RAAC – Britain’s crumbling concrete crisis

RAAC – Britain’s crumbling concrete crisis

School children have experienced many setbacks in recent years, so when students across the country experienced a turbulent start to their 2023 academic year due to building safety concerns, both the government and the construction industry faced criticism and a crumbling concrete crisis was sparked. The centre of the problem lies with a building material named Reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, (RAAC) an unpredictable and lightweight form of concrete used in cladding, that has left many questioning the structural safety of hundreds of schools across the country. The developments have highlighted multiple failings, with frustrated parents and teachers suggesting that the crisis is a physical embodiment of a ‘crumbling government’.

What is RAAC and what are the safety risks?

Introduced back in the 1950’s, RAAC was considered a wonder material for the construction industry due to numerous desirable properties, including how easy the cladding was to install, alongside it’s low cost and lightweight feel. The presence of RAAC can often be found within roofs and walls of large buildings and can often be deceiving, this is because visually, RAAC planks can appear like other concrete. However, unfortunately RAAC’S benefits do not outweigh the danger, as the material is both unpredictable and susceptible to moisture concerns, such as mold growth and water damage. Additionally, the condition of RAAC cladding will inevitably deteriorate quicker than other available materials due to its short lifespan, which can lead to dangerous consequences.

Cracks began to show in the 1980’s, when roof planks installed 20 years prior began to malfunction after engineers discovered that leaking roofs had triggered a deterioration of steel corrosion. However, after a long period of complacency, the panic button was pressed in 2018 after the ceiling of a primary school staffroom collapsed suddenly after showing signs of structural stress, where it was revealed that RAAC material had been involved in the school’s refurbishment back in 1979. After the cladding had been compared to a ‘bubbly aero chocolate bar’, it became evident that RAAC was no longer a suitable choice for the safety of public sector buildings.

The current situation

The crumbling concrete made headline news again in August, after the Department of Education (DOA) released guidance on the cladding, including measures to minimise the impact of RAAC in schools, alongside outlining action plans to keep pupils and teachers safe. As investigations took place, the department contacted schools where RAAC was present, advising them to locate alternative accommodation. This uncertainty has been unsettling for parents and pupils, but face to face learning continues, with additional funding being provided for schools struggling for learning space. Recent developments show that a total of 214 cases of RAAC have now been confirmed, but none have had to adapt to full time remote learning.

How will RAAC affect the construction industry?

After the Grenfell Tower tragedy in 2017 which saw 72 people lose their lives, building safety became a major focus across the industry – with government and the construction supply-chain bearing the brunt of the public and their backlash. However, despite the obvious disruption and safety concerns caused by the failing cladding, many have taken the development as an opportunity for growth within the construction industry. It is thought that the RAAC crisis highlights the need for a new vision within schools, to ensure protection, as well as highlighting the need for an evaluation into how public infrastructure is built going forward. Since the material has also been discovered in hospitals and residential structures, developers are confronting a problem that extends beyond the school gates. RAAC has led to investigations into health and safety issues by encouraging responsible behaviour. It is thought that developers must rethink their building materials, and the government should implement tighter regulations to ensure projects are carried out efficiently. Ultimately, the construction industry requires a shift towards ethical working, recognising the importance of safety and sustainability.

Tips for dealing with RAAC

Don’t panic - Despite RAAC being known for its unpredictable nature, not every school will pose a threat of collapse, with the DOA outlining that most schools will be unaffected.

Be patient - It may take time for all schools with RAAC to be identified and to receive guidance. If your school is affected, a qualified building surveyor will advise you on safety precautions and next steps.

Be prepared – If action must be taken, schools must vacate the areas where RAAC is found, ensuring that those areas are out of use.

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