How TIC offers confidence in building safety
I recently spoke with a colleague from a reputable testing laboratory.
In discussing the state of play when it comes to testing the performance of some building products in Australia, my colleague lamented an industry culture that ‘pursued the path of least resistance.’
Construction is not necessarily the only sector of the economy where such an attitude might exist. However, given the nature of some products that don’t meet necessary requirements, the incorrect use of products by some practitioners, the high-profile of defects in recent years, and rising cost pressures, it should be a cause for concern.
This is not to suggest that most products are unsuitable or of poor quality. Nevertheless, in what is often described as a race to the bottom, there is a disincentive for those who want to do the right thing when it costs more and they see their competition ‘getting away with it’. We can never be sure of the true scale of the problem. However, if not addressed, it can not only result in significant cost and inconvenience to end users but also present a material safety concern.
It has often been said in the case of the building industry that more regulation is not necessary – just proper enforcement of what exists. This may hold true. However, the porous nature of building product regulation in Australia would point to the potential need to make further improvements and for these to be supplemented with a number of complementary activities. Whilst regulation provides a framework for what society considers to be the minimum necessary standards, if properly supervised, it can also foster a more level playing field and hold various actors accountable for their decisions and actions.
For this reason, there may well be a societal benefit in the minimum regulatory requirements being reviewed to push the bar higher. A key feature of this can be seen through the NCC’s governing requirements for evidence of suitability. The National Product Assurance Framework[i] developed by the ABCB at the end of 2021 in response to recommendation 21 of the Building Confidence Report,[ii] proposes further tightening of these requirements as one of five potential opportunities.
A non-regulatory option is to intensify the education of manufacturers and suppliers about the importance of providing reliable and transparent information. In addition, those responsible for product selection, issuing building consents, and consumers would be better educated. This would enable these parties to be more discerning in the information they demand, such as seeking evidence that products have been certified by reputable entities. The existence of an international network of testing, inspection and certification (TIC), backed by accreditation for those involved in these processes, provides a framework within which evaluation of products used in buildings should be demanded.
Standards against which products can be tested, and which should be written in accordance with ISO 17007, are an important part of the infrastructure. However, these do not always provide the full picture of determining where a building product can be used, what part of a building codes’ requirements it is attested to perform to and any limitations that might apply to its use. These features are examined through independent certification, which whilst not a mandatory requirement for building products in Australia, is strongly encouraged through risk assessment[iii] and should ideally be performed by accredited conformity assessment bodies.
Things get more complex where no standard exists. This is often the case for new and innovative products. Although CodeMark® was established in Australia for the purpose of enabling these types of products to have a pathway to achieve compliance with the National Construction Code (NCC), essentially as a product ‘Performance Solution,’ its take-up has been underwhelming. This is in part because there are other pathways to compliance that are less expensive and do not require the same level of scrutiny. These include test reports or reports from an appropriately qualified person.
In the United States, the International Building and Residential Codes produced by the International Code Council[iv] are more prescriptive in what requirements products need to satisfy. As a result, authorities having jurisdiction are more demanding in the documentation they require and the industry appears to be more accepting of the value of robust TIC processes by accredited entities.
When it comes to innovative products, many manufacturers and suppliers will seek to use Acceptance Criteria developed by the ICC Evaluation Service[v]. This is a normative document developed for the product (similar to a WaterMark® Technical Specification) against which an Evaluation Service Report[vi] can be prepared to demonstrate compliance with the International Building and Residential Codes. Such reports can also be used to demonstrate compliance with the evidence of suitability requirements of the NCC and New Zealand Building Code.
This and other factors, such as education (e.g., the annual Building Safety Month campaign) and real consequences for non-compliance, are credited as helping contribute to a different industry culture in the United States. Broader international analysis of what might represent good practice identifies nine interoperable parts that need to be seamlessly implemented and resourced:[vii]
- Overarching governing and administrative arrangements
- Establishing evidence of suitability
- Product batch testing, sample testing and retesting
- Product identification and documentation
- Supply chain responsibilities
- Product traceability
- Roles and responsibilities of practitioners
- Compliance culture and resourcing
- Industry and consumer education.
Additional observations can be found in the various reviews and inquiries conducted in England following the Grenfell Tower fire, amongst which non-conforming products, the incorrect use of products and the culture of industry have been some of the subjects highlighted. In her review of building safety in England[viii], Dame Judith Hackitt identifies indifference, or doing things as quickly and cheaply as possible, as a primary motivation underpinning failures in the system.
This has been followed by the release in April 2023 of the Paul Morrell OBE and Annelise Day KC review of the construction products testing regime in the UK[ix], which points to a combination of factors, where “The susceptibility to failure of the process is attributable to matters that are either (a) systemic or (b) relate to individual conduct and performance.”
These most recent reports and research, which includes Investigating Building Product Selection and Information Transparency published by Strata Knowledge[x] earlier this year and a UNECE White Paper on Digital Product Conformity Certificate Exchange[xi], all explore other aspects of this complex, but important subject.
[ii] building misters forum expert assessment – building confidence.pdf (industry.gov.au)
[x] Dr Nicole Johnston and Michael Teys, February 2023, Investigating Building Product Selection and Information Transparency, Strata Knowledge P/L
About the author. Adj Prof Neil Savery is Managing Director of ICC Oceania, former CEO and Board member of the Australian Building Codes Board, Chair of the Interjurisdictional Regulatory Collaborative Committee and Board member of the International Building Quality Centre.
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