Is APA a Great Example of Advancing Interests via Conflicting Interests?

APA the Engineered Wood Association is a market development organization for structural engineered wood products manufacturers. For commodity products like OSB, market promotion is largely APA brand focused. The approach taken includes, for example:

  1. APA’s Wall Bracing Calculator
  2.  “Value Engineering
  3. Sustainable Buildings, Sustainable Future

These are all tools to promote OSB use created and published by APA, all while it also serves as a third party inspection agency for OSB manufacturers. What is more important to APA, sales or QC? What would happen in most companies if the QC department reported to the sales/marketing department?

To further strengthen these marketing efforts, APA publishes reports critical of competitive products in order to advance the sales of APA-branded commodity OSB.

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These all seem like relevant “marketing association” activities and pretty straight-forward, until you consider the following observations, which point to, at the very least, an appearance of a series of conflicts of interest:

  1. APA does market development, and the APA brand is the key to market development.
  2. APA gets paid by the manufacturers of OSB to do this market development and to further build the APA brand.
  3. APA gets paid by the manufacturers of OSB, through its IAS ISO/IEC 17020 quality auditing program (IAS accreditation number AA-649), to perform the manufacturer’s 3rd party inspection of product quality and maintain the OSB design values used in the market. All of this maintains OSB competitiveness.
  4. APA is accredited by the Standards Council of Canada (SCC) as an ISO/IEC 17065 product, process and service certification body and “ICC Report” writer (SCC File # 10012).
  5. Through these accreditations, APA provides certification to clients that conform to product standards as well as APA policies. All APA manufacturers are subject to ongoing audits of the client’s quality system, internal inspections and conformance to the product standard. Again what would happen in most companies if the QC and engineering departments reported to the sales/marketing department?
  6. APA also gets paid by the manufacturers of OSB to create and publish the OSB voluntary product standard for producing a quality product and associated design values for OSB use in the market. As APA states:

 “APA has a long and extensive history in building codes and standards development activities. It serves, for example, as the secretariat for the standing committees of U.S. Product Standard PS 1 for Structural Plywood, the consensus softwood plywood standard, and Voluntary Product Standard PS 2, the U.S. harmonized performance standard developed under the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement. APA has developed performance standards over the years for numerous products, including, for example, plywood siding, wood structural panel sheathing, structural glued laminated timber (glulam), wood I-joists, rim board, and cross-laminated timber. APA issues APA Product Reports designed to help manufacturers expedite market entry of their products.”

  1. Finally, APA gets paid by the manufacturers of OSB to advocate during the building code creation process to ensure the code remains favorable to OSB. As stated in a 2016 newsletter “APA and Coalition for Fair Energy Code staff attended the International Code Council Group B Committee Action Hearings for the 2018 International Fire Code (IFC), International Building Code (IBC) – Structure, in Louisville Kentucky in April (April 17 to 27 2016) ……. Among 22 APA change proposals, 16 were approved. None of the disapproved APA proposals are considered critical to the acceptance or market access of APA member’s products….” Contact BJ Yeh.

Maybe all of this is best defined by the leadership of APA themselves in the following 2015 article “How APA Built a Competitive Advantage for OSB Though the Building Code”: for which there has never been any test data brought to the table to correct the facts provided if the facts were wrong:

Why are these design values used?

Why is this math acceptable to the ICC, building code officials and the engineering community? Perhaps more importantly, why does APA not correct this in the IRC? They have never disputed SBCRI’s testing by providing real-building test data using ASTM E564 techniques (i.e. trusses on top of the walls versus their standard E72 test method that uses a steel beam to rigidly apply lateral loads, etc.). The BCCS report also states that the SBCRI testing provides a reasonable result. The answer might lie in the fact that keeping up the IRC tradition has its benefits.

Mr. BJ Yeh of APA related the following concept in a January 3, 2013 APA/SBCA staff meeting recap documented in a January 24, 2013 SBCA thank you letter:

BJ Yeh articulated, in a very elegant and forthright manner, our industry’s primary concern using the following words to reflect the point of view he expressed, which is a concept we have all heard many times; the prescriptive code is based on historical performance and essentially fundamental engineering does not really “apply” or “work” because structures built using traditional and conventional methods have a good resistance track record.

Mr. Ed Elias, APA's Vice President, also made the following observations in a February 6, 2013 letter from APA in response to SBCA’s January 24, 2013 thank you letter:

1.       The technical information required should support or be used to modify existing code-supported provisions such as established systems or risk factors related to product equivalency. This information would most likely be used to support the introduction of new materials and systems, as opposed to challenging existing products. For example, existing OSB design properties are not the target; but currently recognized systems and product equivalency procedures are.

2.       We (APA) believe that a major goal for the SBCA position is to provide a cost-effective engineering solution to their membership and as such this goal serves the SBCA membership well. However, by establishing standard factors in which product equivalency or system performance are applied generically, an unintended consequence may be that non-wood products (e.g. foam sheathing) gain an advantage and supplant traditional OSB market share. This is not in our Association members' best interests.

3.       Our staff is prepared to critically review and support technically justifiable programs brought forth…...

Following up with APA to set a better performance foundation, SBCA sent a detailed letter on September 23, 2013 regarding the testing and analysis that it had undertaken. In that letter, SBCA summarized the information SBCRI generated to begin the process of setting a good technical foundation:

The purpose of this letter is to be precise as to what the SBC industry is going to set as its engineering foundation/performance benchmarks for wood structural panel (WSP) unit shear wall capacity values and section 104.11 equivalency evaluation. This evaluation is based on all of the testing and findings to date that we have access to. We believe that it is important to be completely transparent in our approach so that APA/AWC can provide engineering mechanics test data/analysis and installation procedures to provide justification for different benchmarks than those provided here, if so desired. As you said in your February letter, “The technical information required should support or be used to modify existing code-supported provisions such as established systems or risk factors related to product equivalency.” This work is clearly in the domain of APA/AWC.

This information has been met with the perspective that SBCRI testing is unsubstantiated and that SBCRI-SBCA analysis with respect to OSB shear design values being overstated is based on non-standard test methods. Also, it has been asserted that universities and other research organizations, the consensus opinion of the code and standard committees, and the extensive performance history of wall assemblies sheathed with OSB sheathing show that the current shear design values provided in the APA publications are valid. Finally, the current shear design values are referenced in the International Building Code (IBC) and the IBC referenced Special Design Provisions for Wind and Seismic standard, so everyone using those documents must know they are correct as they are adopted law.

This is just the beginning of the facts that SBCRI has that should be considered as one evaluates OSB in shear wall applications. SBCA will be sharing this information in the future detailing one engineering consideration at a time to keep the content as concise as possible.

The SBCRI-SBCA goal is to provide a set of facts that have test data behind them, provide all appropriate references and undertake common-sense analysis. From there, and based on the merits, the reader can decide. We appreciate any comments, data and new analysis that will add to our knowledge.

Ultimately SBCRI hopes that this information will lead to action, as appropriate, by building code officials and the engineering community. We know that tradition can become entrenched and can get in the way of thoughtful and valuable building construction advancements. The foregoing information is intended to define the law and also provide a pathway to showing equivalency to the law.

Clearly, given all of the information above and the APA letter in the link, there does not appear to be a real independent double check within this entire process. Would it be hard for a plaintiff’s lawyer in a construction defect case involving OSB to establish the appearance of a conflict of interest? What would your decision be?