being sold and test products against safety standards.

Caplehorn says: “We have new regulations coming. And we have a regulator with teeth. If people get things wrong in the future, there’s every chance they’re going to get caught and face sanctions. For too long in the construction industry, there has been an erosion of respect for regulation based on the low probability of getting caught when doing something wrong. We see a rolling back of that position.”

Building Safety Bill

The establishment of the new regulator is one step in the fundamental overhaul of the regulatory system, with the draft Building Safety Bill – currently out for consultation and scrutiny – due to take forward reforms to the building and fire safety system.

Schedule 8 of the draft bill outlines the proposed changes to construction products, the marketing of materials and the operation of manufacturers, importers and distributors of such products. According to National Building Specification, more than half of specifiers find it challenging to get the manufacturers’ relevant information. It is hoped the regulation will ensure clear declaration of performance (DoP) data is provided for all construction products, especially those deemed safety-critical products. Where risk at intended product application is high, the data should include information about the risks presented.

In March, the government also introduced the Fire Safety Bill to clarify that the responsible person or duty holder for multi-occupied, residential buildings must manage and reduce the risk of fire for the structure and external walls of the building. This includes cladding, balconies and windows, and entrance doors to individual flats that open into common parts.

Industry working together to improve culture

While new regulation and improved enforcement go a long way to enforcing change across the sector, the industry is proactively making efforts to meet Hackitt’s recommendations. A critical challenge Hackitt put to the industry was around changing culture and changing behaviours. Hanna Clarke, Digital and Policy Manager at the CPA, says: “The manufacturing industry was not exempt from a previous position of working in silos. And through the changes with working towards new regulations, we have seen much more communication through the construction sector than ever before. It is something that is gaining momentum.”

The re-engineering of the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) during the pandemic has been crucial for the industry. Caplehorn says: “It’s demonstrated that if you put the right people together, such as the CLC, you can achieve a great deal as a collective for the whole industry.” The CLC grouping has allowed for one focus for communication across the industry. This has enabled the products sector to feed in its areas of interest and the actions taken, which are then communicated across the whole industry efficiently.

The CPA has led many of these actions. Following the Hackitt report, the product sector needed to examine itself. The CPA established the Marketing Integrity Group (MIG) and in 2019 conducted a Call for Evidence survey across the industry, including open debate and discussion with various parts of the supply chain. Following this research, the MIG developed a Code for Construction Product Information (CCPI), a new 11-point code that sets a level playing field for all construction product manufacturers to ensure the information provided is clear, accurate, up to date, accessible and unambiguous.

Caplehorn says: “We are teaming up with the Considerate Constructors Scheme because we want the whole industry to get behind this code, and for product information to be audited independently. It’s about setting up a series of simple rules for everybody putting products on to the market to ensure the information that manufacturers give to others, in whatever form, is honest, trustworthy and reliable.

“We’ve had much enthusiasm from the industry and the government. We hope it will make a significant difference. Many people have said that they want to sign up because it is the right thing to do.” The code will also provide a significant market differentiator for those industry players who give the correct level of information, as they will be clearly identified.

The scheme also allows for businesses who aren’t solely manufacturers to join. “We hope other people in the supply chain – contractors, clients, consultants – will want to show their support by joining up and only using people on their projects who are already part of the scheme,” Caplehorn says.

Working in tandem

The Building Safety Charter, also run by the Considerate Constructors Scheme, runs parallel with the CCPI. Similarly, it is asking people to sign up to ensure their activities and processes are producing the right things.

Andy Williamson, Commercial Director at SIG plc, a manufacturer and distributor of construction products, says: “It’s a great example of where the industry is trying to lead change, by saying the way we communicate with customers, the way we present our products as manufacturers needs to be unambiguous, clear, accurate and up to date. And there have been companies out there that haven’t always been as good as they should have been.

“The CCPI is a great starting point, and when you speak to manufacturers about the implementation, I would say that, without exception, everybody is accepting of it and saying it is a great document and the direction of travel we absolutely must be working in.”

However, embedding the code across all products is a big project and not without challenges, with some concerns over how quickly some manufacturers can implement it. Williamson says: “If you think of a manufacturer who has thousands of different products going through every single bit of literature, all of your website, every datasheet, every single test data and every single test certification you’ve got to check – that’s a massive task.”

At the same time, many businesses will also take the opportunity to automate, put new processes in place to make sure they have version management and proper sign-off procedures, and work on demonstrating they are doing all of this correctly.

Williamson says: “The general feeling is that people can work towards it now. There are elements of it you can do almost straight away, but there are parts of that which could take three to five years to get completed. It is difficult to put a timeframe on it.”

Getting the product information correct is fundamental. However, construction is a multidisciplinary industry; construction materials should not be looked at in isolation. Ensuring products are used the right way and in the correct context also demands competency from the contractors and builders installing them, and the engineers and architects specifying them in the first place.

Caplehorn says: “We need to provide some guidance in terms of competence. So we’ve had a group working on product competence for some time and they’re developing a framework we can offer that requests a level of competence with any interaction with a product.”

Sourcing better substitute materials

Over the past few decades, there have been many issues around the substitution of products. Many people recognise the substitution of products can be beneficial because it is a better solution or cheaper without losing any of the performance. However, often a substitution for the cheapest product on offer falls short of the performance initially intended. With a projected building boom in construction and a temporary bottleneck in supplies, the pressure to seek substitutions may grow.

Caplehorn says: “Many people around the industry want to see the right kind of substitution in the future. While people at the sharp end on-site always have a ticking clock and need to deliver the building project, we are also entering an era where there will be more focus, more monitoring and more inspections. And there will be sanctions for people substituting products that simply don’t do the job.

“As the pressure on construction develops, we must hold on to the core principles that buildings have to perform. They not only have to perform for safety, but they must also perform for zero carbon and perform for accessibility. All the other key characteristics that we need buildings to deliver have still got to be achieved – so it’s a big task ahead!”

Digitalisation

One way in which the industry can achieve greater efficiency and limit the factors that influence zero carbon and decision-making is through better digitisation. The view is that – among other things – digitalisation can reduce the number of incidents where contractors do not have the exact materials to hand, and so substitute.

For some time, the sector has not had the right digital joined-up processes. In partnership with the Construction Innovation Hub, the CPA has created the LEXiCON project, which aims to support international best practice for the creation and management of standardised, structured product data. It provides a consensus mechanism for ensuring that all products are described in a digital format in the same way, using the same terms.

“It gets us to a point where we can compare products and we can compare product performance,” Caplehorn says. “You can put that data into a larger database, which can be used for many things. One of those can be output in terms of a graphical representation of a building. One can go into some fairly sophisticated algorithms and actually test out the performance ahead of time. You can measure all the different characteristics you want because you’re working from rock-solid data at the product level.”

The CPA is also working on Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs). Led by British Standards, the project aims to provide a tailored approach to product identification in the built environment, using technology to provide a unique identifier for a construction product. DOIs represent a critical piece of digital infrastructure to support the management, flow and access to, and long-term persistence of, its information within the supply chain. Clarke says: “It is composed of an independent, perpetual cloud-based website. The information is put on that website by the manufacturers and so it is coming from one source of the truth. An indicator is affixed to the product or literature and anybody can use the indicator to link back to that information.”

“Using the DOI, you can always get back to a reliable source, which will tell you exactly what you’re dealing with – again, hopefully cutting out confusion and cutting down the lengthy time spent searching for materials.”

Covid and Brexit complexity

The product sector’s reform agenda, both from government and industry, has gained considerable momentum. However, there are concerns that the impacts of Covid-19 and Brexit could distract and slow the industry’s collective efforts to adapt. Construction has remained relatively robust through the crises and is one of the few sectors that have kept the economy ticking over. In many respects, the pandemic has had a catalytic effect on reform, forcing businesses to adopt and adapt new measures, particularly digital communication.

Caplehorn says: “It’s changed people’s perspectives. The dual challenge of keeping people safe and continuing to perform construction tasks has been challenging, but it has improved communication across the industry. And it’s undoubtedly improved communication between the industry and government.”

Nonetheless, several barriers exist for manufacturers and the industry at large. There is an element of cost and time, and the industry is experiencing a lot of cost inflation, some product shortage and product challenges daily.

Williamson says: “The barriers can be a number of things – budgets particularly. We’re in uncharted waters coming out of Covid and, while construction has fared better than other industries, it has brought challenges along the way.”

With regards to Brexit, there were early problems with supplies in January 2021. The CPA co-chairs the CLC’s Product Availability Group and worked to bring the whole supply chain together; it got the input from the hauliers and the ports to gain an overall perspective as to how cross-border trade develops. “We’ve got a mechanism that’s monitoring issues around the supply chain. And that is very useful in giving people at the site level a heads-up in terms of what might be coming down the track,” Caplehorn says.

But a potentially more significant issue is the change to standards that are happening. UK manufacturers are moving products away from the European CE mark to the UKCA mark. Williamson says: “That presents a huge challenge to the industry as the UKCA is currently set to be mandatory by the end of this year, but there are not enough testing houses nor time available for everybody to get their products tested.” Without a resolution, the industry could face serious hiatus.

Williamson says: “The government is going to have to decide because to turn round and say at the end of this year that it must be UKCA marked is going to be impossible on the face of it because there is not enough capacity to test all products.”

The CPA plays a leading role in the CLC’s Regulatory Alignment and Standards Group, which is focusing on this issue of testing and certification, and the use of British and European standards to underpin the performance of products. Ultimately, manufacturers could also have to double up on testing and certification, which could cause considerable disruptions, with every test costing both time and money. Caplehorn says: “Ideally, it would be subject to a mutual agreement with the EU, but that doesn’t seem to be able to be pulled together at the moment. So, there is a lot of complexity in this area; we need to get some resolution and clarity as to how we’re going to take things forward.”

Meanwhile, the potential divergence in regulation between the EU and the UK will remain a watching brief, but could present a considerable headache for manufacturers.

Despite the difficulties and upheaval that come with significant change, reform presents opportunities across the built environment. Reform will lead to better outcomes. Safety needs to be front and centre, but project efficiency and building performance stand to benefit over the long term. On sustainability, architects can choose the right materials more easily as environmental certification improves.

It is hoped product reform will shift the industry from looking at price to start looking at value, among other initiatives. Williamson says: “Over the long term, I hope it means the quality of construction improves because the quality of the products is better, but also because the builder – painter, chippy, dry-liner, constructor – has more factual information and is better informed. Product manufacturers can do all this great stuff, but ultimately, the person working on-site is the person who decides what products to use.” 


Good practice in the use of product testing

The Fire Sector Federation (FSF) comprises numerous organisations and associations around the UK whose principal aims are to improve fire safety in the UK and ensure product testing is fit for purpose. Dennis Davis, Executive Officer, FSF, sets out some good practice and considerations around product testing.

“In our workshops, we’ve been looking at whether existing testing arrangements are sound, or if there are gaps that we need to go back over. And that will help us inform the construction and product sector.

“We encourage third parties to test and get independent verification to ensure the bar is steady. We would equally argue that tests and standards should always meet the rigour of a principled approach, so you can see them in the round, holistically and in context.

“To put that into a simple chain – we don’t just think about the product. We think about the materials going into the product, which might be a component within a building system.

“You would want to see that assurance going through the whole system and you would want to ensure that system was installed in the proper context in the building, so that you get a chain of preventiveness running through the system and the building.

“Hopefully, through that process, with both the underpinning of third-party competence of the people doing the work and the product being tested, you should get an assured safety level at the end of it. Think of a fire door – it is a product designed for the function to resist fire. First, you have the door itself and the materials in it, which sit in a frame. So the door is a component in a fire door set, which in turn becomes a system which will be installed in a wall, and the wall will have to have some fire resistance. This illustrates how a material can become part of a much greater thing. And any part of that can fail.

“But that door and the materials used in that door will be tested against a standard. Is the standard applicable correct, or has it got weaknesses? With cladding, for example, there are considerable concerns that the current cladding tests simply aren’t good enough. We need to make sure the standards set are appropriate for what is tested.

“Test houses could change and be used in slightly different ways. I’d like to see more larger-scale tests, which are quite expensive, but then you would test the system rather than one small element of that system. So the door and the door set in the wall are put into the test data and you know exactly what was tested and that becomes part of the process.”


Image credit | Shutterstock

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