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Standard(s) Stuff

ASTM and the Wall and Ceiling Contractor

Whether you’re a wall and ceiling professional who earns a living in manufacturing, sales or contracting, a portion of your workday is likely devoted to the reading and interpretation of specifications. If you find yourself in the latter two fields—sales and contracting—these specifications most often find their way into your life via bound manuals that often accompany full sets of architectural/engineering working drawings and make up common bid or commercial construction design packages. If your specialty is manufacturing, you may even be the one creating the specifications.
    

Regardless of how you got there, you’ve also likely noticed a number of acronyms that tend to pop up over and over again in the text—especially in the “acceptable requirements” or “basis of design” sections of a  particular product or application set forth for the project. Common acronymical candidates include UL (Underwriters Laboratory), ANSI (American National Standards Institute),  ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers), USGBC (United States Green Building Council) and many more depending on the type, size and complexity of the project.
    
There is another acronym you’ve almost certainly come across: ASTM. ASTM stands for the American Society for Testing and Materials, an organization founded in 1898 by Charles B. Dudley (among others) who at the time was a chemist with the Pennsylvania Railroad—which may explain why ASTM’s world headquarters would someday be located in West Conshohocken, Pa. Today, this organization is recognized around the globe as the go-to source for building construction and manufacturing consensus standards. With over 12,000 published standards developed by more than 30,000 of the world’s top business/technical authorities in 140 countries, ASTM provides an unprecedented wealth of specification, classification, application and manufacturing knowledge that governs the vast majority of building and manufacturing happening today.

ASTM: Why?

To understand the motive force behind the need for an organization like ASTM, one must go back to the U.S. industrial revolution of the early and mid-1800s. Locomotive builders and rail producers were ramping up production levels, and the speed and sophistication of the process was reaching a point where companies could no longer rely (as they had done in the past) on the experience of older, key members to dictate levels of quality and practice. It was just too much. In addition, end users (again, particularly railroads) were encountering more and more instances of suppliers furnishing inferior materials or not backing bad products after the fact.
    
To combat these events, some manufacturers began issuing proprietary, detailed descriptions of ordered materials to ensure their expectations were met. The U.S. government even began asking steel makers to regularly sample and test batches of steel to judge tensile strength, elasticity, etc., during normal operations, essentially spawning a new era of true standards and practices in U.S. manufacturing. But as one might expect, some suppliers and manufacturers were less than enthusiastic over this new system. They pushed back against these new practices, complaining that the strictness of the specifications and cost of testing was unfair to their companies. Some also felt the new requirements would allow customers to too easily reject or decline products they deemed “unfit.”
    
This is where Charles Dudley came in. An executive for Pennsylvania Railroad at the time, Dudley redirected the company’s chemistry department to analyze and qualify the technical properties of oil, paint, steel and other materials employed by the railroad. Based on his findings, Dudley then began to compile and distribute standard material specifications for the company’s suppliers.
    
By 1878 (and having benefitted from the elevated data generated by the frenzied manufacturing activity brought on by the Civil War), he published one of the first formal specifications, “The Chemical Composition and Physical Properties of Steel Rails.” It was anything but a best-seller. The paper proved less than welcome to steel producers supplying rails and steel to the railroad, and many firms ramped up their claims that this new genre of specification would prove unnecessarily expensive and counter-productive to the steel producers. Push-back escalated. Some manufacturers even flatly rejected the specification, telling the railroads and Dudley that they could have the rails as they were already being made—or they could have nothing at all.

But the need for standardization and specification-purity remained a sound and justified cause, so it wasn’t long before it became grudgingly apparent to both sides that the only way to truly resolve the issue was by getting opposing parties together for an inclusive, constructive and mutually beneficial dialogue between the players. In short, it was time for both sides to learn from one another.

Of course, it wasn’t easy. There were bumps and detours in the road, but by 1898 and after more than a decade of give, take, compromise and many soured relationships, 70 members made up of all sides met in Philadelphia to form the American Section of the International Association for Testing Materials—later to become the ASTM in 1901. The die was cast and product standards were here to stay.

ASTM Is Us

One unique aspect of ASTM (and likely a reason it’s been so successful) is that the members create the data. Working in open and transparent environments, which today may include the use of ASTM’s sophisticated IT infrastructure, member organizations, manufacturers and committees work in partnership to develop and agree upon minimum levels of standards, guides and practices for similar-realm products in order to assure sincere and genuine benchmarks of fair trade and honest commerce.

Not that the standards are set in stone. Far from it. With notable foresight, early founders of ASTM acknowledged openly “it is thoroughly appreciated that in the rapid advances made in the process of manufacture, and the increased demands made by the engineers in their specifications, that no standard specification can be in force for a long time. It will of necessity have to be modified from time to time.”

ASTM and the Wall and Ceiling Contractor

And so, it has been. Version after version of the standard has been updated, created and adopted over many years (including two world wars and the electronic age), and as we look to the future and begin to contemplate never-before-dreamt-of technologies like machine-learning/AI, nanotechnology and autonomous vehicles, ASTM will continue to grow, adapt and mature to ensure the standards and practices in all industry remain up to par.

But after all this, you might still be wondering what all of this has to do with you, the wall and ceiling professional. Well, fear not, for with virtually all things construction, ASTM has a section (or sections) devoted exclusively to you.

For instance, if you work in the plastering or drywall trades as a contractor, ASTM C11’s committee on Gypsum and Related Building Materials and Systems will likely be of interest to you. According to their website, www.astm.org, C11 “has jurisdiction over standards governing gypsum board (drywall), gypsum plaster, light-gage steel framing, metal lath, and certain aspects of portland cement plaster and exterior insulation and finish systems (EIFS).” Of course, your use and need for this information will vary according to your profession. A/E and design firms may use it to create and confirm manufacturer specifications, while the contractor will likely be more interested in making sure his/her product or service is in compliance with that requested in the specification manual. Manufacturers of a particular product may have even created the specification.  

Other ASTM committees/sections of interest to the wall and ceiling community might include these:

  • A01 – Steel, Stainless Steel and Related Alloys
  • B07 – Light Metals and Alloys
  • B09 – Metal Powders and Metal Powder Products
  • C03 – Chemical-Resistant Non-metallic Materials
  • C16 – Thermal Insulation
  • C24 – Building Seals and Sealants
  • D01 – Paint and Related Coatings, Materials and Applications
  • D07 – Wood
  • D14 – Adhesives
  • D20 – Plastics
  • D30 – Composite Materials
  • E05 – Fire Standards
  • E06 – Performance of Buildings
  • E07 – Nondestructive Testing
  • E08 – Fatigue and Fracture
  • E11 – Quality and Statistics
  • E12 – Color and Appearance
  • E29 – Particle and Spray Characterization
  • E33 – Building and Environmental Acoustics
  • E34 – Occupational Health and Safety
  • E36 – Accreditation & Certification
  • E37 – Thermal Measurements
  • E60 – Sustainability
  • F03 – Gaskets
  • F06 – Resilient Floor Coverings
  • F16 – Fasteners
  • G02 – Wear and Erosion
  • G03 – Weathering and Durability
  • 035 – US TAG to ISO/TC 35 Paints and Varnishes (SC 9 and SC 10)
  • 043 – US TAG to ISO/TC 43/SC 2 Building Acoustics
  • 061 – US TAG to ISO/TC 61 Plastics
  • And much, much more

Going Global

Nowadays, ASTM is anything but an American institution. Crossing over borders, disciplines and industries, the organization now harnesses the expertise of over 30,000 members worldwide (they even changed their name to ASTM International in 2001) to create product/manufacturing standard consensus and improve performance in materials, products and processes, systems and services. They also have far more than just written/electronic copies of standards and practices. ASTM offers seminars/webinars, symposiums and workshops, and you can often find an ASTM booth at industry trade shows. You can even become a member yourself for a small fee.
    
If you’d like to learn more about how the American Society of Testing and Materials can benefit your firm, you can contact them at service@astm.org, or go online to astm.org.

S.S. Saucerman is a retired commercial construction estimator and project manager who worked for a large upper-Midwest general contractor. He is also an established freelance writer and author whose work spans 20 years.

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