RAAC

EDITOR’S ARTICLE: RAAC – Challenges, detection & asbestos risk

  • 6 Sep 2023

RAACIn this article, Buildingtalk editor Max Banner looks at the ongoing RAAC issue, exploring the challenges at large, detection in buildings and the potential risk of asbestos as a result…

RAAC, or reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, has been front and centre of the news agenda for the past week now. The government has closed down parts of certain schools in England because of evidence about this particular concrete being unsafe.

Between the 1950s and 1990s, RAAC was used mostly in flat roofing, but also in floors and walls, offering a cheaper option to standard concrete.

During the summer, a school ceiling collapsed. Until that point, it hadn’t been flagged as critical. But problems with RAAC have been known for some time. Questions are being asked about the timing of big decisions on funding for school buildings.

This, alongside other incidents and assessments from Department for Education (DfE) officials, led Education Secretary Gillian Keegan to conclude the government had underestimated the potential dangers of RAAC.

What this has created is yet another crisis for the Conservative government, with plenty of points for discussion. Has there been enough funding for these schools? Did Prime Minister Rishi Sunak do enough when Chancellor? Has Keegan overreacted in her closure decisions? One thing for certain is, with other buildings such as hospitals and courts around the country also possibly at risk from RAAC, this is a problem that is sure to continue for many weeks and months to come…

The challenges

Steve McSorley, Director at civil and structural engineering consultancy Perega, comments: “The challenges presented around the presence of RAAC in buildings is an example of how what appeared to be an innovative product has failed over time to live up to expectations.

“Fortunately the UK the construction industry stopped using it during the mid 1990’s, so any buildings constructed since then shouldn’t be at risk. The challenge now is assessing the condition of the RAAC panels and undertaking remediation or replacement work to ensure it is safe.

“The Department for Education has in 2022 published an authoritative guide to identifying and remediating RAAC in buildings. The guide has simple flow charts to follow.

“You don’t necessarily need to be a qualified structural engineer to identify the presence of RAAC, but once it is identified a qualified structural engineer should be engaged to deal with further investigation and remediation/replacement. If you are uncertain at all about identification, then call a qualified structural engineer.”

Detection

A couple of years ago, Buildingtalk ran a story from a company called Survey Solutions, who was working at a number of sites nationwide, helping property owners understand whether RAAC planks were present in their buildings. They also provided valuable survey data to understand the level of detail needed to inform the next steps – you can read that piece in full by clicking here.

Asbestos dangers

Through trying to fix the concrete, there is a concern that asbestos in schools could be disturbed.

John Wallace, Managing Director at Ridgemont, a specialist construction and real estate law firm, comments: “The prevalence of asbestos in schools presents a significant complicating factor in remediating issues relating to RAAC. The construction sector is used to dealing with the presence of asbestos in buildings, particularly those that were built around the same time as the proliferation of RAAC. Legislation and industry practice ensures that processes are in place that enable asbestos to be removed, where necessary, in a calm, meticulous way.

“Recent building safety legislation means that liability for unsafe buildings (whether in respect of their construction or maintenance) can fall at the feet of developers, building owners and other participants in the construction sector. Those responsible will need to ensure that they meet the requirements of the substantive legislation in this area, identify any RAAC and taking particular care in removing the same where asbestos is identified in its vicinity.

“Where RAAC panels may contain asbestos, considerable care will need to be taken in any invasive testing of the RAAC. Asbestos, once disturbed, is a serious hazard.

“The need to remove RAAC, and any asbestos, across schools and other buildings provides an opportunity for schools to be made safer places and improved. However, those responsible for such buildings and those engaged to undertake the work carry a heavy burden. Serious consequences follow for those that do not meet their obligations under the relevant legislation.”

New wards at hospital

Only last month, a new two-ward building was officially opened by Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Lord Markham CBE at Mid Cheshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust’s (MCHFT) Leighton Hospital, in Crewe.

Leighton Hospital was built in the 1970s using RAAC and was one of a number of hospitals identified by the Government as needing to be rebuilt.

This proves clearly that the risk of RAAC has been known for some time, something which is neatly explained in this BBC article. Therefore, on the theme of questions being raised earlier in this article, another could be… regarding schools, why now? Why mere days before children return? How come more was not made of this when that school building collapsed in the summer? Why now when the risks of RAAC had been known for many years? Currently, it is definitely a case of there being more questions than answers…

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