Avoiding Failure: Product Data Post Grenfell 7099

Avoiding Failure: Product Data Post Grenfell


What is happening to post-Grenfell regulation and what construction product manufacturers should consider

The Plain Language Guide project began four years ago with an attempt to look at the journey of product data through the construction and built environment ecosystem, with the Product Data Working Group set up by the UK BIM Alliance. That project reported in 2018 and you can read the report here.

From the beginning this work on Product Data, both the working group report and the Plain Language Guide, was inspired by the need to address the challenges raised by the Grenfell tragedy, that has shocked so many of us and challenged us to think again about how our industry works.

We’ve left writing specifically about Grenfell quite late in the series because we wanted to set out some principles first. Meanwhile, the legislative landscape is beginning to emerge, alongside the testimony of Phase 2 of the Grenfell Inquiry.

Today we’re writing about some of the legislative and government sponsored work that is happening post Grenfell, from the point of view of manufacturers product information. Will the new regime that is currently emerging in the Building Safety Bill and other initiatives do what is necessary? What can a focus on manufacturers product data contribute? How could structured product data help? We’re starting from the premise that the vast majority of construction professionals have integrity, because they do.

Let’s begin with a story.
  • A Building Control Officer signs off a building based on reference to approved drawings. They didn’t know that the product was different and had no way of telling that there had been an incorrect specification or a substitution. The officer’s actions are not unreasonable.
  • The Installer of the construction installed it according to the approved drawings, but they installed a different product. They’d relied on the distributor to supply what was suitable. The installers actions are also not unreasonable.
  • The Distributor supplied an alternative product, but they had checked its suitability against the contractor’s order and believed it to be a suitable substitution based on the products’ declared conformance. This makes sense too.
  • The Contractor tendered for the project and chose materials based on his previous experience, conversations with the product’s sales team and distributor prices at the time. They necessarily rely on the expertise of others.
  • The Salesperson offered their product alternatives based on information about design and performance requirements. As far as they were aware, all the products they offered were suitable. Their actions are not unreasonable.
  • The Architect used the manufacturer’s website to choose a suitable product and obtained approval for the design based on test certificates and the Building Regulations. Which is a reasonable approach.
  • The Manufacturer’s Marketer obtained the test certificate and placed it on the manufacturer website. But they weren't to know that the test certificate was out of date, fraudulent or obtained by deception.
All of the actors in this story were competent in their own specialism and behaved with integrity. Yet they all contributed to a fire.

In order to avoid tragedies like Grenfell, manufacturers, like other actors in the construction supply chain, need four things.
  1. Integrity
  2. Information
  3. Competence and
  4. Regulation.
New legislation and government supported initiatives since the Grenfell tragedy are emerging which seek to change the story and prevent failures.     

1. Integrity

All the actors in our story have integrity, and integrity is essential for the safe operation of construction. How can it be ensured?

The Construction Products Association (CPA) Marketing Integrity Group set up by Working Group 12 (Products) of the “Steering Group on Competencies for Building a Safer Future” is developing an industry code of conduct ‘to ensure the accurate provision and use of manufacturer product information.’ The Code is known as the Code of Conduct for Construction Product Information (CCPI).

A final draft of the Code was presented to a public audience in October 2020. You can see the presentation here. The code will be sent for technical review and should be published early in 2021.

The Code will be administered by an independent body. Manufacturers will be invited to sign up to the Code which will require them to declare that all the information they provide about a product will be accurate, accessible, up to date, clear and unambiguous. The CPA argues that this will ensure that users of the information at whatever stage, can rely upon it when making key decisions.

There will be a fee for subscribing to the Code, which will initially be voluntary. Manufacturers will subject themselves to a regular audit process (yet to be confirmed) and will appear on a register with a logo/badge which they can use to promote their use of the Code.     

Marketing requires underlying facts

What is marketing? It is the creation of the language, messaging, visuals and tone of voice that attracts an audience, producing leads or enquiries which are converted into sales. In order to create marketing materials, marketers (in house or agency side) rely on an underlying factual basis supplied to them by technical members of a product company, and an understanding of the audience needs supplied to them by the sales representatives and market research.

When you want reassurance that what you are using is safe, you don’t pick up the phone. You don’t even ask someone to email you a pdf. You need facts and figures; you need proof. You will look at performance, compatibility and compliance. That means looking at properties, attributes and figures, not marketing messages.

Each marketing claim should include evidence of performance capability. If a product claims to be waterproof, one would expect some sort of ongoing testing to assure specifiers and purchasers that the product really is waterproof. If no such testing were being done, one would want to know why, and how the manufacturer can otherwise assure that the product is waterproof, and what it means.

A specifier might not have time to check your marketing claims, so they may take the marketing claim as factual. However, if you provide evidence, they can check if they need to. This is particularly important with product substitution where the specifier is looking for evidence that an alternative product will be suitable.

Context is also important. An office chair may have a load rating according to BS 5459-2:2000+A2:2008, but this doesn’t mean that it will resist such a force if it is dynamic – for example when someone stands on the chair to reach a book.

Marketing claims may go above and beyond, but one needs an evidence base.

Underlying all marketing messages are facts –
  • Dimensional evidence,
  • evidence of compliance, compatibility, and conformance,
  • certification and approvals for use

Will manufacturers sign up to this Code of Conduct? Probably. Will it prevent misrepresentation of factual information about products? Perhaps. Will it prevent a tragedy such as Grenfell from occurring again? It is difficult to say.

Manufacturer’s marketers, whether in house or outsourced, rely on the information and expertise of others both within and outside the organisation. Self-certified or mandatory, a badge will not tell a third party whether there has been a fraud, misrepresentation or error.        

2. Information

Information about construction products needs to be clear, reliable and unambiguous. It also needs to be simple.

Badges provide simplicity but must be Trustworthy

Simplicity is one of the reasons that the construction industry is the home of many badges.
  • Badges of professional qualification, such as RIBA or MCIOB;
  • Badges of performance achievement, such as BREEAM or NHBC; 
  • Badges of conformance, such as a CE mark, UKCA mark or a test certificate stating a product has passed a test to a British Standard.
All of these badges help busy construction professionals, and their clients make increasingly complicated decisions more quickly and safely. They help people without the technical expertise know what to ask for. However, they are only as good as the testing system upon which they rely. That testing system has to be robust, transparent and trusted.

The Testing regime must be Transparent

Behind the production of many of the facts which underly construction product marketing are tests. The Hackitt Review (Building a Safer Future – page 3) criticized the entire product testing, labelling and marketing regime as being opaque and insufficient.

The government response to Hackitt in April 2020 (page 31) set out that there would be a National Product Regulator and a Construction Products Standard Committee to advise the Secretary of State for Housing on industry standards for construction products and whether they should become UK regulatory standards.

This November 2020, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee (HCLG) recommended in their latest report that the Draft Building Safety Bill (clause 110 and Schedule 8) that:
  • government should publish details of the planned new product testing regime;
  • products should be treated as part of systems (they aren’t in Schedule 8);
  • government should review the capacity of current testing arrangements and provide sufficient funding;
  • there should be an independent and unified system of third-party certification to introduce greater transparency and rigour into the regulation of construction products, and
  • that all test results (including failures) should be made public.

These recommendations, if implemented, would enable the testing regime to be robust and reliable again, but more importantly would enable it to be transparent.

Only by ensuring transparency can the testing regime return to its position as a benchmark that users can rely on. Manufacturers can again be assured that their competitors are operating on a level playing field and they cannot, and need not, game the system to survive commercially.  

A Golden Thread must be Digital

One of the key duties of the Duty Holders or Accountable Person as set out in the Draft Building Safety Bill published in July 2020, will be to ensure that a ‘golden thread’ of building information is created, stored and updated through the Gateway process and through the building’s lifecycle.

This ‘golden thread’ is in essence a set of prescribed documents and information, held in digital form, which will ensure that the right people have the right information at the right time to ensure that buildings are safe and building risks are managed throughout the lifecycle of the building.

What form this digital information must take is not yet clear. The Hackitt review recommended that “BIM” should be phased in as the means to achieve a golden thread, and the government’s economic assessment of the benefits and costs of its response to Hackitt frequently mentions “Level 1 BIM” and “COBie”.

However, it is data, not BIM, that is integral to the safety of buildings and the operation of a golden thread of building safety information. The key to an effective golden thread is data that is structured, secure, verifiable and interoperable so that it can survive the process and be accessed with confidence.
  • Secure – only available to those who are authorised to view it yet available in an emergency
  • Verified – guaranteed to be accurate by being traced back to the source
  • Interoperable – able to be transferred accurately between software platforms - such as those used by different actors in the supply chain.

At the core of Building a Safer Future’s recommendations for products is “A clearer, more transparent and more effective specification and testing regime of construction products” (recommendation 7.1). Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service recognised the importance of accessible test data in their response to Building a Safer Future with regard to Modern Methods of Construction, but they also argued that an ‘inventory list approach…should not be restricted in scope, but form part of the wider reform of the Building Control system.” Information about a building needs to be securely and urgently accessed by fire and rescue authorities.

By creating a secure, verified and interoperable golden thread of information, construction professionals can ensure that the information they are using is correct and reliable and protect themselves from unreliable information. There should be a single record which provides a secure lifetime history of the products concerned.    

3. Competence

The key role of the Steering Group on Competencies is to look at the competency elements of the Hackitt Report. They have produced two reports: Raising the Bar in August 2019, and Setting the Bar in October 2020.

You can see the scope of Working Group 12 (Products) on competencies here (Annexe B). Its progress on competencies to October 2020 is reported on pages 41-44 of Setting the Bar.

In essence, Working Group 12 has developed a competency matrix on products for actors the entire industry, setting out the minimum level of product understanding required to interact with construction products. The current version is on page 198 onwards of this appendix to Raising the Bar, but WG12 has stated that it intends to publish a new version in Q4 2020.

Competency is a complex metric and measuring it can be difficult. In any case, it is not a silver bullet. Where there is no integrity, it doesn’t matter how competent you are. And where there is no clear, guaranteed unadulterated information to work with, it doesn’t matter how competent you are.

Nevertheless, manufacturers should monitor this emerging requirement for competency. How will it be met; how will it be enforced, and will it be effective?    

4. Regulation

At the core of the Building Safety Bill is the Building Safety Regulator. The Regulator is expected to be established within the HSE and will oversee a rigorous new regulatory regime for the design, construction and occupation of higher-risk buildings. Dame Judith was named government advisor on the new Building Safety Regulator in October 2019.

It is worth noting that the scope of ‘higher-risk buildings’ may change. Explanatory notes on the Bill leave the definition open, and whilst Hackitt looked particularly at higher risk residential buildings and the current definition is above 18m or 6 storeys and containing two or more dwellings, the way is open for a much wider definition of the term in future.

The Regulator has three main functions:
  1. To oversee the safety and standard of all buildings,
  2. To directly assure the safety of higher-risk buildings; and
  3. To improve the competence of people responsible for managing and overseeing building work.
The Regulator will have teeth, too. There are powers within the Bill to create new civil penalties and criminal offenses for breaching the regulations, the regime will have enforcement powers and Trading Standards’ enforcement powers will also be extended.

A robust regulatory system is the final part of an effective system of control of safety in buildings. However, it will only be effective if it also relies upon
  • Clear, unambiguous information, and
  • The ability of professionals to implement its requirements.

Structured and Interoperable Data is the Missing Link

A system of structured, interoperable product data, as outlined in these articles, would enable information to be unambiguous and freely available to all the required actors securely, and it would enable professionals to act upon it.

We could then rely on the integrity and transparency of a digital historical record -
  • about the product
  • about its test results
  • about certified conformity
  • about its installation
  • about its use in an asset.

With a structured data system, if there was no integrity there would still be an audit trail and therefore a record of the failure or the date a specification changed and who approved it.
  1. Tests are carried out
  2. All test results are published securely and are uneditable
  3. All marketing material which makes claims links back to tests
  4. Products can contain identifiers which also link back to test history.

Let’s revisit the story in that context:
  • The Manufacturer’s Marketer includes in their website secure links to the test records and DOPs for their products, evidencing conformance. These are held on a secure, independent third-party website. All the product marketing material, whatever it says, links to this source for evidence. The manufacturer’s website also provides secure information about compatibility, obsolescence and suitable alternatives and other information that relates to performance.
  • The Architect chooses a suitable product and obtains approval, checking against and referencing the independent source in their details.
  • The Salesperson wants to change the specification because they have a cheaper alternative. This can be done provided the architect, manufacturer and building control approve and amend the design, which is recorded.
  • The Contractor tenders for the project as before but knows that their competitors won’t be substituting products without an approved design change. This prevents undercutting by unsafe or inappropriate substitution.
  • The Distributor can check the product meets the specification and can offer alternatives but again, only with transparent approval back through the chain.
  • The Installer can be confident that the correct products have been supplied, can check against the secure record if concerned. They install them according to the manufacturer’s up to date instructions, also held securely online. They make a record of the installation on the project log before covering up.
  • The Building Control Officer signs off the building as before, but this time the products are all correct and they can check that they are.

All of the actors in this second version are still behaving with integrity and competence. Essentially, they have carried out the same procedure, but this time the outcome is completely different.   

Data Control is Possible

You may feel that the scenario is too difficult to implement, but it has been done successfully in many other industries such as children’s toys, food, automotive and logistics.

We have already outlined one example of a secure digitised thread of information in the logistics sector in article 3: Comparing Construction Products: Dispelling the Myths. In the logistics industry, TradeLens provides an instant record of what is in a shipping container throughout its journey, protected by a permissioning model encrypted by Blockchain.

A similar technology has been used to track responsible sourcing of minerals for the car industry, including Cobalt and Lithium. The initiative is known as the Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Network.

Meanwhile, in the Health and Safety Field, a platform called Prin-D uses Distributed Ledger Technology to keep an audit trail of responsibilities and actions under the CDM Regs.     

What Manufacturers Can Do

As the Grenfell Inquiry Phase 2 continues, more information will emerge about what went wrong in that instance. However, we already know that accurate, secure and reliable information played a major part.

The solution to the problems that led to Grenfell and other fires and building failures will require a combination of elements, but structured, secure, verified and interoperable product data will play a major part.

Manufacturers should expect their trade associations to
  • Lobby for a transparent, properly funded, genuinely independent test regime to be incorporated into the legislation and implemented.
  • Lobby for all test results, including failures, to be published in a secure third-party platform accessible to all. This will protect not only the public and our colleagues but all honest professionals.
  • Lobby for a golden thread solution that is based upon structured data; provided about products and throughout the supply chain.
  • Manufacturers should structure their product data as set out in our last article, so as to be prepared for the changes to come.

Share Your Views

We are sharing a number of articles investigating how construction product manufacturers can solve the problem of product data management. This is part of the process for developing a Plain Language Guide to Product Data, written specifically for the CEOs of manufacturing companies. If you’d like to know more about this project, please subscribe to this blog using the link below and we’ll notify you as new items are published.

In the meantime, we want to encourage as much debate about the challenges as possible.
  1. Please comment below with your views and share this article with the #ManufacturersPLG hashtag.
  2. ou can also join the conversation on the 'ask the community' IET forum channel: Plain Language Guide to Product Data for Manufacturers
  3. We’re also hosting an Open Zoom Call next Friday to discuss this article. If you’d like to join us, please Register to join us on Friday 11 December at 11am-12 noon GMT. The Zoom Call will be recorded and made available afterwards.

We look forward to hearing your views.


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