How should (and shouldn’t) tests,
certification and accreditations be
used to better understand
products and buildings?

Assuring the safety and performance of a building is always a collaborative effort. The industry is made up of a complex chain of construction product manufactures, installers of those products, contractors who manage their work, designers & specifiers, safety inspectors and ultimately the asset owner. This chain needs to be able to demonstrate via its collective action that it knows (or at least has sound reasons to believe) that an asset is safe and will perform as planned.

This task is made more difficult by the fact that buildings are themselves complex, made up of multiple components, often put together in novel configurations, and that once built interact with the wider built and natural environment in ways that are difficult, if not impossible to predict.

Agrément certificates are one of many tools that are used by the industry to try to gain a more complete knowledge of buildings and identify and mitigate risks.

But what does an Agrément Certificate actually allow us to know about a product and then the asset they are part of? How do they relate to other what we might call knowledge artefacts such as laboratory test results, UKCA markings and detailed design drawings? Just as importantly do we have a shared understanding what each of these things tells us, and conversely doesn’t tell us?  What gaps in our knowledge do they not close? To what extent do the knowledge gaps left by different artefacts require further expert input if we are to have safe, high performing buildings? And what does this all mean for how responsibility for safety and performance must be distributed to different actors in the construction process?

The benefits Agrément certificates deliver

Agrément Certificates aim to close this gap, if not completely, at least to a good degree. Using an Agrément Certificate a professional designer can competently select and specify products. They do not need to be an expert across every specialism needed to fully assess a product as fit for use. The Certificates provide invaluable information about the capabilities of a manufacturer’s product, derived from an assessment of a range of factors including materials used, manufacturing process and control procedures, product testing, and installation control. Further, the Certificate examines alignment to relevant regulations, so guides specifiers and designers to appropriate uses.  The act of codifying all of that information into one certificate does then narrow a knowledge gap and allows others in the supply chain, including designers, to have confidence in the product’s performance.

…And how they should not be used

So far so good. But the performance of a building is not just the sum of the performance of its parts. In the real world, a building is created by an aggregation of products in combinations and configurations that a product manufacturer and their certifying body cannot foresee. This still leaves design construction and operational phase challenges. In design to ensure that the products chosen, in their configuration, makes a safe building; in construction to ensure that the design is faithfully implemented; in the operational phase to ensure that the operations, and maintenance  procedures are followed.

An Agrément Certificate cannot (and shouldn’t) be used to try replace the duties of the designer, constructor, operator or maintainer. The Certificate can however as explained above be an input into the work of suitably qualified and experienced professionals in these roles. Indeed, the Certificate, and all the information contained within it, makes the tasks of designing, installing and managing the operations phase far more straightforward, by providing a rich set of expertly interpreted and curated product information to draw on. Others in the supply chain are not left working from unverified manufacturer’s claims, and raw test date which needs a domain expert to interpret.

Towards a shared understanding of how the industry can use different tools to create safe, high performing buildings

The idea that all parts of the supply chain share a responsibility to create and manage a shared body of knowledge about a building is at the heart of the new Building Safety regime being introduced following the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The industry is being asked to create and maintain a golden thread of information, passed between actors through the asset lifecycle.

If this new regime is to achieve its objective of improving safety, it will be absolutely vital that the industry does not fall into the kind of tick-box mindset that ignores the reality of where there will always be real gaps in knowledge that need to be filled by experienced and skilled people, all carrying out their roles to a high standard as part of a coherent and well managed process.

What must not happen is that Agrément certificates and other artefacts used by the industry for very specific purposes are treated as sufficient to guarantee fitness for purpose regardless of the overall configuration of products in a building and the quality of their installation and maintenance. In these areas the Certificate can provide information to help these different actors carry out their roles to a high standard, but can never replace them.

So how do we avoid this situation? Do we need a concerted effort to create a shared understanding across the sector of the roles and limits of different artefacts, be they UKCA marks, Agrément Certificates or Design Codes.

More broadly, after decades of fragmentation in our industry how or who can create a system in which manufacturers and installers, designers and constructors collaboratively curate and communicate the information about a structure that each actor needs to properly and professionally carry out their work?  BBA is ready and willing to play its part in this task and looks forward to working with partners across the industry to deliver progress.