For example, alarm buttons to activate a fire alarm system are across Europe – and the world – always red. Under the CPR, this is not seen as essential criteria and could change now with national solutions, which would lead to building occupants being confused. In one country the button is red and in another could be any other colour. Our expectation in the CPR is to ensure the European wide acceptance of test laboratory results, which in turn supports the movement of construction products across Europe. But now it has taken a different turn since the CJEU judgement. Further, trying to cover a very wide assortment of products from aggregate to electronic systems is proving to have a negative effect on the standardisation of fire detection and alarm products.
The free movement of goods is one of the success stories of the European project. It has helped to build the internal market from which European citizens and businesses are benefiting and which is at the heart of EU policies. It was that same free movement of goods that was behind the introduction of the Construction Products Regulation (CPR) in 2011. With this regulation the EU wanted to establish a common “playing field” for products for the construction industry. To assess or declare the conformity of the products use is made of the so-called harmonised standards.
Harmonised standards are European standards that are developed by a recognised European Standards Organisation, such as CEN CENELEC or ETSI. These standards define the common technical language to be used by manufacturers to express the technical performance of their products, by regulators to express their requirements and by designers, contractors, and other construction stakeholders to efficiently exchange information. The standards provide a solid technical basis for testing the performance of products, allowing manufacturers to prepare a declaration of performance (DoP) for their products as defined in the CPR and to affix the CE mark. The CE marking signifies that a product complies with relevant safety, health, or environmental regulations across the European Economic Area (EEA).
Figure 1: Overview of steps that need to be taken and fulfilled until the CE mark can be applied.
Working with European harmonised standards offers many benefits. First, the technical relevance is guaranteed since the standards are the result of open and transparent discussions by interested stakeholders in the European Standardisation Organisations (ESO). Following these discussions, the standard is adopted by one of the ESOs (CEN, CENELEC, ETSI) which makes the European standard relevant to the market as well. And since the European standard is requested by the EU and cited in the Official Journal of the EU (OJEU) the harmonised standards are also relevant for the EU politics. When using a harmonised standard, it is assumed that the product complies with the basic requirements of the directive. This ‘presumption of conformity’ fulfils the circle that is needed for the free circulation of a product on the EU Single Market.
One size fits all?
Overlooking the construction industry, there is a very wide range of building products that fall under the scope of the CPR, ranging from low tech products like asphalt for road construction to high tech products like fire detection devices for buildings. Most of these products fall into categories that allow manufacturers to self-declare compliance with standards. In case they cannot declare it themselves, there are several third-party testing institutes that can help them. However, fire protection systems and equipment (and to an extent also security products) must be third party assessed and certificated before being “placed on the market”.
So far, it looks as if working with harmonised standards for assessing or declaring product conformity worked well. That changed with the so-called James Elliot case. James Elliot Constructions started a case at the European Court of Justice against Irish Asphalt. The building company claimed that the aggregate that was provided by the asphalt manufacturer was not compliant with the specifications of the relevant harmonised standard for aggregates. The European Court of Justice regarded privately produced technical harmonised standards, as a provision of EU law. In its ruling the Court not only addressed this specific context, but also raised the need to address some specific aspects of the functioning of the European standardisation system.
Aligning the pace of market and standardisation
The James Elliot case triggered the European Commission to set up additional assessment processes by which harmonised standards, once elaborated, can be reviewed in retrospect. This development has brought the review and publication of standards in the Official Journal of the EU (OJEU) to a stillstand. In 2019, not one single standard was cited in the OJEU and there is no hope of a change.
The additional assessment processes for harmonised standards may not be of great importance for low tech products that remain the same for decades, but it is for high tech products, such as fire safety equipment. The rapid technological developments of these, and other high-tech products require up-to-date versions of harmonised standards. What is more, product innovation utilising new technology is an important capability for the fire safety and security industry to improve performance and usability. Most of the fire protection systems and equipment also employ electronics and software that needs to be updated on a regular basis. These aspects demand that related standards and regulations are sufficiently flexible and responsive to encompass such changes. The current CPR practice clearly does not accommodate these needs.
Quite recent, the European Commission evaluated the CPR with the purpose to assess to what extent the CPR has met its objectives and helped reduce obstacles to the internal market for construction products. Among the main shortcomings identified by this evaluation are the insufficient performance and output quality of the standardisation system under the CPR, and the low uptake of simplification provisions. These factors have reportedly resulted in a lack of legal clarity according to the EC.
Euralarm shares with the EC the conclusion that a revision and a simplification of the CPR is needed. However, it is not with the production of technical standards that leads to the insufficient performance and output quality, but the requirements set up by the Commission for the harmonisation of standards under the CPR. From a technical standpoint, all European standards impacting the fire safety sector have been updated but only two revised standards in EN 54 series have been accepted by the European Commission and hence cited.
Notwithstanding the disproportionate standards development cost for the industry, the changes in the CPR have created serious obstacles to export fire safety products outside of Europe and more generally the competitiveness of the European Industry. While our international competitors have been able to update their standards to the latest technological development, the European fire safety industry is unable to compete because the publication of new standards is blocked.
Instead of blocking the publication of new or revised standards the focus should be on the availability of up-to-date versions of harmonised standards with shorter times between reviewing, updating and publishing standards. This will give the fire safety industry as well as many other industries that depend on (advanced) technical products more flexibility when developing standards to ensure safety of the European citizens and preserve its competitiveness in the international market.