The EWI Industry: Time for Reform?
I have previously written about the risks of installing External Wall Insulation without due consideration to the building, the system design and adequate site storage facilities and site management. The article, titled, ‘The Risky Business of Covering Up’ was published in the CIOB’s Construction, Research and Innovation Journal can be found here under the heading ‘published material’…
I have been predicting that we would see a glut of external wall insulation failures for the last three years and I am now seeing strong signs that my prediction is correct and I suspect that even I have not fully grasped the scale of the problem yet. I am currently working on a supplementary article to follow the piece I wrote in the CRI Journal and to that end have a trip to Germany planned to review their EWI system failures.
To my mind the industry is simply not open enough to airing and discussing their failures and in fact has a very strong defence mechanism that kicks in to counter negative web publicity wherever it appears. I have experienced this first hand when I recently blogged that ‘The Defects are Often Built In.’ I was following and photographing a Midlands EWI High-Rise installation purely as an academic piece and was careful to not mention the contractor or the particular scheme. Apparently I was not careful enough because within 24 Hours I received a call from a manager who project manages these schemes for the contractor concerned. He explained that he had received a call from a ‘concerned industry insider’ and that he wanted to discuss my blog. In fact he was incredibly reasonable about the blog and was more concerned about the quality of work seen in my blog pictures. One picture was flagged with a large number of defects and he was in complete agreement that the work was appalling. His prime concern was being proactive in getting the work rectified before premature failure placed his employer at considerable financial risk. We had a very professional discussion and I closed by commending his approach wishing him good luck in getting the work rectified. Twenty four hours later I received a second phone call from the Managing Director directly responsible for the site and the work. His approach was very different, he claimed that the photograph was only good for the time it was taken and that I didn’t know what had happened afterwards. His ‘experts’ were telling him that the work was good and there was a reason that mechanical fixings were not fully installed at the same time. I disagreed and stated that the installation process was clearly detailed in the BBA certificate. He suggested that they had an installation process that had been signed off by their designer but of course if this deviated from the BBA certification process then the BBA certification process would no longer be valid. In essence he claimed that there was a reason that only one mechanical fixing was being installed into a 1200 x 600 insulation panel until the adhesive had dried, after which point they would go back and install the extra fixings required. This was patent nonsense because their approach to installing insulation panels was inconsistent on every high rise block and every elevation of each high rise block. Some panels had zero fixings, some had one, some had two some had three…. You get the picture. If there was a separate site installation process deviating from the BBA certificated process then this in itself is a problem but clearly there can only be one process and inconsistency of approach demonstrates clearly that the process is not being followed or managed. There was a subtle suggestion that coming to site to discuss how things are done might present some ‘opportunities’ for my business whilst continuing to run with my damaging blog might be damaging to my business. I try to be pragmatic wherever possible and compromised on removing the name of the town, changing the photograph to one more palatable and removing the project value so the blog was as anonymous as it could possibly be. I refused the suggestion that I should take down the blog altogether.
What really fascinated me about this conversation is how quickly the EWI industry defence mechanism kicked in. I was told that the web is scanned daily for negative publicity and a concerned party from within the EWI trade association contacted the contractor within 24 hours of my blog going live. I was told that there is a possibility that my blog or website was possibly being specifically monitored due to my previous article on EWI system failures. I’m well aware that this sounds like some fantastic conspiracy theory but its rather more simple than that… EWI is big business and confidence in EWI system installations has to be maintained to keep the gravy train on track. Perhaps the great irony in all this is that I am a huge fan of EWI systems but my view is that they are consistently let down by inadequate design and poor site practice and installation and some reform is needed.
What I don’t want to do is get into criticizing individual contractors but I am seeing more EWI insulation work done poorly than done well and I hold a view that inadequate design and poor site quality control are often the primary causes of failure. My research and writing on EWI failures is purely academic and aimed and at raising awareness with clients of the need to stringently manage site works. Secondly, clients need to understand their ongoing maintenance obligations with regard to protecting the long term guarantees on these systems. A client may have a £1m EWI system installed to a high rise block that he believes is guaranteed for thirty years but if they do not have a regular maintenance regime in place to inspect building joints, particularly around window and door frames, then they will hand their EWI system guarantor a rather large get out clause should the system fail prematurely. In my experience a very small minority of clients set up planned maintenance regimes once these systems are installed and yet the requirement to set up a regular inspection and maintenance regime should be clearly presented to the client at project handover. I have managed millions of pounds worth of EWI installs and not once was this requirement set out or explained to the client. The failure to set up a regular maintenance regime may well prove to be a great get out clause in some isolated cases but my experience is that, more often than not, the defects are built in and as my construction solicitor recently commented, ‘You cannot maintain a defect.’
The Department of Energy and Climate Change insisted that EWI systems came with a 25 year guarantee to facilitate rolling out EWI systems to the mass market and to that end SWIGA provide a guarantee that covers materials and workmanship.
The problem with SWIGA is twofold:
Firstly, SWIGA was essentially set up by the EWI industry and it is not what I would call an independent body. Secondly, if a client does experience EWI system failure that is reported to SWIGA then SWIGA will appoint the system designer or manufacturer to investigate that failure. This is hardly an independent investigation and one that is bound to develop into a circular argument as installers then appoint their own experts to counter the findings in reports generated by designers or manufacturers. I’ve seen this first hand on numerous occasions now and can see an EWI industry heading towards a tangle on internal conflict and dispute until they accept that they cannot self-regulate to the degree that they currently are.
EWI systems will continue to be a potentially great way of dealing with technically obsolete and ‘hard to treat’ properties but the industry is in danger of leaving a legacy of system failures and a subsequent tarnish that will be very difficult to remove unless wholesale changes are made. I would suggest that adequate reform rather than the management of negative publicity is the way to maintain consumer confidence in EWI system installations.