How to Overcome the Challenges of Specifying Products for Code Compliance

Product Specification: An Overview

While your design vision may define the character and function of a building, the quality often comes down to the materials you specify.

Product specification is one of the most important steps in an architectural project. But an AIA survey showed that about 60% of the time, architects know which materials manufacturer they’ll use for their projects from the very beginning. Seven out of ten architects will choose manufacturers they already have a relationship with.

They’ll often make these decisions without doing any further research to make sure the product is really the best option available.

It’s no wonder that this trend exists. Finding suitable building material alternatives is complex and research-intensive. Architects have overloaded schedules, and choosing new products to specify takes time they feel they just don’t have.

But we can’t wait until a product fails to seek out better, compliant alternatives.

When Specifications Fail

Product failures have big consequences. Not only can they ruin the professional reputation of architects and their firms, they can also result in tremendous costs for the firms and their clients.

Even if a product doesn’t outright fail, its poor performance can have consequences too. These often come in the form of higher maintenance and operation costs.

Expert Guidance

It’s clear that specifying high-quality, code-compliant products should be a top priority for architects and specifiers. So what can be done to make the process easier?

Understanding goes a long way. That’s why we sat down with compliance expert Justin Hendricks, a Program Manager at Intertek, one of the nation’s most eminent listing agencies.

Hendricks takes us behind the scenes to learn about the process of testing and listing a building material, and what role that plays in a building project. With his expert insight into achieving code-compliant solutions, you’ll learn how to deal with some of the most common challenges faced when specifying new products.

Navigating How a Product is Listed

Particular building products are required to be “listed” by the building codes. To meet this requirement, manufacturers come to listing agencies, which are accredited by an authority, like the International Accreditation Service (IAS).

It’s the listing agency’s job to inspect building products, test them, certify that they meet code requirements, and list them. Typically, there’s an industry standard for how a type of product is tested and listed, based on code requirements and other statutory guidelines.

“They (i.e. the manufacturer) would come to us. We’d take a look at their product and see how it fits into code requirements, and from there, once we have the appropriate standards identified, we would move into a test-planning phase,” says Hendricks.

Products are tested to whatever standards are set by the code. If testing is successful, the listing agency works on developing a listing for the product. The listing is developed, and the product is certified behind the scenes, as Hendricks explains:

“Our certification team would have already done a factory audit or inspection, where we would go into the manufacturing facilities to see how the product is made. We would document the manufacturing process and things like that for future, ongoing inspections.

The whole certification is meant to ensure that whatever product is tested today, the same product that’s on the market 3, 5, 10 years from now still meets the same requirements that the original tested product met.”

What Listing Agencies are Relevant?

There are many listing agencies in the industry, but not all have the same level of authority. The three most relevant listing agencies in North America are :


Intertek has been in business for more than 130 years, and operates in over 100 countries, serving industries spanning from construction and engineering to chemicals and healthcare.


With offices worldwide, UL was established in 1894, and divides its business between the consumer sector and the commercial & industrial sector.

FM Global

FM Global has operated for nearly 200 years, and is used by more than one third of Fortune 1000 companies.

Materials Testing and Third Party Certification

Materials testing gives us a way to predict how a product performs under certain conditions. It allows manufacturers to confirm that their products are suitable for certain applications, and it gives code authorities a means by which they can judge whether a product meets standards.

For specifiers, knowing what tests a product has passed can help dispel uncertainties about code compliance. The types of tests required for a certain kind of product are dictated by code requirements. Tests can be used to measure various qualities, such as a product’s tensile strength, break load, and fire resistance.  

The way tests are conducted vary widely, depending on their purpose. For example, in the case of fire resistance testing, a product may be installed in a test environment wherein a fire is started, usually by the same means that common accidental fires are. This gives the testers a chance to see how that product can be expected to perform in real-world fire scenarios.

How Do You Know Which Tests are Applicable for a Certain Product?

A product’s manufacturer may tout that it’s passed a few specific tests, but architects need to know whether they’re the right tests for code compliance.

Issues of the ICC-ES Acceptance Criteria are very useful in this respect. They contain the technical guidelines and testing protocols required to verify a product’s compliance with the applicable codes’ performance stipulations.

The IBC contains a chapter in which it lists all the standards it refers to in the code. These standards are set by a variety of industry organizations, usually dedicated to one type or group of materials. For example, there are standards set by the American Concrete Institute (ACI), and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). You can usually find what standards (and thus tests) apply to which types of materials by referring to this list.

In some cases, manufacturers have a department that specializes in providing assistance to architects and answering questions about code compliance. If you’re uncertain about whether or not the product has undergone all necessary tests, try turning to the manufacturer for help. They’ll often do their best to clear things up so that you can safely specify their product.

Why Should a Third-Party Certification Matter to an Architect?

As Hendricks puts it, third-party certification gives assurance to both architects and end users that somebody is keeping an eye on the product’s performance and code compliance.

When you see that a product has obtained third-party certification, you can rest easy knowing that there’s ongoing surveillance of the product and its manufacturing. An objective party is ensuring that it still meets whatever standards it was originally tested for. This relieves a lot of the uncertainty that can surround specifications.

Challenges in the Process

In our talk with Hendricks, he described some common challenges that architects run into when they’re trying to specify products for their projects. We lay out these challenges and offer up some solutions below.  

How to Check if Your Desired Product Meets Code

Often, an architect may not know how to proceed when they’re uncertain about a product’s code compliance. What’s the best way to go about determining a product’s standing?

Listing agencies are always a great source of help for manufacturers and specifiers alike. If manufacturers are unsure of code requirements for a certain product, they can bring it to an agency and task them with the investigative work. Architects can also turn to listing agencies when they need to suss out whether or not a product meets code.  

In some cases, applicable codes don’t exist for especially new and inventive products. When this happens, Hendricks recommends approaching the code authorities:

“You know there’s a product on the market that’s innovative and doesn’t really fit the mold of anything yet, and there’s nothing in the codes to define it. At that point, it would be beneficial to engage some of the standards committees or probe committees and try to have something developed to get guidelines in place. That’s kind of what happened with fire curtains.

Modifications and Customizations

What if you need to modify or customize the product in some way? There may not be applicable codes for unconventional use of a particular product type.

Hendricks recommends first contacting the product’s listing agency, who can help assess and make suggestions. In Hendricks’ experience, it’s often the manufacturers who check up on whether an architect’s planned usage meets code:

“So an architect specifies some kind of configuration for the field, and the manufacturer comes back to us and says, ‘Hey, can we do this type of configuration?’ At that point, it’s trying to work with the manufacturer to design a plan of attack for what the architect is expecting.”

Ultimately, you’ll need to prove to the local code authorities that the modification meets code equivalency. In some cases, architects may be able to get it approved easily by writing an engineering judgement or evaluation. If the local code official is rigorous, they may require that additional testing is done.

When Your Favorite Product No Longer Meets Code

After specifying the same product for countless projects, there may come a day when your go-to product no longer meets code. Something may have changed with the product itself, but in other cases, it’s most likely that the applicable code was simply updated to a new standard that the product doesn’t fit.

Unfortunately, when this happens, you don’t have much choice but to find a replacement. So how can you avoid this happening in the future if codes are constantly evolving?

The best approach is to keep informed. Stay on top of code cycles and standard revisions. Even if you’re not a member of a standards committee, you should still be able to stay abreast of what changes are in the works. This can give you time to find compliant alternatives if you learn that one of your go-to products will soon become invalid.

Designing for the Future: Professional Resources

Ideally, your approach to specification should be one of staying at least one step ahead of code. By becoming more knowledgeable about the building code and where it’s heading, you can ensure that your buildings not only meet the standards of today, but will also remain compliant for years to come.

Hendricks recommends a number of resources that prove invaluable for keeping track of code developments. The National Federal Development Association (NFDA) provides an informative magazine and newsletters for its members. The International Code Council (ICC) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) are also on his list of top information sources.

Sign up for their mailing lists to get news about when code cycles are coming, when hearings are being held, when technical groups and committees meet, and other useful updates. Hendricks also recommends looking into organizations that are specifically related to your industry and niche.

We here at Smoke Guard hope that this guide helps you approach product specifications with greater ease and confidence. Armed with these strategies and insights, you’ll be better able to tackle code issues and keep your projects compliant.

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