How Architects Can Design With Confidence: An Overview of Materials Testing

When you choose the materials you’ll use in a building design, you need to know that they have what it takes do their job: structural integrity, resilience, energy efficiency, etc. Knowing what to expect is critical for meeting your client’s expectations as well as for code compliance.

This is where materials testing comes in. Neutral third-party companies like Intertek test, inspect and certify materials to make sure they meet quality and safety standards. Materials testing gives architects and designers confidence that the materials they use will do the job they were designed for.

Materials Testing 101

As important as materials testing is, it’s also complex, with lots of changing variables. There are a few things you need to know to make the best use of test results.

Lab accreditation

Not all materials testing labs are created equal. The National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program (NVLAP), run by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), stipulates the procedures that should be followed by all labs engaged in materials testing. So look for this or another certification before choosing a lab.

Takeaway

When you choose an accredited lab, you can be confident that the lab’s testing is conducted in accordance to industry standards.

Testing variables

Results are test-specific, meaning that changing one or more variables could produce different results.

And that’s “everything from how a [material] is gripped and loaded to how measurements get taken and how test data is acquired and exported,” writes Dr. Eric Schwarzkopf for Quality Magazine.

That means knowing how products are tested and the testing conditions in place. “Although it is difficult to be mindful of every variable at play,” says Dr. Schwarzkopf, “consistency must always be the ultimate objective for your test lab.”

Takeaway

It’s important to understand the conditions under which a material was tested. You’ll want to identify which variables may be different in your design, and find out how those differences could affect the material’s performance.

Code requirements

Testing methodologies are often designed to satisfy specific code requirements. Fire and smoke curtains are a good example. Some designers have questioned the lack of hose stream testing for these products, seeing it as a sign that they wouldn’t perform well.

In reality, it comes down to codes. Hose stream testing is required for products that fall under UL 10C, which regulates the fire resistance of structural elements. The purpose of hose stream testing is to identify materials that may pass fire resistance testing, but are so weakened by the process that they lose structural integrity.

A new category, UL 10D, was established in 2014 to accommodate materials like fire and smoke curtains. While these products playing a critical role in fire control, they aren’t a structural feature of a building. They’re designed to be deployed during a fire emergency to keep smoke from spreading to uninvolved areas. This gives occupants the chance to escape and limits damage in parts of the building, away from the source of the fire.

Because fire and smoke curtains serve no structural purpose, there’s no need for hose stream testing. Other than that, however, the testing is the same as for UL 10C products (temperatures approaching or exceeding 2000F over a two-hour period).

Takeaway

Don’t interpret the lack of certain testing as a negative. It’s important to first understand why the test is performed in other cases and what variables make your particular case different.

Expert Suggestions

Now that you know a little more about materials testing in the design and construction industry, how do you go about putting that knowledge to use when choosing materials? Justin Hendricks, program manager for Intertek, offers some suggestions.

Has the material already been certified?

Justin suggests starting with materials that have already been tested and certified. “I would start with an agency’s directory of listed products,” he explains. “If you have a material or product in mind, check a directory to see if it’s listed. If it’s not listed, there’s probably a very good reason why.”

What about industry changes?

On the other hand, Justin says that it’s important for architects and designers to keep up with the latest in standards and innovation. That’s because codes change frequently, and sometimes it takes a while for downstream providers to catch up. Sometimes a product you’ve used before may no longer meet the minimum requirements.

“We have an education system on our website,” he explains. “And the webinars are free. There are also a lot of free resources, like the IBC. Some you have to pay for, but they’re good guides for checking certifications. Some documents have expanded editions that give commentary on issues that are open to interpretation.”

Justin also stresses the importance of getting to know the experts in your community.  “The other thing I’d recommend,” he explains, “is that if you’re an architect and there’s an expo in your region, attend it. There’s usually some education and networking with certification personnel. Building those relationships goes a long way.”

On making modifications

Just as materials testing is conducted under specific conditions, certifications are valid only when the material is used in accordance with the certification criteria. That’s why Justin cautions against making any modifications on your own:  

“Someone installs a product and, for whatever reason, they make a modification that may or may not violate the certification. What I recommend is, if there’s an issue, contact the certification agency before you make any changes or modifications.”

Driving Innovation Through Testing

Materials testing is a crucial part of the construction industry. Not only does it guarantee a baseline of safety for buildings and their occupants, testing drives innovation. Testing encourages manufacturers, designers and architects to come with better products that can be produced and used more effectively than the products they replace.

In addition, materials that have been properly tested can make the inspection process easier by giving authorities having jurisdiction(AHD) greater confidence that your building meets all relevant codes.

The bottom line is that materials testing can make it easier for all stakeholders to get a good night’s sleep, knowing that their building is as safe as it can be.