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Debate: Construction Products Directive

For more than a decade since the European Union's Construction Products Directive came into force countless hours have been spent attempting to harmonise European construction product standards. So far only one such standard has appeared, for cement.

This week we ask: Has all the effort been worth it?

Yes

Twelve years ago I was involved in the development, promotion and marketing of innovative European-sourced construction products in the UK. It was a thankless task.

Not only did I and others like me have to overcome the usual 'not invented here' syndrome, which is tough enough, but we had to battle against the standards barrier as well.

Even where national standards existed, differences in detail and philosophy meant that compliance with those in one country gave no guarantee of compliance with its equivalents in another.

A fortune had to be spent on additional testing before UK specifiers would even look at products from Europe.

The situation was even worse with really innovative products for which no national standard had yet been developed and which are normally catered for by the British Board of Agrement or its equivalents. Gaining approval under any of these schemes is expensive and time consuming.

Having to jump through a similar but not quite the same set of hoops in each individual member state was a definite barrier to the dissemination of potentially valuable new technology.

Almost exactly the same situation applied to those trying to market British construction products across the Channel. So people like me were enthusiastic supporters of the Construction Products Directive when it came into force. And we still are.

Yes, it has all taken a lot longer than expected - but no one ever thought it was going to be easy.

And yes, some members of some technical committees have demonstrated a stubborn devotion to short term commercialism or have behaved in a frankly nationalistic and paranoid fashion. But there have already been significant gains.

Fire testing has been revolutionised, for example. A plethora of empirical and misleading tests for fire resistance and spread of flame will be replaced by scientifically valid tests which give the sort of information the specifier actually needs to know.

Other forms of performance testing have also been rationalised.

And once all the standards and approval regimes are in place, the customer will benefit even more than the product companies. It will be worth waiting for.

No

Few products in civil engineering are without a draft European product standard either in existence or in the process of being written.

Each has its own committee made up of 'experts' from the participating countries. Every six months or so members meet to work towards producing a document designed to satisfy all needs or at least a fair few of them. In between meetings there is much background work and corresponding to do.

Across the industry this adds up to a lot of time and effort being expended by expensive employees. What do we get back for all this work, and why do we do it?

It is probably out of fear that much work is done. Harmonisation means that some, if not all, national standards will change and it is only by participating that members can at least try to ensure that their own traditional methods are not left by the wayside in the process. The group I am involved in had already met seven times before the UK found out, and then only by accident.

Joining at such a late stage left me in no doubt that if you are not there you will be totally ignored when it comes to having your voice heard.

National characteristics make certain aspects difficult. For example products may be used in completely different ways in other countries, leading to different areas of concern. This shows in the precast concrete field with the Italians unwilling to tighten their tolerances, the French wanting to quantify the colour of concrete, the Germans being interested only in system building, and so on. It is often a wonder that any overall progress is made.

In purely practical terms it is probably not worth the effort to participate, but not doing so risks a far greater penalty.

The facts

The Construction Products Directive came into force on 21 December 1988.

Harmonised product standards are the responsibility of European standards body CEN, which drafts new standards under mandates from the European Commission.

In the UK the BSI has mirror committees and working parties, with an average membership of 15, developing the British input into the CEN committees. Up to three UK representatives attend CEN meetings.

Currently there are some 50 main technical committees and a bewildering proliferation of sub-committees, working parties and task groups.

More than 2,500 individual product standards are under preparation. For precast concrete alone more than 20 task groups are meeting regularly.

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