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Setting the standard

CONCRETE - Materials test houses: All attempts to set up a trade association representing construction test houses have so far failed. Chris Slack, managing director of Weeks Laboratories, thinks it is time to try again.

Is independent construction materials testing a necessity that must be endured or a valuable process that plays an important role in sustaining construction quality?

At the moment, the testing industry is supported by the British Measurement & Testing Association (BMTA) that provides an excellent service in representing both the measurement and testing industries on technical matters within the UK and Europe. However, the BMTA has a very broad membership covering a variety of industries and is not able to focus on one particular industry.

A professional body for the construction materials testing industry would stimulate debate with major user groups, collectively represent the interests of its members and ensure that the construction industry as a whole understands the value of the services offered.

In the past there have been attempts to launch an industry specific trade association for construction materials testing laboratories but these efforts have fallen by the wayside.

Like many specialist services to construction, the materials testing industry is fragmented with a large number of different sized players spread throughout the country. There would be great mileage in forming a trade association so that we can speak with a common voice rather than individual companies talking to their own clients about what are, in effect, common issues. A fragmented industry can only lead to the dilution of the messages we wish to send out.

But it is not just about delivering the message. It is as much about listening. It is only through communication with contractor, consultant and supplier groups that we can increase the awareness of the value that we bring to projects, understand client expectations and anticipate future needs.

Members of such an association would also profit from the promotion and enhancement of their own business interests as well as the dissemination of industry news, views and trends.

Generally speaking, the UK has high standards of construction but to maintain and improve these standards, the value of independent testing must be recognised. This is particularly so, as skilled construction workers are becoming increasingly scarce. With more and more projects going down the design and build route, there is an even greater need for independent testing, as this is not a core activity for a contractor.

As an independent body which monitors the performance of testing laboratories, the United Kingdon Accreditation Service (UKAS) performs an important function in maintaining common standards but this in itself is not sufficient to create best value for the industry, particularly as significant numbers of tests are not accredited.

A trade association would play a vital role as a forum for the exchange of views on the vital role of independent materials testing within the construction culture in maintaining high standards and managing risk, thereby delivering better value for money.

Such an association could press for the involvement of testing laboratories at an earlier stage within the design process of construction projects. The expertise and experience of materials specialists are frequently called in at too late a stage and this can lead to delays, reduced efficiencies and, inevitably, escalating costs.

Information on research and development work to promote the use of improved materials could also be better disseminated with the establishment of a professional body.

Much has been written about the difficulties of attracting recruits into construction and in testing, good quality work depends on well-trained people.

Technicians within the testing industry are highly experienced but generally qualified through experience rather than through a formal academic route. A trade association could add force to the growing recognition that our industry needs to promote formal education and training systems to enhance the status of technicians and thereby improve recruitment.

At Weeks Laboratories, we have introduced a career path programme that involves training, education and recognised skill blocks. This offers technicians continuous personal development and it is a concept that could be rolled out by a professional association throughout the testing industry.

Whether we like it or not, we cannot get away from the fact that the European Union has a huge impact on our working practices and, with new EN standards on the horizon, relationships between suppliers, contractors and testing houses may change. This is an area where a professional trade association can add definition through interaction with representative bodies from the supply chain to work together to ensure that working relationships are nurtured.

As an industry, we must also learn to look inwards. A trade association would be an excellent vehicle to ensure that the clients we serve have confidence in the integrity of our services and one of the aims of an association would be to increase awareness of best practice throughout its membership.

The construction industry is a dynamic industry, but delivering high standards in construction should always remain the industry's core objective. The establishment of a trade association would work together with industry stakeholders to sustain construction quality.

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