Martin Goss answers the key questions about certification, regulation and standardisation
Why do we need regulations and standardisation?
It is now essential that we introduce regulations and standardisation because there is such a massive interest in the use of off-site construction (OSC) technology in all the major construction sectors. That interest is being fuelled by government concern that its agenda for public and private sector construction will not be realised without major change in the sector’s productivity, performance and building methods.
Enthusiasm for technology has to be matched by adequate controls and appropriate regulation, including harmonisation of performance requirements and system interface standards.
What does standardisation mean?
In the IT world they have a word for it: interoperability. Interoperability would help to answer many of the questions and uncertainties that prevent universal uptake of OSC techniques, such as:
- what off-site systems are compatible with each other?
- can I use concrete bathroom pods within a timber frame superstructure?
- what rain screen cladding systems can I use on volumetric building modules?
At the moment there is not enough interoperability, or interchangability, between OSC technologies and traditional build methods or, worse still, between OSC products purporting to offer the same functionality and levels of performance. If I design a building based on a bathroom pod from a manufacturer in the UK, I have little certainty that I can substitute this particular bathroom pod with an alternative manufacturer’s pod produced elsewhere in Europe, without having to re-design my floor plans.
Most construction teams using OSC are constantly reinventing the wheel. They tend to approach the OSC elements as “black boxes”, which are not fully understood at the detail design level. As a result they are integrated into the design at a superficial level at best. There is insufficient awareness of the buildability and interface issues that we all know are critical to the successful use of new building technologies.
Why is there so little standardisation?
To understand this, look at the history of the industry. Most manufacturers, particularly of volumetric building modules, were spawned from site office or temporary building manufacturers. This fledgling industry was fiercely protective of its investment and technology, so much so that would-be competitors fought hard to differentiate their products and systems from each other. The industry was highly fragmented, with little government intervention or legislation to help promote this niche manufacturing sector.
Against this backcloth the system building industry has flourished, providing today’s sophisticated, factory-produced, permanent building alternatives. While Building Regulations and other national standards apply to the use of the product, each manufacturer continues to follow its own path for type approvals and third-party certification.
Perhaps we shouldn’t knock this lack of uniformity. It has created healthy competition, which we all accept is the lifeblood of product development and continuous improvement. Without it the industry may not have generated its increasingly sophisticated products. However, the industry now needs to adopt some form of universality and commonality of product, to help the OSC sector move from what some argue is the cottage industry phase to a more sophisticated level, where true mass production and mass customisation are possible and commercially feasible.
What forms of universal product certification are there?
There are three key sources:
- Third-party certification
Architects often highlight the lack of uniformity or consistency in product certification between what should be identical systems. Third-party certification is vital in an industry that is exploiting relatively novel forms of building technology. There are few if any harmonised European or international product standards for this sector, and so the only acceptable way of verifying that a product or system is suitable and fit for purpose is to verify that it has some form of recognised third-party approval.
Even this is not without its difficulties. Many manufacturers have not yet invested in the third-party certification process, and where they have, the approval methodology is not always consistent. It is still possible for an OSC product manufacturer to specify and obtain third-party accreditation that covers very limited aspects of a product’s performance and its applications.
As a result it can be difficult for would-be specifiers to know for certain that the product they plan to use will be adequate and has an appropriate level of durability for their specific project.
- The upcoming LPS2020
The BRE, sponsored by the Council of Mortgage Lenders and the Association of British Insurers, is working towards a more universal form of product certification with its latest draft standard LPS2020: 2005 for performance requirements for innovative methods of dwelling construction. (See www.brecertification.co.uk or www.cml.org.uk for responses and commentary.) This standard, which is in the calibration phase, should go some way to ensuring that there is greater integrity and commonality of third-party certification, if only for dwellings.
- European standards
This LPS approach is very similar to the Europe-wide ETAG route for compliance under the Construction Products Directive. There is already an accreditation guideline for the timber frame industry (ETAG 009). This ensures that each member of the EEC assesses timber frame systems in a consistent manner, and allows architects and constructors to specify with greater confidence.
The EU has commissioned three more ETAG standards, covering volumetric building systems, steel frame kits and concrete frame kits. The new ETAG standards are not expected to be in place for some time (at least two years), but the benefits to the industry should be enormous. This approach will benefit importers of European system building products, providing a clear route for innovative overseas products.
In the meantime there are alternative approval routes, including a conversion process for European products that have an Agrément Certificate from one of the recognised European Approval organisations. This conversion process allows for a simplified BBA or BRE Certificate to be issued on the basis of an assessment carried out by the European body. Compliance with UK building regulatory requirements is covered within this process.
What is the way forward?
We must now move into the “generic phase”, where the system and method of incorporation into the construction works is common and standardised throughout the sector. This will ensure that designers and architects do not need to re-learn the product each time they use a different manufacturer, while constructors and specifiers will become familiar and therefore more efficient in the way they build the products into the construction works. Concerns over the risk of basing a complete development around one manufacturer’s product will start to disappear. It will become feasible for the industry to adopt and promote standard details that are proven and become minimum standards for new entrants to the supply chain. It could even encourage new producers to grow the capability and capacity of the supply base.
It was McDonald’s that spearheaded this drive to standardise, admittedly between just two manufacturers, so that they had identical products irrespective of the source of supply. For McDonald’s to achieve its expansion strategy, this capability to substitute alternative systems was critical and a strong enough driver to force through standardisation.
We should see the McDonald’s approach not as a model, but as an indicator of what can be achieved through co-ordinated and integrated manufacturing of system building products.
How can the industry get there?
Imposing standards onto an industry that has grown up with little outside or government regulation and interference is a battle that is unlikely to be won easily or quickly. However there are encouraging signs. With UK government support, campaigning organisation Buildoffsite is already identifying priorities to project the factory-based building sector into the 21st century.
Martin Goss is technical director of Mtech Group.
Offsite Directory October 2005
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