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Now that the Ü-symbol has gone: where’s the conformity?

Europe is growing ever closer – at least where freedom of commodities management is concerned. This brings many advantages but also collides with national regulations. The discontinuation of the Ü-symbol for harmonised products which bear the CE seal is creating uncertainty in large parts of the construction industry. After all, it is a question of the safety of the products used in this country. Due to the lack of legal certainty, an increase in construction costs can also be expected. As their customers are alarmed, manufacturers have come to an agreement to turn to self-help: they have come up with replacement quality marks – to provide quality assurance in the absence of the Ü-symbol.  

Complex legal and safety-based policies on the building site

Construction products need to fulfil a multitude of requirements and standards before they can be used. That’s because in a Europe of free movement of goods, the following holds true: just because it can be sold here, doesn't mean it can be installed.

Here is a short, fundamental list of the requirements:

  1. The European Construction Products Regulation provides the legal basis.  
  2. The German Construction Products Act (BauPG) and  
  3. the Construction Tendering and Contract Regulations (VOB) enact the EU Construction Products Regulation in German law.
  4. The Building Regulations of the Federal States (LBO) govern the technical building regulations. 
  5. Building Rules Lists designate the permissible building products for Germany. 

To date, permissible products were labelled using the Ü-symbol of conformity. This quality mark, which was specific to Germany, was required for inclusion in building rules lists for certain harmonised construction products, i.e. products which meet European product standards, in addition to the CE label. Amongst others, pipe joint sealing products made from thermoplastic elastomers and insulating products made from mineral wool were included in this, as well as doors, windows and external doors. Manufacturers used the symbol to confirm a product's conformity with technical regulations and its authorisation for use on German building sites. The Ü-symbol therefore guaranteed the quality of construction products and provided legal certainty for their use.

A certification mark for all of Europe: the CE label

The Ü-symbol had been a thorn in the side of the EU officials in charge of the subject for some time. In 2014, the European Court of Justice requested the Federal Republic of Germany to end the practice of imposing additional national requirements on construction products which were harmonised within Europe. The reason? Additional regulations, such as Germany’s Ü-symbol, impinge upon freedom of competition within the EU. Products bearing the CE label may not be prohibited or restricted in EU member states.  

Awaiting technical building regulations

The relevant German authorities and offices were obliged to react and and in consequence a great deal of policies were changed: The Building Rules List B Part 1 was modified. The obligation to provide additional documentation regarding applicability and conformity was removed. The Model Building Regulation (MBO), which is a precursor of the Building Regulations of the Federal States (LBO), was revised. Saxony-Anhalt was the first to adapt its Building Regulations accordingly. The other federal states will follow suit. The Building Rules Lists and the sample lists for technical building regulations are to be superseded by the “Technical Building Regulations” (MVV TB).  They must first be notified by the European Commission. That may take some time.

Practical application without the Ü-symbol?

What does it mean for those it affects? Until now, architects, planners and users could rely on the fact that construction products bearing the Ü-symbol were suitable for use and were regularly checked by independent institutes. Since 15 October 2016, this is no longer the case. The German Construction Products Act (BauPG) still verifies whether products fulfil all the requirements of the Construction Products Directive (BPR). However, this is restricted to the European standards – which are already demonstrated by the labelling with the EC quality mark. What is missing is a regulatory framework covering whether building materials checked in this way can be utilised in Germany. 

It is now a question of determining the product characteristics of each component on an individual basis – and also in order to be sure that construction products are installed in a contractually valid manner. This does not necessarily make construction more cost-effective. As the cogs of the European administration turn slowly, in some sectors, manufacturers themselves have become active.  

Q and KEYMARK replace the Ü-symbol

The Ü-symbol is going,  and for insulating materials made from polyurethane (PU), it is being replaced by the Q-symbol. The discontinuation of the German usability seal – and therefore also monitoring by independent institutes – also has repercussions in relation to indicating thermal conductivity. The CE labelling only indicates the nominal thermal conductivity value. For technical thermal calculations, however, the rated thermal conductivity values have to be used. In order to guarantee the safe use of PU insulating materials, manufacturers continue to have their products inspected by independent bodies. They have also developed a voluntary certification programme: in future, quality-assured PU products will be recognisable by the Q-symbol.

Manufacturers of mineral wool also use self-monitoring – and are introducing KEYMARK, the independent quality assurance system. As a European certification mark, it documents the conformity of products and services with EU norms. Thus, reliable quality benchmarks are created in addition to the legal minimum standards of the CE quality mark. By introducing KEYMARK, the industry wishes to alleviate the concerns of architects, users and the trade that substandard insulating materials could be imported into Germany as a result of a lack of monitoring abroad. Lists provide information, on which products are already certified.

Quality without the Ü-symbol? Certainly.

The removal of the Ü-symbol certainly does not mean that unsafe products will be used in German building sites from now on. Manufacturers will also play their part in continuing to safeguard product quality. What is certain is that in many cases, building contractors, developers and planners will have to manage with the CE label – and with a European legislative framework which still has loopholes. In any case, tender specification documents and contractual negotiations still offer specific room for manoeuvre in creating specific conditions and requiring technical product characteristics. This is sufficient reason to approach both very carefully. A small comfort: non-harmonised construction products may continue to bear the Ü-symbol. We are therefore able to retain it.