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The CASA Act

The Importance of Standards to a Safe Future for Latin America

by Stephen Forneris

In October of last year U.S. President George W. Bush signed House Bill 1646 into law. Included in this law was a small provision titled “Program to Improve Building Construction and Practices in Latin American Countries.” For ease in communication, many refer to this as the CASA Act (Codes and Safety for the Americas Act). CASA was the name originally placed on the bill when Senator Christopher Dodd first proposed the legislation in July 2001.

The intent of the bill was made quite clear from Senator Dodd’s statement printed in the National Congressional Record: “Mr. President, I rise today to introduce legislation that will improve building safety in Latin America, increase the cost-effectiveness of our disaster relief assistance and most importantly save lives.”(1) Dodd was joined by Senators Joseph Lieberman and Jeff Sessions and Congresswoman Rosa Delauro in the House of Representatives.

To achieve the intent of the CASA Act, Dodd proposed that the president “provide funding … to train architects and contractors in El Salvador and Ecuador in the proper use of the code [U.S. building codes and standards]. By educating builders and providing them the necessary codes for their work in their own language it is only a matter of time before we will begin to see safer buildings in the region, and a return on our investment.”(1) ASTM International, being one of the codes and standards organizations named in the CASA Act, has a chance to play a key role in this initiative, as well as in the community at large in Latin America.

Education Is Necessary

To better understand the need for increased involvement of ASTM in Latin America, let’s take a look at an advertising promotion recently undertaken by a cement manufacturer in Latin America. For some time now this company, similar to many in the region, has been using ASTM as a benchmark for quality, yet they seem to poorly understand the mission of ASTM and standards in general.

The advertisement in question claims that the company’s cement exceeds ASTM standards by 25 percent; therefore you can use 15 percent less cement to complete your project. This statement shows a clear misunderstanding of the purpose of standards, and establishes a dangerous precedent for the use of essential building products.

Many questions arise from the wording of this advertisement. First, which ASTM standard are they addressing? (Certainly, the product cannot exceed all ASTM standards.) Secondly, we know a standard is either achieved or not achieved. It is not a commodity that can be banked, bargained and later sold back. How was it determined that the product exceeds an ASTM standard by 25 percent, and why can we therefore reduce the amount of product used by 15 percent? Does this mean that if another manufacturer markets a cement that achieves only 75 percent of an ASTM standard, we need more product to achieve the ASTM standard? As we can clearly see, there is a basic lack of understanding, in Latin American companies such as this, of what a standard is and how it is used.

Providing Solutions

The intent of the CASA Act is to provide for the education of building professionals on what codes and standards are, how they are established, and under what conditions they can safely be applied. There are a number of very basic tests and standards that need to be understood in construction before one can begin to realize a well-built project. As a simple example, consider the following: a contractor can use ready-mixed concrete that was manufactured in accordance with ASTM C 94, Specification for Ready-Mixed Concrete. Once on site, this concrete needs to be tested and samples cured in accordance to ASTM C 31, Practice for Making and Curing Concrete Test Specimens in the Field, to assure that the concrete achieves the correct design strength. Finally, the contractor can apply a cement plaster to the brick that uses sand manufactured in accordance to ASTM C 35, Specification for Inorganic Aggregates for Use in Gypsum Plaster.

While there are dozens of other standards and specifications that will be very useful in Latin America, the proper use of just these three would have a powerful impact on the safety of the citizens of these countries in future disasters. The proper use of C 94 would establish a standard for the Latin American manufacturing industry. The understanding of the importance of this standard would perhaps even inspire more independent testing facilities that would assure the consumer that all manufacturers are on a level playing field.

ASTM C 31 addresses the curing of samples before they are tested. Using samples of concrete provides the most effective method to test concrete strength. These samples must be properly cured to adequately measure strength. The curing of concrete is an enormous problem in Latin America and is the single largest problem we face in promoting safe construction practices. Concrete needs to cure (that is, set up or strengthen) in a moist environment over a specified period of time. Concrete that is left in the sun and not kept properly moist will not achieve its full design strength. In fact, left unattended as it is in most projects in Latin America, concrete will only reach 50 to 60 percent of its ultimate design strength. Think of the consequences of this in earthquake-prone areas such as Ecuador and El Salvador.

Standard C 35 can help assure the quality of the sand used in cement plaster applied to the walls and ceilings of buildings in Latin America. Cement plaster falling is a critical concern if you consider it is generally applied three to four centimetres thick (far more than acceptable U.S. building codes and standards, which specify 1.5 cm). And a leading cause of plaster failure and millions of dollars in needless repairs in Latin American construction is the use of improper sand in cement plaster.

Real Benefits

Perhaps it is hard for anyone not living in an environment like that of Latin America to understand the stabilizing force that codes and product standards can have in a community. Consumer confidence is critically linked to independently tested standards. A nation without a well-understood and controlled system of codes and standards becomes an “anything goes” environment, where everyone feels endlessly deceived.

Deceptive advertising is used every day in the Latin American marketplace. An example of this occurred in 1998 that directly endangered public safety on a massive scale. A large Ecuadoran steel distributor proudly advertised that it sold an ASTM-certified “anti-seismic” steel reinforcing bar. Apart from the fact that this is an engineering impossibility, ASTM has no such test or standard to establish this claim. The manufacturer claimed that this new bar had greater ductility than others in the market and would eliminate the damage that can occur in earthquakes. You can only imagine what happened to their sales in an earthquake-prone nation. Despite the fact that no anti-seismic steel exists, the manufacturer continued to make this erroneous claim for some time. Thankfully, the promotion was eventually shelved and other appropriate features of their product were promoted. However, the damage was done.

There is a great deal that needs to be done in Latin America to properly utilize codes and standards. The CASA Act is a good beginning. What is important for ASTM and other organizations named in the CASA Act to keep in mind is the essence of Senators Dodd’s last statement, that the return on investment will only be noticed after time, and in lives saved and buildings preserved in earthquakes. The CASA Act strives to reduce the devastation created in natural disasters through the education of professionals in the construction marketplace. The straightforward message of this education is: Use a proven material in a proper method of construction and a building should perform in a predictable manner in a disaster. ASTM will play an important role in helping to establish benchmarks and education for the manufacturing and application of construction products.

Perhaps in the future when products manufactured in Latin American countries do meet ASTM and other standards they can begin to export them to the United States, providing an expansion for the economies of these poor nations. The CASA Act means a great deal to organizations like ASTM, but even more to the people of Ecuador and El Salvador. //


(1) Congressional Record, Proceedings and Debates of the 107th Congress, First session, Vol. 147, No. 101, Thursday, July 19, 2001.

Copyright 2003, ASTM

Stephen Forneris, AIA, NCARB, is an architect in New York City and Ecuador where he holds a license practice. In addition to designing structures, Forneris worked as a contractor in Ecuador for a number of years. Forneris worked with Senator Christopher Dodd to introduce the CASA Act to the U.S. Congress to improve education and disaster mitigation in Latin America.