The Australian construction industry is still dealing with the fall-out of dodgy building products, and the onus is on builders and trades to ascertain the products they use are fit for purpose. Here is some expert advice on how to ensure you are nailing product specifications.
There are two main difficulties in making sure products and materials will be compliant and conform to Australian Standards, according to Building Products Industry Council Executive Officer Rodger Hills.
The first is knowing what certification a product should have to demonstrate it is fit for purpose; the other is ensuring any certifications are not fraudulent.
Fraudulent product documentation has been an ongoing issue for the industry, he explains. Modern technology that enables high-quality scanning and reproduction of documentation makes it hard to detect.
Hills notes that there is also no legal mechanism that would make companies or suppliers that fake documentation face consequences—Australian consumer protection laws do not cover building products.
The difference between non-conforming or non-compliant
Sometimes, there can be some confusion over the difference between a non-conforming building product (NCBP) and a non-compliant building product.
In an article Hills contributed to in the UK Journal of Building Survey, Appraisal and Valuation, he explained that NCBPs are products and materials that claim to be something they are not; do not meet required standards for their intended use; or are marketed or supplied with the intent to deceive those who use them. An example of NCBPs is the Infinity Cables that are the subject of a nationwide recall.
Non-compliant building products, on the other hand, are those products that are used or installed in situations where they do not comply with the requirements of the National Construction Code. For example, the cladding used on Lacrosse or Neo, which conformed to the relevant standards as a product but did not comply with the flammability requirements in the NCC for high-rise façade applications.
Preventing the use of non-compliant products is the responsibility of builders, trades and project specifiers. They need to understand the details of the NCC and associated standards so that they ensure products and materials meet them.
Avoiding NCBPs, however, requires a more strategic approach, particularly with the increased availability of on-line ordering and supply options, warns Hills.
Be scrupulous about checking credentials
Builders should be wary of product substitution.
“Reject any specification documentation where an ‘or equivalent’ option is noted against a preferred complying product in a specification, yet no details are listed as to what the performance requirements of the equivalent product should be.
“Apart from being careless detailing, this activity opens the door for contractors to use NCBPs intentionally or otherwise since, as far as the project specification is concerned, there are insufficient details to categorically rule out NCBPs,” says Hills.
Where a product substitution is planned, it is vital to check the substitute product does have the appropriate and valid certification and that it will meet all NCC and other applicable regulatory requirements.
How to check product credentials
There are a number of ways Hills suggests product credentials can be verified. In some cases, the manufacturer can be called to check. However, this can be challenging in the case of imported products.
A builder or specifier can ask industry peers about the product. They can inquire whether it has performed as it claims to, or whether they are aware of any reputable third-party testing. Where a product claims in its documentation that laboratory testing has been carried out, checking the credentials of the laboratory is a good move.
The National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) has a directory of accredited facilities that provide product testing and verification. For overseas products, if a laboratory is EU-certified, Hills says it is likely to be trustworthy, due to the EU’s strict oversight of product quality.
Be aware that even where an accredited laboratory has conducted testing, it may not have verified product performance against every applicable part of the relevant Australian Standard or ISO Standard.
Many standards involve several tests. However, not every test may have been carried out, and the product may still claim it meets the standard. Hills notes the cladding on Grenfell, for instance, had only undergone one of the multiple tests required.
Contacting an industry association that represents the class of products can also be valuable. The Australian Glass and Windows Association, Think Brick Australia, and the Engineered Wood Products Association of Australia all require manufacturer members to establish product credentials. They even have directories of verified product manufacturers and suppliers.
Hills says some of the associations also conduct market surveillance to detect any dodgy products.
There are some online resources a builder can consult for details of products that have been independently verified as meeting the relevant standards. They include the Australian Building Codes Board’s CodeMark certification system, the CertMark Product Certification Scheme that verifies products to Australian and New Zealand standards and NATSPEC’s National Construction Products Register.
Focus on high-risk applications
In an ideal world, every product would be verified. Unfortunately, Hills notes, from a time perspective, that is problematic for many builders and specifiers.
“Focus on the high-risk applications and the products used for those,” Hills says. “Even a product like a nail that is not up to standard used in the wrong place can have catastrophic consequences. Whereas if something is just decorative and is not high-risk, it is not so important.
“Ask what the potential is for things to go wrong, how often it might go wrong, and what are the consequences if it does. You have to look at the intent of what is being used.”