Quick Building Code Approval

Q. I am a student at Stanford and am researching a new building material, Engineered Cementitious Composite (ECC). Could you tell me some examples of how long it takes to get approval for new building material?

A. You ask a simple question for which there is not a simple answer.

Before getting an acceptance criteria, it may be necessary to first invent a way to quantify results.
First, we have to ask, for what usage is the material proposed? There are few regulatory requirements for non-structural product interior surfacing. But if the product is proposed for countertops in commercial food handling areas, it will need to meet NSF requirements for hygiene and toxicity; if it is to be used as a wall surfacing product in healthcare or assembly facilities, it will need proof that its surface burning characteristics are acceptable. While the testing and approvals can happen fairly quickly and for relatively limited expense, there are complications. NSF, for example, has to inspect the production facility.

For structural applications, an engineer can use almost any product by submitting structural calculations and other evidence to the building code official in a local jurisdiction. But it would be irresponsible for an engineer to use a product until it was well tested and understood. This could include costly fire-resistance testing and long term testing for performance characteristics such as creep, the deformation that happens over time. If the product is proposed for highway or bridge construction, state agencies may want to conduct field trials for several years to make sure of its durability.

It becomes easier for an engineer or architect to use a product if it is included in the building code. Only well established products are included in codes such as the International Building Code. However innovative materials can get reviewed by the International Code Council - Evaluation Service, and their ICC-ES Report can then be presented to the local building code officials that make the ultimate decision about whether a product can be used in their jurisdiction.  ICC-ES needs to have an "Acceptance Criteria" before they can evaluate an innovative project, and getting one can be tedious and expensive.

I have seen it take hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of effort to test a new product, get an acceptance criteria written, and then get an ICC-ES report. But that is only the beginning. One still has to get the approval of designers and builders to really have a successful product introduction.

Time-to-approval is often inverse to the cost. One of my clients got an acceptance criteria for a cementitious product in just six months, but only because they had a decade of academic testing and demonstration projects to draw upon, and could afford to hire the very best consultants. But along the way, they determined that winning customer acceptance would cost more and take longer than they had hoped, and decided to not commercialize the technology.

Housing Research Center

A friend of Chusid Associates, Professor Ali Memari, Ph.D., PE has been named the Bernard and Henrietta Hankin Chair of Residential Construction  and director of the Pennsylvania Housing Research Center at Penn State University.

He is professor of architectural engineering at Penn State abd specializes in experimental and analytical evaluation of building structural and nonstructural systems for performance under environmental loads and natural hazards. He has recently done extensive work in building wall and envelope systems, including architectural glass curtain wall and glazing systems, cladding panels, brick veneer wall systems, various types of masonry wall systems, wood-frame, steel stud frames and structural insulated panels.

Ali and Michael Chusid have co-authored articles and collaborated on other projects. He has also conducted research to support our clients.

We wish him good luck in his new position.

Reliability and Safety

A new study suggests that the introduction of verification and checking procedures can improve structural safety and performance. While the article focuses on the role of engineers in assuring successful outcomes, building product manufacturers can apply the same principles by verifying the proper fabrication and installation of their materials and systems.

A reviewer has this to say about the study:
Engineer Franz Knoll of Nicolet Chartrand Knoll Ltd., based in Montreal, Quebec, writing in the International Journal of Reliability and Safety explains that faults and flaws in any industrial product almost always originate from human error, through lack of attention, communication, or competence.

Knoll points out that scientific testing and analysis are increasingly removing doubt as to what is to blame for problems and errors that arise. Natural events can be quantified and the probabilities of their occurrence predicted. While early-warning systems for earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunami and volcanic activity are in place, it is often human shortcomings that lead to the worst outcomes during and after such events.

When it comes to the construction of buildings and bridges, human failings are often most apparent. As Knoll says, in the construction industry, human shortcomings trickle so that inferiority ultimately leaks from the bottom, as workers endeavor to comply with strict budgets under pressure to perform well.

"In the pursuit of quality in building in the sense of an absence of serious flaws, a targeted strategy for the apprehension and correction of human errors is of the essence," Knoll says. In this context an absolute requirement is that at critical stages during construction, highly qualified and experienced engineers must attend to the task of checking for mistakes so that problems are not buried in concrete or plastered over only to resurface later. Such personnel being in short supply would suggest that directing them towards the details that matter, rather than encumbering them with administrative chores would be appropriate.
More information: "Of reality, quality and Murphy's law: strategies for eliminating human error and mitigating its effects" in Int. J. Reliability and Safety, 2012, 6, 3-14

Post Occupancy Evaluation

A seminal work on POE.
Sometimes, the key measurements of a building product can be assessed by physical properties. But many products must also be measured by human factors and how well they meet the emotional, physiological, and psychological needs of a building owner, tenant, or user. For example, lighting can measured in lux or watts per square meter. But it can also be measured by its effect on sales revenue and workplace productivity.

Sometimes these factors can be studied in a laboratory. But in other instances, the only meaningful way to study them is to go into a building to measure the behavior of people using the facility and collect feedback. Consider, for example, a hospital, where design can actually influence patient outcomes, as measured by the amount of pain medication the average patient requires. This type of research is sometimes referred to as post-occupancy evaluation.

One of our clients sells a pre-engineered building system for schoolhouse construction. His customers have been very happy and have written nice testimonials for him. But testimonials, no matter how effusive, can go only so far to establish credibility. My client wanted a more effective tool for convincing school boards to look favorably upon his unique solution.

We proposed to conduct a post-occupancy evaluation comparing two facilities, one built with conventional construction and the other with the pre-engineered system, to understand how the buildings effect the performance of students and faculty. Armed with findings based upon student test scores, faculty turnover, absenteeism, community satisfaction, and other criteria, our client hopes to be able to offer solid evidence that will convince architects and school districts to take a closer look at his system

Sandra Goodman, Ph.D., an associate of Chusid Associates, is a psychologist cross trained in building design and is available to discuss post occupancy evaluation with you. She has conducted post-occupancy evaluations for a major architectural firm, helping to identify lessons that could be applied to other projects, and her skills can also help a building product manufacturer design better products and assess the impact products have on building users.

100 Year Concrete Study

A 100-year scientific study of the properties of concrete recently concluded at the University of Wisconsin.  (http://www.ncptt.nps.gov/2010/university-concludes-100-year-concrete-study) The project was begun by a visionary professor of mechanics who understood the value longterm scientific research on a material that was, then, just beginning to gain the prominence it now holds in the world of construction.

Throughout most of the 20th century, while concrete was becoming the most widely used construction material on the planet, samples cast by Prof. Owen Withey and his students in 1910, 1923, and 1937 were aging in various storage conditions, accumulating valuable information about the nature of 1910 concrete and the nature of aging concrete.  About 2500 cylinders were cast in all.  Cylinders were tested at 20 years and again at 50 years, and results published.  100-year tests were recently done on the 1910 samples, and results will be published, although they have not been yet.

This study underscores the importance, when marketing construction products, of thinking in the long term and investing in it.  Endurance is one of the primary values of the built environment.  And slow change is one of the hallmarks of the construction industry.

Flood-Resistance Research

More about the growing need for flood-resistant building products:

If you wanted to design a more flood-resistant building, there is little data on the forces created by surging water in buildings. An Australian scientist, Richard Brown, took advantage of the recent floods there to instrument a building. Among key findings:
  • Debris carried along by the water acts like battering rams.
  • Speed of water flow can vary rapidly. Flows of 0.3 m per second – a rate at which an average person can still stand up – could change within 40 seconds 1.8 m per second, Richard says.
  • Smooth floors offered no resistance or interruption to the flow.
The investigator says "this sort of information will assist architects and designers to build safer buildings with railings, places of refuge or ways to slow water flow," We add that it can also benefit product manufacturers.  More info.

New Testing will lead to New Opportunities

New testing procedures can lead to new opportunities for innovative building products. With that in mind, I an eager to see what emerges from the new research facility being built by the Institute for Building and Home Safety. Their laboratory is large enough to test complete buildings to measure their performance under hurricane, tornado, fire storm, and other destructive forces.

Under typical testing conditions, individual materials or small assemblies are tested separately. This complicates the assignment of blame when a building failure occurs. More critically, designers, builders, and code officials often have to guess about the best details to use in construction, By instrumenting and testing entire buildings under controlled, repeatable conditions, the industry should be able to obtain more holistic data about design requirements and material performance.

Armed with this information, manufacturers will be able to develop better materials, and will have convincing performance documentation for suspicious customers.

The facility will also be able to capture high speed video of building failures. This will have a profound impact on consumers, presenting them with clear information about how better materials save lives and property.

An article on the project was published in ENR.

Wingspread Precautionary Principle

Designers are often faced with a dilemma when considering adoptions of a new product with putative environmental advantages instead of an established product with known environmental detriments. Even if the new product manufacturer has conducted extensive testing and offers independent verification of claims, the new product cannot match the track record of a product that has been proven in the field and tested by time.

I have recently become familiar with the Wingspread Conference, a gathering of scientists, philosophers, lawyers and environmental activists, that reached agreement on the necessity of the "Precautionary Principle" in environmental decision-making. The key element of the principle addresses the trade-offs that designers face in the absence of certainty about long term performance:
"When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."
The Principle suggests that it can be acceptable to use a new product, even if there is no certainty about long term performance.

Note that this is not a free ticket to use to market any new product. The Principle also states:
"...the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof."
This means that the manufacturer of a new product must provide rigorous and transparent evidence that the new product does indeed have a lower environmental impact than the one it is attempting to supplant.

The full text of the statement follows:

The Precautionary Principle
Wingspread Consensus Statement on Precautionary Principle
The release and use of toxic substances, the exploitation of resources, and physical alterations of the environment have had substantial unintended consequences affecting human health and the environment. Some of these concerns are high rates of learning deficiencies, asthma, cancer, birth defects and species extinctions; along with global climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion and worldwide contamination with toxic substances and nuclear materials.

We believe existing environmental regulations and other decisions, particularly those based on risk assessment, have failed to protect adequately human health and the environment - the larger system of which humans are but a part.

We believe there is compelling evidence that damage to humans and the worldwide environment is of such magnitude and seriousness that new principles for conducting human activities are necessary.

While we realize that human activities may involve hazards, people must proceed more carefully than has been the case in recent history. Corporations, government entities, organizations, communities, scientists and other individuals must adopt a precautionary approach to all human endeavors.

Therefore, it is necessary to implement the Precautionary Principle: When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.

Testing Laboratory Follies

Even the best testing laboratories are prone to make errors in their reports.

Today's Example:

I just saw a report for a flexural test conducted on a product that was only recently brought to market. The product is made of porcelain, a material that is relatively weak in tension. However, the back side of the porcelain was laminated with a fibrous reinforcing to give it tensile strength.

As a composite product, the flexural strength of the product is likely to vary, depending on which side of the test specimen was "up" in the test apparatus. Tested in one configuration, the fibers would be in tension and the composite would have a high flexural strength. Tested in the other configuration, the porcelain would be in tension and would fail at a lower value.

The test report did not indicate the configuration used for the testing.

The test was conducted by a respected lab affiliated with a national trade association. I do not question its integrity. However, tests like this are typically performed by a technician, then written up by another member of the lab -- neither of whom may know what is being tested nor the intended use of the test.

Testing is an investment. Make sure to review your product test reports carefully, and hire a consultant if you lack the in-house technical expertise to interpret the result.

Standard Tests Help Your Product

At the heart of a really strong product claim is a third-party test to prove it.

But which test?

Not all tests are equal, nor are they equally beneficial to your product’s reputation. And since testing can be expensive, it should be planned with forethought about what tests will convince architects, engineers, specifiers, and other relevant decision-makers.

Design professionals rely on performance standards, such as those created by the consensus group ASTM International. These standards often refer to a particular test or group of tests, and have associated standards for the test methods. The standard creates a level playing field where apple-to-apples comparisons are possible. When a specifier compares multiple products that were tested to the same performance standard using the same test methods, the specifier can make an intelligent choice.

Too often, manufacturers don’t pay close enough attention to the commonly accepted standards and applicable test methods. They’ll do tests themselves without proper verification, or have tests run for them that don’t relate to the commonly accepted standards. Then they have test data that sounds good, but it’s the kind of data that doesn’t do much good to convince a responsible specifier.

And, contrary to expectation, that data doesn’t enhance the product’s credibility, because it was badly collected. It could actually degrade the reputation of the product and the manufacturer.

Another common mistake is to claim compliance with a standard, but not cite the test that backs it up. The claim sounds good, but it doesn’t meet the sniff test. A specifier is more likely to go with a product that has applicable test data readily available, simply because it’s the safer choice.

A report by the US Access Board on co-efficient of friction testing (http://www.access-board.gov/adaag/about/bulletins/surfaces.htm) highlights the difficulties created by using non-standard tests. It discusses a standard test method that was altered by use of a silastic sensor instead of the leather required by the protocol for the UL standard. The report states that the substitution “results in significantly higher values for the coefficient of friction of the surfaces being measured. As no correlation was made to any other standards or methodologies in the research, the values for coefficient of friction cannot be compared.”

A thoughtfully designed test program can be a very worthwhile investment in a product’s saleability. An improperly designed program is just a waste of time and money. Chusid Associates helps clients determine the most applicable tests with the best potential ROI, and helps design test programs that maximize useful data and eliminate irrelevant testing.

Is ISO 14000 Certification Useful?

I have not seen marketing value in becoming ISO 14000 certified. If you are a building product manufacturer that has had good results from the program, please comment to share your experience.

ISO Logo
ISO says the program, "is a management tool enabling an organization of any size or type to:
  • "identify and control the environmental impact of its activities, products or services, and to
  • "improve its environmental performance continually, and to
  • "implement a systematic approach to setting environmental objectives and targets, to achieving these and to demonstrating that they have been achieved."
The system may actually be a good management tool that provide focus for internal review of systems and policies. But I have not seen the North American construction industry writing it into its purchase specifications, and I know almost no designer or builder for whom ISO certification is a significant factor in product selection.

A few building product manufacturers have done the paperwork to get certified. Generally, they are divisions of huge, global concerns that have bought into the ISO regimen because it is required for their aerospace, pharma, or other divisions.

More, the ISO program seems like a gin for churning out paperwork and racking up inspection agency fees -- without demanding meaningful improvement. Let's say your policy for dealing with toxic waste produced in your factory is to bury the stuff in your back yard. Your plan to improve your environmental practices might be to bury it more deeply in your yard. As long as you plan for documenting your burial practices, you can still get ISO certified.

If I am wrong about this, let me know

Marketing the Green Challenge

Prototypes of Calstar Products fly ash brickThe construction products industry has, for the past few years, been consumed by the struggle to either be green or appear green. It's caused me to reflect on the different marketing struggles faced by old products trying to green themselves vs. new ones that are built green from the bottom up.

An example of a green-from-day-one marketing challenge is CalStar Products, Inc., a Northern California-based company founded to create more sustainable cementitious products. (www.calstarproducts.com) They are in the final development stages of a non-clay, non-fired brick. It is made dominantly of fly ash, a recycled smokestack byproduct.

This innovative product was developed to address the high energy consumption and concomitant CO2 emission associated with making fired clay brick (the most common form of brick). The process for firing clay into brick involves up to three days in a kiln at about 1000 degrees F. During most of the past 100 years, that's resulted in about 1.3 lbs of CO2 being sent up the smokestack and into our air for every common 4.1-lb. clay brick produced. Coal-fired kilns can cough up additional smokestack pollution problems if they're not properly scrubbed.

CalStar's fly ash brick isn't kilned, and the energy consumption of its prototypes is coming in at about 15%-20% of a fired clay brick. They hope to get it down to 10% when they have fully ramped up commercial production. They've done testing to demonstrate that their brick meet the same ASTM structural standards that clay brick have to meet. So their marketing story is about a product that can be substituted for clay brick while making a big reduction in CO2 related to global climate change.

CalStar's biggest challenge is, in fact, that their product is innovative. It hasn't been built with before. Not only must CalStar introduce its new solution to the marketplace, it must also overcome the industry-wide reluctance to be the first to try anything new, a type of caution for which design professionals and construction contractors are notorious. Construction-related liabilities can be enormous, so a decision-maker considering a really innovative product has to be wondering whether human progress is worth the risk of his personal livelihood. CalStar needs to simultaneously tell their sustainability story and overcome the well-entrenched fear of change.

CalStar is tackling this challenge with a combination of science and good public relations. They are testing and refining their product rigorously, both to meet industry-wide brick standards that will make it a equivalent and approvable substitute, and also to ascertain that the product is safe, responsibly made, and reliable. At the same time, they are working with construction PR professionals to educate the industry in depth about the issues, tell their story and build confidence in their product, and make the case for brick masonry that is more friendly to the planet.

The clay brick industry (www.gobrick.com) has the opposite marketing challenge. They are the dominant player, and their product is a very well established, economical, reliable building material. But the sustainability profile of brick is becoming more and more of an issue for them.

The clay brick industry's challenges are a) fighting a rearguard action against competitive masonry products like concrete brick and new green bricks such as CalStar's, and b) making their own product either be greener or appear greener.

On the greening front, the clay brick industry has made a mighty effort to reduce their energy consumption and pollution. They claim a per-brick-reduction in embodied energy of about 1/3. Unfortunately, this still leaves a lot of CO2 between them and their nearest competition, concrete brick. Moreover, they may be reaching the lower limit of energy consumption possible within the nature of clay.

The clay brick industry has responded to this challenge with a deft public relations campaign. They have, first of all, tried to brand fire clay brick as the only true brick, excluding concrete, adobe, and others. They use language very effectively in this effort, referring to concrete bricks as cricks (see article on newhomesource.com, for example) or referring to competitive products in quotes, as in: fly ash "brick".

They are making the most of the green properties they do possess, such as durability, thermal mass effect, insulation value, etc. Based on these properties, they have gone on the offensive, claiming to be the greenest building material available.

Personally, I'm not sure I buy every one of their claims, and I wonder how much of it is really just greenwashing. (That question comes up lately in regard to many products.) But professionally, I have to admire their strategy and their execution. They are using marketing methods effectively to make the most of their situation and extend the life of their product.

For more on brick and sustainability, please see our article from the May issue of The Construction Specifier.

Are Testing Laboratories Reliable?

Chusid Associates recently supervised a comprehensive testing program to determine the physical performance characteristics of a client's building product. We retained a testing company with a good reputation and an international network of laboratories. Unfortunately, the lab's work was riddled with errors. And even when the errors were pointed out to them, their revised reports still contained errors.

Errors made by the laboratory included:
- inaccurate measurements or uncalibrated equipment.
- failing to observe specified test procedures.
- writing incomplete reports and reports with spelling and grammatical errors.

Two examples indicate how poorly the laboratory performed. In one test, measurements were taken in degrees F, then reported in degrees C without making the necessary conversions. In another case, they reported that that the product, a quartz surfacing, had a Mohs hardness of 9, an impossibility since quartz is the reference standard for Mohs hardness of 7.

What this illustrates is that product testing programs must be carefully managed by a building product manufacturer, either with their own technical staff or a qualified consultant.

Here are a few guidelines for testing building products:

1. Select the Right Tests: Consider what tests may be necessary for certification or approvals, your internal quality assurance and quality control programs, to respond to data from competitors, and to protect your company from liability. Oh, and try to find tests that realistically predict product performance in the field or offer meaningful comparison to other products.

2. Understand the Tests: It is not enough to simply order a test according to an ASTM standard number, as an example. Many test standards contain several procedures or variables that must be specified. Preliminary testing may be required to know which protocol makes sense for your product.

3. Read the Test Reports: They may be dull technical writing, but you need to read the reports carefully before sharing them with customers. Most labs will make reasonable modifications to a report to clarify its meaning or offer data most useful to your marketing situation, so long as the modifications do not distort the findings of the test.

4. Understand the Test Results: Understanding what the results mean will help catch potential errors in the testing. More, it helps to understand the results in order to be able to explain your product's performance. For example, salt spray testing is commonly used to compare the corrosion resistance of products, but the results do not corrolate well with real world exposure.

5. When Possible, Witness the Tests: This can often enable you to catch a mistake that would otherwise damage the credibility of the test. It will also help you to understand the results.

To see one example of how test data can be used in marketing communications, see the article we wrote for our client.