Construction Referees: Evaluation Processes for Alternative Building Products

construction-refereeThere are products used in every building not referenced by the codes or standards.
These products can impact safety, public health and general welfare through their effect on structural strength, stability, fire resistance and other building performance attributes. I-code Section 104.11 (Alternative materials, design, and methods of construction and equipment) provides guidance on how these products are approved for use in the built environment and identifies the Building Official as the decision-maker. This is similar to a referee determining a player’s compliance with the rules.

Building Officials see submittals for a wide variety of alternative building products ranging from the simple to the very complex. The amount of data included in these submittals and their relevance and completeness varies significantly from insufficient and minimal to complete and very thorough. In the absence of publicly developed and majority-approved provisions, the Building Official is tasked to ensure the data provided is appropriate and adequately proves the alternative product meets code intent to protect public safety, no matter the product type or complexity. This is compared to the robust code and standards process in which committees with balanced representation publicly develop and deliberate on provisions in order to protect public safety. The question arises whether the 104.11 requirement implies that a similar robust process be used in the development of test and evaluation requirements for alternative products as is used for the development of code and standard provisions where there is public debate, resolution of negative opinions and a majority approval of the requirements. Requiring a similar code development process for alternative products would seems to make sense. Otherwise, a less rigorous process might be employed by those seeking to avoid a more robust code and standard process so as to achieve quicker and less stringent approval for their alternative products.

public-safetySome may argue that having to use a “code-like” evaluation process for alternative products would add too much of a burden in time and cost, and that it’s not necessary since individual registered design professionals and building officials have enough time, resources and expertise to determine acceptability. But this begs the question of why a similar public majority-approval process should not be required for new products as it is required for code-referenced products. Another question that comes up is ongoing acceptance of an alternative product, as their manufacture may have changed since their approval. Additionally, different jurisdictions have different expertise and resources and this can lead to different standards for approval for alternative products, leading to inconsistency.

Is there a solution which balances providing innovative and cost-effective alternative building product solutions to the industry in a timely manner with providing a thorough product assessment using a process similar to the codes and standards to better ensure consistency and public safety? Accredited building product certification companies, or evaluation service companies, that use a publicly developed and majority-approved acceptance or evaluation criteria and publish an evaluation report with the product’s description, design and installation requirements and limitations provide such a solution. These evaluation service companies are a third-party resource for building officials to assist in their determination of whether an alternative product meets code intent and should be approved for use in their jurisdiction.

The number of evaluation service companies has been increasing. The ICC Evaluation Service and the IAPMO Uniform Evaluation Service, two of the better-known such companies, are both ANSI accredited to ISO/IEC 17065 (Conformity Assessment – Requirements for bodies certifying products, processes, and services) to provide building-code product certifications (ICC-ES, IAPMO UES). However, accreditation by itself mainly verifies a certain process is implemented to ensure consistency and confidentiality. Both companies also have a public acceptance or evaluation criteria process. This process includes an evaluation committee made up of building enforcement officials. These officials evaluate the proposed criteria, listen to expert and industry input and only approve the criteria by a majority vote if products evaluated to those criteria will meet code intent. This is similar to how the codes and standards are developed — a transparent public process and a majority approval of requirements and not just an opinion of one or a couple of individuals.

The alternative building product review process for ICC-ES and IAPMO UES is similar and has the following important components.

  • CRITERIA: The accredited product evaluation service develops an acceptance or evaluation criteria, with the manufacturer’s and public’s input, that is publicly debated, revised and ultimately approved by a majority vote of a committee of building enforcement officials.
  • TESTING: The manufacturer contracts out to an accredited independent third-party test laboratory to either perform or witness the product testing in accordance with the criteria.
  • REVIEW: Registered design professionals with the accredited product evaluation service evaluate the testing and analyses performed and sealed by registered design professionals with the manufacturers or their representatives. The product evaluation service then publishes the evaluation report to their website, and the report typically contains the product description, design and installation requirements andsupervising-supervisorlimitations.
  • CONTINUOUS COMPLIANCE: The manufacturer’s quality system is inspected at least annually by the product evaluation service or an accredited third-party
    inspection agency to ensure that the product currently being manufactured is the same as that which was evaluated.

 

ICC-ES-ESR-2320-UES-AT-XP

While the term “product evaluation” is sometimes used, it is often “product certification” or “product conformity assessment.” ISO/IEC Guide 2:2004 defines “conformity assessment” as “Any activity concerned with determining directly or indirectly that relevant requirements are fulfilled. Some “product certification” companies also provide “product listing” services for when testing and evaluation requirements for the product are already in code-referenced consensus standards, making the development of acceptance criteria unnecessary, thus simplifying the process.

A couple of previous blog posts on evaluation or code reports that you may find informative discuss steps to obtain an evaluation or code report and provide a checklist to determine adequacy of a report.

A mechanism is available to the building industry to provide innovative and cost-effective alternative building products in a timely manner that implements a public and majority product acceptance criteria process, similar to the codes and standards development process. This solution involves the Building Official referencing building product evaluation service reports, based on acceptance criteria, offering a robust evaluation better ensuring that an alternative product meets code intent, thus protecting the public. In fact, several jurisdictions do require evaluation service reports for alternative products.

Should there be an easier path to approval for alternative products than for code-referenced products? What is a reasonable path to product approval? What basis do you use in reviewing evaluation or code reports to determine whether an alternative product is “in or out of -bounds”? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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