New European approval procedures are being unleashed on the UK's £30bn construction products industry. Alan Sparks looks at the likely fallout.
For many years the harmonisation of construction product standards across Europe has been a major if not always high profile activity of the European Commission.
Under the banner of the Construction Products Directive (CPD) scores of volunteer technical experts from all the member countries have been beavering away in a multitude of technical committees, producing new 'Euronorms' which eventually come into force as harmonised national standards.
However, these are only possible where previous national standards exist to be harmonised. For innovative cutting edge products, where national standards rarely exist and performance can vary widely between different producers, the CPDs alternative is European Technical Approvals (ETAs).
Effectively replacing British Board of Agrément (BBA) certificates and their EU equivalents, ETAs will be issued by the European Organisation for Technical Approvals (EOTA), whose agent in the UK is in fact BBA.
ETAs will guarantee designers and specifiers a Europe-wide standardised quality over a wide range of technical products.
Concrete fixings are the first product group to be judged against a European Technical Approval Guideline (ETAG), (see box). This will see fixings that can demonstrate compliance with the ETAG and that are awarded an ETA now carrying the CE marking to indicate fitness for purpose - and without which the CPD had originally intended it would be illegal to offer a fixing for sale.
However, unlike most of the rest of Europe, CE marking in the UK is just one of the ways of demonstrating compliance with the Building Regulations. CE marking is unlikely to become mandatory in the near future, says BBA marketing manager Alan Thomas. 'But we believe ETAs will become commercially mandatory, ' he goes on.
'Specifiers will realise that it is in their own interest to specify CE-marked products, because if something goes wrong with a non CE-marked product they will have little defence.'
However, such a shake up is bound to cause a few bruises.
'The sheer expense and length of time required to attain an ETA will hinder innovation, and make it difficult for the smaller companies which are often regarded as the most innovative, ' explains Construction Products Association industry affairs director John Tebbitt.
Most experts believe that, for a typical product, achieving EOTA approval will take at least two years and cost up to £10,000 in fees to EOTA alone - not to mention the internal costs of development and testing.
Large producers will often have a built-in advantage, as much of the development and testing work needed to finalise the ETAGs will inevitably have to be carried out in their specialised laboratories. A European conference 'Construction products for the single market:
expectations and reality' last month concluded that: 'The concerns about small-medium enterprises are real and the EC must ensure that the effect of CE marking on such companies is closely monitored.'
Tebbit's fear for the future development stems from the fact that the only way for innovative products to gain the vital CE marking in the future will be through the ETA scheme. 'You may not like the rules and you may not like the way it's played - but it's the only game in town.'
This, though, has been addressed by moves within EOTA to accommodate a greater share of the market under the Common Understanding Assessment Procedure (CUAP). This allows use of materials which may be particular to a handful of countries without entering the full ETA process.
One such example is the use of renewable flax and sheep's wool as insulation in Germany.
'These CUAPs already allow a whole host of products to gain an ETA much faster - though not any cheaper, ' says Thomas.
Allowances are also available on less safety critical applications such as false ceilings, which can gain accreditation under less onerous testing procedures.
As European integration gathers momentum, there are obvious benefits to having only one standard for 20 countries - not least the removal of the need for each product to be individually tested and assessed in each country.
The conference believed that, 'At least for some products, there is a real prospect of soon having just one test, one certification recognised as valid throughout the European Economic Area (the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein).'
Tebbit sums up the mood of the UK's producers, 'Most people think that ETAs are good in principle, but we need to get them to work in practice, which means they need to be made more simple.'
And for some the grading system, which displays each product's exact performance, prevents competition being based exclusively on price, regarded as the shortcoming of the CE marking.
There is still however, a low awareness of the CPD and the implications of CE marking among practitioners in the construction industry. Last month's conference called for major information campaigns, at national level, by member states.
In the UK, BBA will be running a series of CE marking roadshows from April onwards, with particular emphasis on the transitional arrangements until all national product standards are harmonised and all BBA certificates replaced by ETAs. This could take a long time, but there is little excuse for pleading ignorance. You have been warned.
European Technical Approval Guideline 001, issued in October 1997, covers metal anchors in concrete, and in November last year the Rawlplug Company was awarded the UK's first ETA for its Throughbolt anchors. The introduction of ETAG 001 came as a great relief to responsible producers, says fixing manufacturer Fischer International technical manager Jochen Buhler.
He adds: 'In the UK there are extensive standards for both steel and concrete - but none for the connection between them. This doesn't make sense and cannot be safe.'
'At last all products can be measured against the same stick, ' says Fischer UK technical manager, Gary Connah.
As yet, steel anchors are the only fixing to have finalised ETAGs, with nylon and chemical fixings shortly due to follow suit. ETAGs 002 and 003 cover structural sealing glazing systems and internal partitions respectively, with dozens more in the pipeline.
A European Technical Approval Guideline is drawn up by experts from all EU member countries under a mandate from the European Commission. The genesis of a new ETAG lies not with the EC, however, but with manufacturers or trade associations, which approach the local agent of EOTA with a request for work to begin.
Given the different philosophies underlying product standards in different countries, gaining the necessary consensus for ETAGs does take time. A minimum of three years from the start of work in earnest to the issue of the ETAG is to be expected, and controversial products can take much longer.
ETAGs establish how each product is evaluated, including the testing procedures, the verification of conformity and the period of this conformity. Once awarded, ETAs last for five years, and can be renewed provided no relevant harmonised product standard has been introduced in the meantime.