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Although the first European Technical Approval was issued in Britain last November, debate on the impact on construction still rages. In seeking an ETA, manufacturers will have to wait years and lay out thousands of pounds.

This week we ask:Will ETAs stifle innovation in construction products?

Yes Construction Products Association industry affairs director John Tebbit

The aim of the Construction Products Directorate (published in 1989) is to allow free movement of construction products within Europe. Products complying with harmonised standards or having a European Technical Approval would be CE marked.

Some 500 harmonised product standards are in the process of development and around 50 are ready for use. European Technical Approvals are available for innovative products or those where no harmonised standards are likely.

The process for getting ETAs is tortuous. It first requires the approval of the Standing Committee on Construction (SCC), the forum for all member states, then the European Commission to sort out major issues on the CPD. Once the work has been completed on the ETA, which takes longer than the equivalent national approval, the draft ETA has to be submitted back to the SCC for approval. The SCC meets two or three times a year so there is potential for delays of six months or more just by missing SCC dates.

As the UK's industry representative on the SCC, I can vouch for the inappropriateness of this procedure. When an ETA of more than 100 pages is being discussed in detail by people with no technical knowledge, speaking through interpreters at the end of a two day meeting in Brussels, it needs little imagination to realise that there must be a better way to do this.

ETAs are useful but in their present form they will not help the truly innovative product. By their very nature innovative products are new. They need to get to the market quickly and may have only a niche market.

An example is straw bale building which was the subject of a recent DTI research project. Do we really expect farmers to get an ETA for selling a couple of hundred bales every now and then?

We should be wary of using certification in the way a drunkard uses a lamppost, for support rather than illumination. Certification of products is useful but it is no substitute for professional judgement in the specification and use of innovative products.

No British Board of Agrement marketing manager Alan Thomas

A key point in this debate is that not all innovation is necessarily good. Like quality, a term which now only has positive connotations, innovation seems to have gathered a rosy glow around it, with the possibility of failure apparently inconceivable. Sadly, this is far from the truth and the construction industry has seen many failures from the use of untried and poorly-researched materials and products.

The forerunner of the BBA, the Agrement Board, was set up by government in the 1960s to stimulate safe innovation after concerns about some of the innovative materials launched on the market at that time.

Granted, it costs money to obtain BBA approval, but in the context of the costs associated with developing, launching and marketing a new product, these are not out of proportion, especially when one considers the sales benefits which can be derived.

The same principle applies across Europe, with European Technical Approvals providing a similar assessment procedure for products at the more innovative end of the spectrum. Again, there are costs, but these will allow the approved product to be placed on the market in any country in Europe that is signed up to the European Economic Area Agreement.

It is important to remember that the buildings and civil engineering structures that surround us have key health and safety requirements. No one in their right mind would suggest that we abandon building regulations and allow market forces to sort out the good from the bad:

in the same way we can ill afford to have unsafe, innovative products that will go into these structures.

Finally, of course, as far as UK manufacturers are concerned, there is no compulsion for them to obtain an ETA or indeed comply with a European Standard, if one exists for the product or system concerned. The various Building Regulations in the UK give a number of ways of showing compliance, including ETAs or ENs but there are others.

So the future of innovation is secure, whether proven safe via ETAs, or perhaps with less certainty of safety without.

The facts

lCE marking is mandatory in 10 of the 15 EU countries.

Exceptions are the UK, Eire, Portugal, Sweden and Finland but it is expected that most products in these countries will be CE marked due to commercial pressures.

CEN is responsible to the Commission for developing the harmonised product standards.

To date, around 50 have been finalised, and eventually some 500 are expected to be available.

EOTA is responsible for ETAs and so far has issued 16 with guidelines (ETAGs) and 43 based on Common Understanding of Assessment Procedures (CUAPs). In the UK, ETAs are issued by the BBA, BM TRADA Certification, BRE Certification, UK CARES and Warrington Certification

INFOPLUS www. eota. be/ www. constprod. org. uk www. safety. dtlr. gov. uk/bregs/ cpd/index. htm www.

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