The recent news that over 100 schools in the UK have been ordered to shut down their buildings constructed with Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) due to the looming risk of structural collapse, has sent shockwaves across the country. However, it is likely just the tip of the iceberg as the use of RAAC extends far beyond schools to a wide range of public and private buildings.
Harrow Crown Court in north-west London has closed indefinitely due to the material being found there and the Government is reportedly rebuilding seven hospitals due to extensive use of RAAC and will be surveying buildings across the public sector.
What is the Problem with RAAC?
RAAC is a lightweight alternative to conventional concrete, extensively used in UK construction from the 1950s through to the 1990s. However, it has become evident that RAAC’s durability falls far short of traditional concrete. With a lifespan of only 30 years, RAAC structures are susceptible to collapse when exposed to moisture. This discovery has raised serious concerns about the safety of buildings constructed using this material.
The speed at which RAAC can deteriorate and crumble is alarming. An extreme example comes from a primary school in Kent, where the roof collapsed within 24 hours of initial signs of structural strain.
According to media reports, expert bodies has warned the Government about the risks associated with RAAC in 2018, but the problem is only now coming to the fore.
How to identify and respond to the risk of RAAC?
A Government inquiry – initially only focused on school buildings, but now including all public buildings – is underway, but it is unclear how long this will take and what funding will be available to remedy the situation.
The DfE has also released non-statutory guidelines aimed at helping school administrators manage this risk effectively. These guidelines include advice on the identification of RAAC; the appointment of a building surveyor or structural engineer to confirm if RAAC is present in any buildings; how to inform DfE, if RAAC is identified or suspected and what happens after DfE has been informed of RAAC in an education estate.
Any owner or occupant of a building where RAAC use is suspected – i.e. built between the 1950s and the 1990s, would be wise to carry out an immediate investigation of RAAC risks, including structural assessments by qualified experts.
What are the legal implications of the RAAC crisis?
The legal implications associated with RAAC use are complex and far reaching. The most obvious and pressing concern is of course around the safety of the people using these buildings, especially as they will be amongst the most vulnerable in society as schools and hospitals are particularly impacted.
Any building which has, or is suspected to have RAAC as part of its construction and does not close, must demonstrate that comprehensive risk assessments have been conducted, that continuous monitoring of potential deterioration is in place, and that all reasonable steps to prevent foreseeable harm have been taken. The Health and Safety Executive has issued detailed guidance on this.
In the longer term, there will be a spotlight on whether buildings constructed using RAAC need remediation or, indeed, complete rebuilding. There will also be questions around how this will be funded and who will be liable for costs and repairs/rebuilds.
There are still many unanswered questions around the use of RAAC. What is clear is that the full extent of the problem is still unknown and that those responsible for any building which may be impacted need to act swiftly to ensure that they are taking the appropriate steps to mitigate risks.