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July/August 2010

From the Ground Up

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This illustration shows a sampling of the many ASTM technical committees whose standards are used in building construction.

Thinking Beyond Building Components

Part 2 of 2

ASTM International technical committees have long developed standards for building components, but the future lies in viewing structures as interactive systems.

For decades, an ever-expanding collection of ASTM standards has evolved that has helped to ensure the strength, safety, energy performance, air quality and other attributes of buildings. From the ground up, standards have played an essential role in almost every aspect of commerce associated with the building industry.

As covered in “Buildings Matter,” Part 1 of this article, buildings are responsible for more than 40 percent of overall energy consumption in the United States and are fundamental to our quality of life at home and at work.

Now, unpredictable energy supply, uncertain economic times and increasing concerns over many aspects of building performance are stimulating an ever greater demand for meaningful, reliable standards to support the needs of a changing building industry.

In this article we will look back at some of the building blocks, so to speak, already put in place in the form of ASTM International standards that support the building industry. Then, we will look ahead to an increasing demand for more standards — some in areas not yet addressed by ASTM committees — that will be needed to address the changing landscape of the building industry. We will also consider some challenges to our business-as-usual thinking about standards for the building industry and offering some new ideas on standards development.

Figure 1—Example of a typical path of market transformation in the building industry.

Well-Trod Ground

From the ground on which we build (D18) to the shingles on roofs (D08), ASTM International committees have developed test methods, specifications, guides and other types of standards for almost every product that goes into buildings. (See illustration on previous pages for committee names.) From the concrete (C09), steel (A01) and wood (D07) that we build with to the many parts and pieces that go into buildings, the public has been well served by an array of standards that now fills volumes on the ASTM bookshelf (or CDs, if you are digitally inclined).

ASTM committees have standards for insulation (C16) and gypsum wallboard (C11), copper wiring (B05) and plastic piping (F17), windows and glass (E06 and C14), floor coverings (F06) and paints (D01) and many other product-specific standards for our buildings.

These product standards are complemented by an array of standards related to building use that further help ensure our quality of life. These standards address such diverse topics as air quality (D22), environmental acoustics (E33), water quality (D19), property management (E53), pedestrian safety (F13), occupational health and safety (E34) and even fire extinguishing agents (D26), among others.

Over the years, many ASTM International standards have found their way into building codes like the International Code Council’s International Codes and draft International Green Construction Code (see “Standards Play Leading Role in Green Construction"). These standards help to establish performance expectations for our homes and commercial buildings, from safety to durability to energy efficiency.

Many times ASTM standards are not created as code-intended (meaning “written in normative, mandatory language”). Often, however, the demands of the building industry and marketplace can push and shape the evolution of a given standard (or set of standards), sometimes at a very accelerated pace. An example here may best illustrate this point.

In the mid-1980s the window industry faced quite a challenge. The industry had been responding to the demands of a post-oil embargo marketplace, innovating with an array of then-new low emittance coatings, low conductivity materials, gas fills and other technologies to improve the energy efficiency of their products. Unfortunately, the absence of uniform standards resulted in a marketplace of chaos, with product performance claims that seemed too good to be true.

There also existed a variety of test methods and some new calculation tools that were intended to help provide energy performance ratings that the emerging energy code marketplace could reference and use with confidence.

But despite these valuable tools, specious marketing claims grew and the watchful eye of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission turned to the window industry. Almost overnight, performance claims were thrown out, laboratories closed and the industry faced an immediate need for reliable, comparable and credible energy performance ratings.

At a pace atypical of the building industry, rapid efforts to standardize test methods, evaluation techniques, measurement techniques and calculation procedures began. Soon, standards were in place and within a short time the building industry and consumer marketplace had rating, certification and labeling systems for window energy performance. Building codes could now reference a comparative rating system for determining code compliance. Utilities and others interested in promoting more energy efficient windows could now say what level of beyond-code performance they wanted to promote. Today we benefit from the National Fenestration Rating Council’s energy performance ratings for almost every window and glass product serving residential and commercial construction — all originating from fundamental ASTM International thermal testing standards.

This pattern has occurred numerous times in the building industry, from insulation ratings to how we rate the strength of various building materials. Figure 1 shows this familiar progression. While the actual sequence of events may vary case by case, market transformation in the building industry often begins with ASTM International standards.

To be sure, market transformation in the building industry generally takes time for good reason; people spend their lives in these buildings, and we want them to be safe. As a result, any desire for rapid building industry change is appropriately tempered by the inherent conservatism associated with proof of product performance — again (and typically) starting with standards such as those from ASTM International.

A Challenging Future

While the building industry often focuses on product performance, we know that buildings act as systems — each one a climate-responsive, one-at-a-time collection of different products that sometimes work well together and sometimes do not.

Some ASTM International subcommittees focus on the performance of whole buildings (in Committee E06 in particular) even though no single entity is responsible for the delivery of standards pertaining to whole building performance. We expect walls to meet ASTM standards for walls, windows to meet ASTM standards for windows, fasteners, shingles and foundations to each meet their individual sets of requirements, etc. If a building is in a hurricane region or earthquake zone, we also expect (and the code requires) that the various parts meet or exceed the safety requirements of the code for those zones. And while these individual performance requirements have been sufficient in the past, they are now proving insufficient to meet the building performance demands of today and tomorrow.

Meeting Performance Objectives

As we have come to expect greater levels of whole building performance and have established numerous building rating and labeling programs to market planned performance achievement, we often fail to actually meet those lofty performance objectives.

Consider the challenge of the building industry. A builder must take hundreds, if not thousands, of different building materials, many of which are not even designed to interact, and put them together in such a way as to withstand the forces of nature: sun, wind, rain, hail, snow, ice, earthquakes, tornadoes — even 3-year-olds.

In the scramble for points, awards and the latest superiority label, an absence of standards on whole building performance creates the same conundrum that many building product manufacturers have experienced already: the absence of reliable and consistent performance comparisons. Which whole building label is better than another? What performance attributes are most important? How do we compare building performance in Plymouth, Peoria and Pasadena? What performance do we compare?

This standardization challenge is significantly more difficult to address than establishing single product standards.

As expectations continue to grow for better building performance, history has taught us that we have a serious need for an entirely new array of ASTM International standards, ones that address whole building performance.

Energy Efficiency and Durability

We can easily see what trends will shape the performance expectations of buildings for the foreseeable future.

Concerns ranging from national security to personal comfort have made energy efficiency a high priority once again. Not since the efficiency boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s have we seen such focus on improving the energy efficiency of buildings. This makes sense since buildings are our single largest energy consumption sector (see “Buildings Matter”). Our various local, state and national energy codes have continued to evolve and demand increased energy efficiency. And while there are a few standards for modeling and calculating whole building performance, there are woefully few standards for assessing and ensuring that the energy performance is actually achieved.

Energy efficiency is not the only area where there is a standards void. While there are many ASTM International standards for product performance durability, we have none for whole building performance durability. How long should we expect that new building to withstand the forces of wind, rain and three-year-olds? How long should we expect that energy performance to last? What operations and maintenance activities will have to be in place to help ensure that we will get that expected performance for a long time? What do we need for our building and energy codes to address whole building performance durability?

Sustainability: A Defining Opportunity for ASTM Standards

As important as it is, energy efficiency is just one part of whole building performance. Buildings must provide clean air, clean water, protect the environment, help to manage waste, provide aesthetic pleasure and physical comfort and many other things — for a long time. The average age of residential and commercial buildings in the United States is between 80 and 100 years.

Already the marketplace abounds in a growing array of green marketing programs and labeling systems, each assuring us of some sustainability superlative, but all without the apples-to-apples comparisons that can come from well thought out, widely reviewed and broadly embraced ASTM International standards.

Fortunately, ASTM is well on its way to helping the building industry define and standardize meaningful ratings for the emerging sustainability landscape. Committee E60 on Sustainability was formed in 2008 and has more than 650 people engaged in developing sustainability standards for the building industry as well as in other areas. And while many in the building industry may be reluctant to tackle these sustainability standards issues, almost every sector has been harmed by some form of “green-wash,” wherein sustainability claims were made, but no standards existed with which to verify or refute those claims.

From Silos to Synergy

This new sustainability landscape is promising significant change within the building industry. It could also mean change for business-as-usual among ASTM International technical committees as well.

Product standards at ASTM are typically developed, refined and maintained by material or manufacturing interests. But when we consider whole building performance, where we are assembling many products into a system and expecting performance delivery, who is the “manufacturer”? Architects and designers choose the collection of products that go together in accordance with the plans. Engineers design heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems, as well as the electricity, plumbing and other systems that contribute to the whole building’s performance. Contractors and carpenters, bricklayers and landscapers, lighting designers and maintenance personnel, and many others all play a role in how the whole building will ultimately perform.

Where at ASTM International do all of these different material interests and professionals meet to develop reliable and meaningful standards on whole building performance?

I believe that the sustainability movement has amplified a need we have had at ASTM International for some time: the need for greater cross-fertilization and collaboration between committees. A simple example demonstrates the need.

Committee E06 on Performance of Buildings has developed numerous standards for how glass should perform. There are standards on glass strength, impact resistance and other attributes that are fully embraced by building codes. Now this glass is put into a window and this window goes into a wall made of brick, wood, steel, concrete or other material. That wall is likely a system in itself, comprising structural elements, insulating elements and finishes that might include gypsum or paints, caulks and sealants, and other materials. Then all of these composite walls combine to form a whole building that has a roof with skylights. Then, these walls and roofs (and floors and foundations) are put together…

Well, you get the picture. And the question arises, how often do those working on ASTM International standards related to one area, say, mortar and grouts, work in conjunction with colleagues in other committees working on, for example, glass, window structures or wall units? In our necessary focus on product performance we often forget that all of these things go into a building and that the whole building must meet sustainability, efficiency, durability and other performance objectives.

This simplified example is offered to stimulate some renewed thinking on ways we might better collaborate on whole building performance standards. Sustainability as a market force shows no signs of abating. The building industry is the dominant player in the sustainability arena and needs meaningful standards to protect both the public (from an increasing amount of green-washing, good-for-the-environment claims) and commerce (by creating a fair marketplace with defensible data for reliable comparison).

This type of collaboration will require that we move out of our comfort zone of product-focused standards development and into some uncharted territory of collaboration. For example, ASTM International committees focused on roofing may need to periodically talk to and work with folks focused on foundations or walls. The ASTM committees focused on wall performance may have to talk to the window, insulation and fastener folks. Sustainability will necessarily require collaboration between ASTM committees that may have never worked together before.

There may be several different ways such collaboration might occur. One committee meeting every year or two might be focused on enabling better cross-fertilization between committees. Perhaps we might hold symposia and invite papers on standards and cross-fertilization issues on whole-building performance. I encourage every ASTM International committee that has a product, material or performance interest associated with the building industry to be creative and think about ways we might all work together on these much needed standards addressing whole-building performance and sustainability.

Already the nation’s model code organizations are developing new building codes focused on sustainability. The International Code Council has released for public comment its first draft of the International Green Construction Code. While many ASTM standards are cited in this draft code, wholistic standards for sustainability are missing and needed. Committee E60 is certainly working to address these needs and to fill some of these standards voids. However, it will take the broader community of ASTM International committees that all have a role in whole building performance to make these standards truly meaningful and effective.

Some say that the strength of the economy can be measured by the strength of the building industry. That may be true. But what is certainly true is that we cannot accomplish any sustainability objective without continuing the development of meaningful and reliable standards for the building industry.

Christopher Mathis has been an active ASTM International member since 1985, working on Committees C16 on Thermal Insulation, E06 on Performance of Buildings and E60 on Sustainability. He is president of MC2 Mathis Consulting and an active participant in codes and standards development, having served four terms on the International Energy Conservation Code development committee and on the drafting committee for the International Green Construction Code.