Test for Quality - Hosted by BBA

With a long and trusted reputation within the UK construction industry, the BBA has been providing independent, expert product approval and certification for manufacturers since 1966. BBA recently hosted a Roundtable Event to discuss issues surrounding standards and product validation in the offsite sector. 

Over the last 18 months, the booming reputation and widening public sector commitment to offsite manufacture has been matched by the array of different building systems and components entering the market alongside the differing size of businesses providing them.  Awareness and adoption of offsite methods is at an all-time high, with the BBA long committed to helping businesses and organisations, by providing assurances that their products and systems can be selected by ‘architects, designers and specifiers who need to know that their chosen items are safe and fit-for-purpose.’

Although many project clients are at a different stage of the journey to understand the countless products and systems on the marketplace, early engagement is the oft-repeated construction mantra to those considering specifying offsite systems or components. These early stages are critical as ‘more and less-informed’ clients enter the market, unsure of what they are actually getting involved with and this can be true from a designer’s perspective. “You must understand the rules that are associated with the products, obey them and design with those rules,” says Frank McLeod, UK Head of Project Technology, WSP. “You need a rigorous approach to understanding the credentials of a product and the verification and validation of the product.” 

For all those considering an offsite approach, the basic fundamental blueprint is to think strategically about what you are trying achieve – whether it is via a panelised, volumetric or hybrid solution – and have a broader understanding of the product or system limitations. Small-scale design refinements are fine ‘post-planning’ but wholesale changes – facilitated through a lack of clear understanding of the product – can carry huge cost implications, cause project overruns and make the many benefits of precision factory-process close to redundant.   

Non-Traditional Products & Education

The adoption of ‘non-traditional systems and products’ such as engineered timber systems – including the popular cross laminated timber (CLT) – are now being embraced at the highest level by architects, engineers and building designers.  For non-traditional product and system suppliers, it is critical to get involved in the supply chain early to convince whoever is procuring or specifying the project, that it has merit and will provide a wider project enhancement and is a means to improve the build programme. Having the correct ‘certification’ of course can provide confirmation of quality. “The big challenge is that you are not just trying to sell a product you are trying to sell a service to someone possibly not going to be the service user,” says Sam Dawe, Technical Manager, Innovaré Systems. “We see certification as a justification of a product and as a method of getting people to the table in the first place. It is about encouraging and educating people that don’t have a stake in the build programme to see the product’s benefits.”  

For a wider uptake and interest at all levels of offsite manufacture, there needs to be a roll-out of ‘high value schemes’ to engage people better and also provide the opportunity to benchmark and measure offsite’s benefits effectively. This is key to overcoming the lingering poor perception of offsite some clients still have in some circles. This also includes the education of funding markets, politicians and those that are in the position of specifying within the supply chain. 

“Educating clients can be tricky,” says Andy King, Managing Director, Wernick Buildings. “From within the construction world it’s easier but if you are a school head teacher things can be very different. There is a lot of incorrect information out there to overcome in order to get someone to an offsite solution and a high level of understanding required.” Some markets are more attuned to the use of volumetric modular, with education in particular faring well – other markets that have never used volumetric modular can be frustratingly sceptical. “Sometimes schemes are screaming out for modular but they would rather go down a route that they are familiar with and know works,” adds Andy.

Undoubtedly procurement behaviour needs to change. There is still a struggle with clients trying to procure ‘new things in an old way’, but major public bodies are looking to change the way they procure and build – from school buildings to the commissioning of generic volumetric modular NHS ward blocks, and work being carried out for new prison provision by the Ministry of Justice. But whatever the client, the simple truth is: they want a system that works, delivers a compliant solution that meets requirements and regulations, at the right price and is delivered when and where they need it. 

Digital Benefits

Being prescriptive and standardising system design early in the process can minimise many risks. This is being increasingly done via the use of digital technology – in particular BIM modelling and the adoption of new virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) immersive environments. These digital tools are a huge part of the standardisation and optimisation process that rest at the heart of a successful offsite approach.  

For David Clark, Head of Manufacture & Innovation, McAvoy Group, these digital drivers are central to the company’s ongoing success and growing market share. “It can be seen as gimmicky but we have been using these digital tools since the early 2000s,” says David. “It’s not new to us. We use those digital tools because they make a difference. When we get to the design process and production process, these digital tools can help eliminate waste and everything that we can do to take out waste is critical to us. We can create the building for clients to view and ensure that by the time we get to manufacture we have ironed out any issues in advance.”   

Finding problems during the manufacturing stage is disastrous in the offsite factory-controlled world, so the more information and data that is available at an early stage before production begins is invaluable. Information is critical. Using digital technology is one clear way of helping deliver an ‘as built’ project ‘as designed’ and being a mainstay of quality control. 

Design Dictionary

A criticism of the construction industry in general – never mind the burgeoning offsite sector – is the sometimes confusing lexicon of terminology surrounding certification, testing, credentials and validation, the differences between them all and what they all actually prove. BBA, CE Mark, BOPAS et al. This is a key peripheral obstacle for many trying to enter the market with new, innovative and potentially untried products. “Effectively we have lots of these different streams of certification, adds David Clark. “It can be blurred for those within the industry, never mind clients outside the industry. The various bodies need to come together and try and resolve that.”

The levels of scrutiny that the offsite sector is subjected to can be at odds with those undertaken by the traditional build approach. The manufacturing process in a factory is constantly audited, reviewed and checked at many differing stages with quality control everything – by the time ‘the keys are being handed over onsite, the system has gone through a rigorous process – far more so than traditional.’ 

When it comes to testing and certification/approvals, some margins for misunderstanding rest in the use of composite materials and interface between products. A single product can be evaluated relatively straightforwardly but questions surround how some systems are being tested and approved ‘as a whole’. A similar issue surrounds the performance of composite materials, their properties and performance ‘over time and under stress’. This can be tricky to gauge accurately.  Engineers can design in timber, steel or concrete but hybrid composite systems are ‘a complex mechanism’ – within the offsite sector you have lots of different components coming together from different manufacturers that can prove a ‘demanding certification proposition.’   

“Our background is about assessing how these products or systems work independently and how they come together to work as a composite system as whole,” says Mike Ormesher, Research & Development Director, BBA. “At that point you start to define the rules and controls. The certification process has not just to look at the product or system itself, but how it interacts with others and how it is maintained going forward.”   

With many innovator’s entering the offsite market, the feeling is that UK building regulations can only go so far in satisfying competency and ‘adequacy of products’ – the insurance industry has generally been seen as reluctant to support the vast amount of innovation happening as the ‘innovation is so diverse they don’t know what they are supporting’. “Fundamentally we are joining a renewed clarion call for the revision of the building regulations,” says Claire Curtis-Thomas, CEO, BBA. “To address some of the concerns within the construction industry that effectively impedes the take up of new technology. We see offsite having a huge potential in the UK.” 

Construction Crossroads

In some regards, the certification industry is at a crossroads. There are several overlaps between what a particular certificate and accreditation demonstrates compared to another type of approval or assessment – they all go some way in satisfying a ‘particular niche’ – but the repetition of data is consistently seen as a flaw and hurdle to overcome for those working to bring products to market. Ideally a ‘friction-free simplification and mutual recognition of each organisations data’ will provide clarity and also encourage more collaboration. For anyone wishing to enter the construction market there is an overlong long list of ‘badges and logos’ required for entry – many of which require the same data. 

There is a clear opportunity for someone within the industry to provide clarity and transparency to demystify the process and provide a better understanding about what certification means and the terminology employed as an aid to conclude easier and quicker decisions on product specification.

“The pace of innovation that new manufacturers are creating means that to an extent the certification and testing arena is in danger of being left behind,” says Darren Richards, Managing Director, Cogent Consulting. “We have seen a maturing and rapid expansion of the offsite industry in the last five years and a massive cultural shift in the levels of collaborations and openness. If the certification industry can do something similar in recognising each other’s processes and data then this would be enormously beneficial.”

Certainly with such a huge knowledge pool and panel of experts at its disposal, there is potential for BBA in the future, to reposition themselves as more of a market collaborator and shift perceptions about what they can do,= in offering independent technical opinion. This best practice advice ultimately minimises the risk of failure in the built environment across the UK. 

Markets are moving and shifting shape and the certification industry needs to reflect the pioneering amount of work going on in this space. The offsite construction industry also ripe for technology investment and this is changing the commercial model of construction.  The traditional construction market is still nowhere near the detailed understanding of what offsite and factory-controlled manufacture can do, and it is not unusual to find seasoned operators from within the certification sector that have never even been inside a factory manufacturing facility environment. As offsite techniques continue to be adopted more readily by clients, architects, engineers and contractors in greater volumes, the landscape of the certification industry needs to change to encompass more non-traditional building methods – of which offsite is often tagged – so all stakeholders can align themselves in a ‘collective new direction of travel.’ 

There is a clear market opportunity for certification bodies – such as the BBA – to support the research and development process rather than just retain a position as an arbiter or issuer of a certificate.  Certification bodies also need to speak in language that everyone understands when approaching assessment methodologies. Standardisation of information for specifiers needs to be simple and transparent and the information relatable to all clients.  “It is all about collaboration, says Alvaro Enguita-Gonzalez, Head of Test Services, BBA. “The technology is there, the needs are there, the market and demand is there. It’s all about engaging better.” 

Many thanks to the BBA for hosting the Roundtable Event and thanks to all participants for their time and contributions to the discussion. For more information on the BBA visit: www.bbacerts.co.uk. For more information on offsite related activity visit: www.offsitehub.co.uk 

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