The Epistemology of Construction Product Certification
Call for applications - Fully funded PhD Studentship: “The Epistemology of Construction Product Certification”.
The University of Edinburgh and the British Board of Agrément are seeking a doctoral student for an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award, “The Epistemology of Construction Product Certification”. The project will be supervised by Nick Treanor (Reader in Philosophy, Edinburgh), Atoosa Kasirzadeh (Chancellor’s Fellow in Philosophy, Edinburgh), and Bill Hewlett (Technical Director of the British Board of Agrément). The project will focus on two research questions:
- How does product certification function as an epistemic practice, one that creates, curates and transmits safety-critical knowledge within the construction industry?
- How can product certification, as an epistemic practice, be improved to enhance the safety and quality of the built environment?
This is an extraordinary opportunity for a strong PhD student to do serious research in philosophy while addressing critical, real-world challenges. Through significant engagement with a range of UK government, industry, third-sector, and public stakeholders, the PhD project will bring theoretical insight from philosophy to important practical issues concerning the quality, safety, durability and sustainability of the built environment. It will also provide unique training to the research student, positioning them to make further contributions at the interface of philosophy, industry, and government.
We warmly encourage applications from candidates with a strong background in philosophy and an interest in engaging with issues of contemporary social importance. We emphasise that candidates do not need to have any experience with the construction industry, product certification, or engineering, as the requisite knowledge of industry practice will be acquired through engagement with the British Board of Agrément. The PhD studentship will commence on September 12, 2022.
Research Project Details
Product certification, which attests to a products fitness for use, is central to the construction industry in the UK and globally. Robust frameworks for certifying construction products are essential to safety and quality, as they ensure products comply with Building Regulations and meet standards for structural integrity, fire resistance, air and water tightness, corrosion resistance, tensile, compressive or adhesive strength, thermal insulation, etc. They also facilitate trade, allowing products manufactured in one country to be used safely and legally in another. There is, however, a significant lacuna in the industry, as it has technical expertise but has been shown to lack understanding of certification. Specifically, a failure to appreciate certification as an epistemic practice, one that creates, curates, and transmits knowledge, has led to widespread misunderstanding on the part of architects, engineers, contractors, and regulators of what certification tells us about the material properties and proper use of construction products.
The consequences of the inadequate understanding of certification have sometimes been tragic, most saliently in the case of the Grenfell fire, in which a residential high-rise was retrofitted with combustible cladding, leading to the deaths of 72 people. In Scotland, notable recent construction failures include in Edinburgh Schools (an exterior wall of a primary school collapsed in 2016, and investigation revealed serious defects in wall construction at 17 other schools in Edinburgh), and the DG One Leisure Centre in Dumfries and Galloway (construction defects were so serious it closed in 2014, just 6 years after opening, for remedial works which took 5 years and cost more than the original construction budget). All of these events have been well researched and reported. In regard to Grenfell, the Hackitt Review (Building a Safer Future, 2018), an independent report commission by the UK, found that “Current methods for testing, certification and marketing of construction products and systems are not clear”, that “Products are marketed with specification data presented in ways which can easily be misinterpreted”, and that ‘the product testing, labelling and marketing regime is opaque and insufficient’. The report concluded “there is a need for a radical rethink of the whole system and how it works. It is essential that this industry now works to implement a truly robust and assured approach to building the increasingly complex structures in which people live.”
The research project supports this rethinking by developing an epistemology of certification, giving close attention to testing practice and the relevance of tests to as-built reality, the relevance and epistemic character of Regulations and formal Standards, and the way in which the idealisation of science can undermine the insights of engineers and practitioners whose work is to anticipate the natural world. The research will conceive of certificates as bodies of knowledge and examine normative and descriptive questions about such knowledge, including (1) how it is derived from evidence, assured, represented and curated, (2) what its content and limitations are, and (3) how it functions as testimony (transmitting knowledge from certifying organisations to users of the certificate, such as architects, engineers and contractors). Overall, it addresses a serious practical problem – how can regulators, certifiers and end users improve product certification to make buildings safer and more robust – by developing a novel philosophy framework for understanding certification as an epistemic practice.
The British Board of Agrément
The British Board of Agrément is the UK’s major authority for the certification of construction products and systems. Certification ensures compliance with Building Regulations, e.g. structural integrity, fire safety, corrosion resistance, thermal insulation, airtightness, etc., across over 200 product sectors. BBA approvals also show fitness for purpose and installation quality. In key product sectors, 90% of material sold is BBA-certified. Originally established by government in 1966, the BBA is now a company limited by guarantee, with all profits used to benefit the construction industry or the public good. It is the UK’s member of the European Union of Technical Approval in Construction and a leading member of the Technical Approval Body network. It’s headquartered in Watford, England, just outside London, with additional facilities in Liverpool and a network of inspectors throughout the UK.
The PhD student will be based in the Philosophy department at the University of Edinburgh, as part of a large and very active research community, but will undertake 10 to 14 months of placement within BBA headquarters and with the BBA’s industry partners and regulator. The BBA will provide appropriate resources (e.g., desk space), induction to the organisation, and facilitate access to technical expertise and industry contacts. We anticipate two main placement periods, an extended one at an initial stage to acquire industry knowledge and a second, briefer one toward the project conclusion, focused on knowledge transfer and impact, but the timing and duration of the placements are flexible.
Bill Hewlett, the external member of the PhD supervisory committee, is Technical Director at the BBA, where he is responsible for driving innovation in the BBA and the wider built environment sector and for building a culture of technical excellence and continuous improvement. A qualified civil engineer with more than 35 years of wide-ranging construction and process industries experience, across the highways, rail, waste, marine, petrochemical and building sectors, he has particular expertise in corporate technical assurance and construction method design. Previous positions have been with Laing O’Rourke Group as Group Chief Engineer and, more recently, as Group Technical Director for Costain, a major British construction and engineering company focused on civil engineering and commercial construction projects. He has also held (or currently holds) additional roles, including Vice President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, founder and Chair of the Temporary Works Forum, non-executive Director of Thomas Telford, independent member of the Lloyds Register Foundation Discovering Safety Programme Board, Trustee of the Engineering Council and Chair of the Standing Committee on Structural Safety. He is uniquely placed to help the PhD student understand product certification as it is currently practiced and acquire technical knowledge of the industry.
The studentship covers the following:
- Annual stipend at standard AHRC rates (£16,612 per year for 2022-23);
- Tuition fees for 3.5 years, the duration of study;
- Open to Home and International students.
The studentship is open to Home and international students. We are looking for the following basic qualifications:
- Candidates should normally have a degree in philosophy or a cognate subject, with an excellent or very good classification (equivalent to first or upper second class honours in the UK).
- The AHRC also expects that applicants to PhD programmes will hold, or be studying towards, a Masters qualification in a relevant discipline; or have relevant professional experience to provide evidence of your ability to undertake independent research. Please ensure you provide details of your academic and professional experience in your application letter.
- English language competency at a level that will enable you to succeed in your studies. Read more about English language qualifications for the programme:
Your academic qualifications will be assessed by a panel of academics, along with the supporting materials submitted as part of your application.
Application deadline: 05 June, 2022
Applicants will be notified if they are being invited to interview by Tuesday 07 June. Interviews will take place on or around Monday 13 June via Zoom.
Please submit as a single PDF file:
- a brief cover note that includes your full contact details together with the names and contact details of two referees (1 page);
- a letter explaining your interest in the studentship and outlining your qualifications for it (2 pages);
- a curriculum vitae or transcript, indicating previous work in philosophy and marks achieved;
- a writing sample (typically a course essay or thesis chapter).
Applications should be emailed to Dr Nick Treanor no later than 05 June 2022.
Informal enquiries about the application process or the research project can be made to Dr Nick Treanor.
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