Making Roadblocks into Stepping-Stones

This is an encore of an article Michael Chusid wrote almost 20 years ago. Code issues continue to be part of the building product marketing. The challenges today may be even greater since issues like building sustainability have added new requirements to the codes.

Codes and regulations may seem like hurdles to marketers, but they also present opportunities

I'm putting together a business plan for a new building material. What sort of approvals do I need from the building codes and other regulatory agencies, and how do these approvals affect the introduction of a new building product?- C.V., consultant

All marketers must understand the regulatory environment their products compete in. For building materials makers, this means working within the complex framework of regulations, standards, certifications, and the testing labs and other agencies that govern the way we build.

Most companies first encounter building codes and other regulatory agencies when they are told, "Your product can't be used on this project. It's not approved." You are correct to be looking at the necessary approvals as part of your marketing plan. With foresight, the approval process can be a stepping-stone rather than a roadblock to market penetration.

Take the approval process seriously. Without approval, your product may be considerably less attractive to specifiers and builders and may, in effect, even be banned.

If customers want to use your non-approved product, they may literally have to fight city hall. You'll be asked to send a technical expert to present the case for your product to code officials. But even with your support, few architects or contractors will be strongly' committed to your product. Most designers will stick with approved products.

Money and time
Building material testing and certification by independent laboratories, required for code compliance, can be costly. Underwriter's Laboratories, one of the most widely used, conducts fire and structural testing. Although UL is a not-for-profit corporation, it does charge for testing.

Trade associations, which are also nonprofit organizations, also certify products-for a fee. The American Architectural Manufacturers Association (AAMA), for example, certifies the performance of aluminum windows, for a price. Many associations also require annual fees to maintain listings in their directories of approved products and to inspect manufacturing plants.

The approval process also takes time. Not only is the approval process bureaucratic and slow-moving, but also regional code differences and lack of coordination among various agencies may require you to duplicate efforts in each part of the country. Code enforcement falls under the jurisdiction of local building departments, so you can count on traveling to obtain local approval. As one foreign manufacturer told me, "The United States isn't the one big market we thought it would be. Each region, state, and even city seems to have their own codes and standards, with no thought at all for coordination."

Though burdensome, the approval process can create marketing opportunities, especially when new code requirements are introduced.  For example, when the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act required tactile markings in pavement to warn the visually disabled of possible hazards, many manufacturers developed new products to satisfy the code change. Similarly, recent hurricanes led to tightening of codes and created demand for new structural materials and more wind-resistant roof and wall systems.

The drive to overcome code limitations also can be a great incentive for new  product development. Building codes, for example, place severe performance requirements on glass used in fire-rated doors. For years, only small panels of wire-reinforced glass could be used. But in the past decade, a proliferation of new technologies have satisfied code requirements with larger panes of glass. Without  the code-imposed limitations, the new technologies would have had a hard time getting established. The reason? The lure of safer buildings does not seem to motivate builders as much as the thrill of getting around a building code restriction.

Markets, too, can develop as a result of building regulations.Water repellents for concrete and masonry languished for years because various manufacturers' conflicting claims made all their claims suspect. After a standardized test procedure enabled specifiers to evaluate competing products with greater confidence, the demand for water repellents grew dramatically.

Getting code approval or certification can help a new manufacturer enter product areas dominated by established technologies. The code or standard establishes a threshold of product performance, and if a new product meets the criteria, it is more readily accepted by architects and builders. This can level the playing field between established brands and new ones.

While it can be difficult and time consuming to accomplish, some manufacturers have managed to get codes and standards rewritten to their advantage or to position them in the market. For example, Pennwalt Corp., maker of Kynar resins used in coatings for metal wall panels, got AAMA to issue a new standard for high-performance organic coatings for metal. Whenever architects specified this standard, they were--perhaps without knowing it--specifying Pennwalt's product because, for decades, only Kynar-based products could meet the standard. As a result, Pennwalt received the cachet of a high-performance coating and was able to hide a sole source proprietary specification behind an industry standard. This helped the company get government jobs, where there is often reluctance toward using single source specifications.

It may help to think of approvals and certifications as part of your marketing communications program. Extensive documentation of your approvals can be a major competitive advantage in such code-sensitive product areas as fire-stopping.

Even the expense of going through the code approval process can work in a manufacturer's favor, as demonstrated by a recent controversy in the steel door industry. Several industry players wanted to change the standard to test fire doors under positive air pressure instead of neutral air pressure, saying it would lead to safer building construction. Others argued that the existing standards were adequate to protect lives and property. Though unstated, the millions of dollars it would cost manufacturers to retest and redesign their doors was also a consideration. A code change would benefit only firms that could afford the retesting and redesign.

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, ©1996