Codes, standards and third-party certification are extremely important in modern construction. This cannot be over-emphasized. Material and performance standards have been developed to ensure protection of public health and safety. Third-party certification to these standards provides an invaluable system of quality assurance. The end users can be assured that the products or construction can be relied upon and trusted. Standards and third-party certification have become the backbone of the construction industry.

If you go back in history, prior to the industrial revolution, products were manufactured individually without any standards, testing or certification. Products were made by skilled tradesmen who often belonged to a guild having served as an apprentice under a master of the trade. The manufacturing itself was a traditional handcrafted method of production. This resulted in some great complex products such as delicate watches, telescopes, porcelain ware, printed books, guns and ships such as Spanish galleons and Portuguese carracks.    

There were several drawbacks to the guilds and tradesman method of manufacturing. First, items could not be easily mass-produced. Second, parts often were not interchangeable between similar products, even when manufactured by the same tradesman. Almost all repairs were custom and required the services of a skilled tradesman. Furthermore, the perceived quality of a product was based on the reputation of the craftsmen or company that produced the item. This is why, for example, a Stradivarius violin is more valued to this day over other violins produced during the same time frame.

The industrial revolution ushered in the era of mass production. The ability to mass-produce products created its own set of challenges. Base materials were now purchased in bulk which created issues relating to quality control. The unique knowledge of tradesmen was now diluted. Their ability to make individual assessments of the material being used was no longer possible. For example, a blacksmith making a single plow share could evaluate the iron that he was using. When a factory was molding hundreds of plows a day, the same examination of the raw iron was not possible. As the industrial revolution progressed, other issues arose regarding the standardization of sizes, thickness and other dimensional characteristics of products. Think back to the beginning of railroads — each railroad set its own gauge (width) of the rails. This prevented many railroads from being able to utilize other rail lines. It was not until a common gauge was agreed upon that the rail industry began to flourish. The rail industry also had issues of differences in the quality of material being used to manufacture the rails with failures of rails a common problem.  

During the Civil War in 1862, Robert Briggs wrote the first set of iron pipe standards for 1/2 inch through 4-inch pipe. These were known as the Briggs Standard. It helped the war effort by allowing interchangeability between various pipe mills.

In 1898 a group of engineers and scientists led by Charles Dudley formed what became known as the American Society for Testing Materials which later became the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). The original purpose of ASTM was to develop a standard for the steel used to fabricate rails for the railroad industry. Now known as ASTM International, ASTM develops and publishes consensus technical standards covering approximately 12,575 materials, products, systems and services. The standardization of the materials used to manufacture railroad rails greatly reduced the failure rate. The success of ASTM led to their standards being widely adopted by the construction industry and building codes.

The Briggs Standard of 1862 eventually became an ASTM standard. Today, ASTM A53 uses the sizes and wall thickness originally developed by Briggs.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) was originally founded as a result of efforts to assess insurance companies' fire risks for the 1892 Chicago World’s Fair. In 1903, UL issued its first set of safety standards regarding tin-clad fire doors. UL then expanded to electrical appliances, alarms, lasers and medical devices. Currently, UL tests 22 billion products annually. UL also develops standards that are used by manufacturers to produce many consumer and construction industry products.

Once standards began to be developed, manufacturers could require the provider of raw materials to meet the specific criteria as specified in the standard. Manufacturers could mass produce products to the standards relating to dimensions, testing and even the color of the product. As the model building codes were developed, standards would be incorporated into the codes requiring the manufactures products to meet the adopted standards in order to be installed. While a code could specify what standards a product had to meet in order to comply with the code, it was not reasonable for the inspector or installer to test the products for compliance with the standards. How was an end user such as a plumber to know that the pipe, fittings or faucets being installed conformed to the required standards? The end user cannot individually test each product purchased since the cost would be prohibitively expensive.    

The solution to addressing these serious quality control concerns was the concept of third-party certification. The basic concept of third-party certification is for the manufacturer to rely on an independent testing agency to test their product for compliance with the mandated standard. This independent body would test the product provided by the manufacturer to all of the requirements of the standard. If the product passed all of the requirements of the standard, the third party would issue a report stating that the product complied with the relevant standards and the standard’s requirements.

Finally, in order to be third-party certified, the manufacturer enters into a contractual agreement with the certifier stating it would manufacture its products in the same manner as those supplied for certification testing. Whenever there are any changes to the product, such as modifying  the base material, dimensions or design that varies from what was originally tested and certified, then the product would be considered new. The existing certification would be evaluated with possible new testing required to be recertified. Having this contractual arrangement for third-party certification and compliance with the standard requirements, the manufacturer is given the right to show on the product the third-party certifier’s mark demonstrating compliance. Some of the most common third-party certification bodies are Underwriter Laboratories (UL), Canadian Standards Association (CSA), The American Society of Sanitary Engineers (ASSE), International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO) and the International Code Council (ICC).

End users such as contractors know that when codes are adopted by governmental jurisdictions such as cities, counties and states, they become law. Contractors know that they are required to follow the requirements of the codes just as they are expected to comply with any other law. The third-party certification is proof to the contractor that the manufacturer is following the standard, and that by utilizing the manufacturer’s product, the contractor is in compliance with the applicable code and law.

The system works because of the promise by the manufacturer that it is going the keep its legal and contractual commitment to make all of the subsequent products exactly the same.  If a manufacturer breaks that promise and unilaterally changes a base material, modifies a testing standard or dimension and continues to use the third-party certifier’s mark to market the product, the certification agreement is violated and the trust of the end user is broken. This loss of trust can result in breaking what has become the backbone of the construction industry. The industry becomes a “buyer beware” form of chaos when the contractual obligations of the certification agreement are ignored.  This causes the health and safety of the public to be compromised and subordinated to the financial interest of the manufacturer.  

If a manufacturer violates the contractual obligations with the third-party certifier, its products can be impounded or even recalled This is a part of the continuous surveillance program conducted by the third-party certifier. The end user is assured that the certification mark on the product means that it has been properly tested to the required standard.

The evolution of codes, standards and third-party certification has resulted in states and local jurisdictions adopting the code. Once adopted, the code becomes the law of the land for construction. The code, in turn, references standards that materials, products, and systems must meet. The code also stipulates that to assure compliance with the referenced standard, products and materials must be third-party certified to that standard. Thus, making referenced standards and third-party certification part of the legal requirements for code compliance. Architects, engineers, and contractors must be vigilant in only selecting third-party-certified products to assure compliance with the code. This also guarantees the protection of public health and safety to the end user.