by Joan Ferrer, Commercial Director, UK and Ireland at Ravago Building Solutions
Compared to lockdown parties, phone hacking and police bribery, a politician feeding his young child a burger seems an improbably innocuous start to a crisis of public confidence – but maybe not for those who remember, more than 30 years ago, the then-Minister for Agriculture John Gummer’s well-documented, yet ill-fated attempt to negate health concerns over British beef, amidst the mounting “mad cow” disease crisis.
Despite Gummer’s insistence that there was nothing to worry about, the BSE outbreak went on to claim the lives of 178 people. The Government’s handling of the crisis played a devastating role in eroding consumer confidence in British agriculture.
Today is a very different story: the British public trusts the safety and quality of British food far more than they trust the police or the newspapers. This dramatic turnaround is credit to independent assurance schemes such as Red Tractor (founded in 2000) – which people perceive to be more influential than the Government in maintaining the highest standards.
Contractors, take heart. Third-party product certification offers a similar route to restoring public confidence in the construction industry post-Grenfell: voluntary schemes run by bodies such as the British Board of Agrément (BBA) provide formal, objective assurance of conformity to recognised standards of safety, quality, and performance, confirming the product can reliably deliver the expected outcomes when specified, installed, and maintained as directed.
Going beyond compliance
While there’s no standard format, the certification process is more than a tick-box exercise, and therefore requires skilful assessment of multiple factors, against multiple standards, and accounting for various considerations. When specifying and installing roof insulation, for example, certification should cover thermal performance; durability; risk of interstitial and surface condensation; strength and stability; and behaviour in relation to fire. This not only tells you if the product is fit for purpose, but how fit, and for which purposes – is your chosen product suitable for a heavy-traffic car park? How many years will pass before the roof needs to be replaced? Will it help the project to meet stringent U-value requirements? To give the right answers, you need to have the right answers. This might seem common sense, but not all certificates are created equal.
Implicit trust in third-party certification leans on implicit trust in the body that awards it. Third-party ‘approved bodies’ are strongly advised to demonstrate their competence through independent accreditation. In the UK, the sole recognised public authority on this is the National Accreditation Body, UKAS (which was appointed by the government under the Accreditation Regulations 2009, but operates entirely separately). Through a rigorous assessment process, and regular audits, UKAS ensures that third-party certification bodies and their assessors meet internationally-recognised standards of technical competence, including compliance with the ISO 17021 standard for conformity assessment; UKAS is a full signatory to several mutual recognition agreements – the vision for these MLAs being “accredited once, accepted everywhere”.
Although UKAS accreditation isn’t a legal requirement, the ‘Crown and Tick’ logo is often what makes a certificate worth more than the paper it is printed on. For contractors, it should be reassuring to know that whoever signed-off on the safety and performance of the products in question was proficient to make that significant – and potentially reverberating – decision.
An organisation is only accredited for the activities listed on their accreditation schedule, so it’s important to look closer. On further inspection, the UKAS seal of approval for a body’s competence to assess and certify ‘building products’ might just apply to cement and mortar, for example, and not to the products you work with. Contractors should be aware that the BBA – which has been the UK’s primary authority for assurance of construction product quality for over 50 years – is still the only body able to offer UKAS accredited certification for insulation products, through the BBA Agrément scheme.
Avoiding costly errors
Accredited third-party certification ensures calculations are made according to the correct and safest methodology set out in the relevant standards. For example, the BBA Agrément for an inverted roof system combining Ravatherm XPS X 300 SL (in conjunction with the Ravatherm MK water flow reducing layer) specifies the methodology laid out in BS EN ISO 6946:2017 and BRE Report BR 443:2019, using the design lambda value (whereby a moisture correction factor is applied to the declared value) and the fx drainage correction for the system.
This is essential to compliance with ETAG 031: European Technical Approval Guideline for inverted roof kits, which requires that a design lambda must be used for U-value calculations to account for the rainwater cooling effect (more detail is available in the LWRA’s Guidance Note No.15). Not all third-parties take the same view; some make reference only to the declared lambda. By designing and installing an inverted flat roof system in accordance with these methods, you risk significantly under-insulating the roof. Being aware of how these organisations interpret regulations can help you avoid potentially costly, embarrassing mistakes – particularly considering the major changes to the liability landscape under the Building Safety Act 2022.
A culture of curiosity
Some oversights come at much greater cost. In the 1990s, an ‘unwillingness to know’ about public health risks proved lethal, and the tragedy at Grenfell made it plain that ‘deliberate incuriosity’ continues to cost lives. This parallel highlights a second home-truth for construction: the British public will never again take claims of safety and quality at face value – so nor can we. An increased, and more inquisitive, focus on the value third-party certification offers can help contractors demonstrate movement beyond “compliance mode” to truly inspire confidence in construction.
First published in Total Contractor, October 2022