Bottom of the class... aerated concrete crisis might reach far beyond the classroom
Reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC for short) was used extensively throughout the post-war period as a cost-efficient and lightweight construction method, especially in public buildings.
Given the product’s 30-year lifespan and fragile nature, we returned from the summer holidays this week to a warning over the estimated 156 schools built using RAAC.
Speaking of other well-known aerated products, some commentators have likened the material to an Aero chocolate bar – however, construction experts have said it’s in fact as brittle as a Crunchie.
Safety measures are in place for 52 of these schools – due to a critical risk – with a third of the schools affected by RAAC needing to delay the start of term or using remote learning.
Meeting Place’s Joseph Baum – who is also Buckinghamshire Council’s Deputy Cabinet Member for Skills – reflects on the physical and metaphorical foundations needed in education policy, as highlighted by the recent crisis:
“Politicians – left or right, local or national – have always believed that education is a key route to achieving social mobility. From Tony Blair’s three priorities of “Education, Education, Education”, to the recent shift in focus on apprenticeships and skills, as part of the “Levelling Up” agenda.
“At a local level, councils are adopting this focus too. As the Deputy Cabinet Member responsible for Skills and Schools, the council has made it our central mission to realise the talent and potential that lies in every single Buckinghamshire resident – from hosting jobs and apprenticeships fairs, to schools’ awards evenings, so those in education feel valued and recognised.
“But here is the problem – the warm words of politicians and the good intentions and efforts of those in local government are only as good as the foundations that they are built on. When it comes to our schools, this has proven to be the case quite literally in the last few days, as head teachers and governing bodies come to terms with the building materials of their classrooms.
“In politics, there is very little reward for seeing the bigger picture – with the constant quest for votes leading to funds being redirected elsewhere. RAAC serves as a tangible example of catastrophic short-termism when it comes to central government spending.
“The need for strong foundations, physically and metaphorically, is also true when it comes to our wider public realm.”
Jake Setterfield reflects on how RAAC could become a ticking time bomb for the wider built environment:
“As well as being used in schools across the UK, any post-war public building – hospitals, courts, and police stations – could be impacted by RAAC.
“According to a study by Loughborough University, tens of thousands of RAAC panels are thought to be in place in buildings across the UK. Although the news agenda is currently focused on schools, it will no doubt move towards the built environment more broadly, with potentially huge ramifications for remediating, reinforcing or outright rebuilding. Potentially, it could be on the same scale as the cladding scandal.
“And it’s not just public sector buildings… Although RAAC’s use ended in the 90s, aerated blocks and poor-quality materials have proliferated across the sector in residential properties. Whilst that might not create a critical risk akin to the schools, it will no doubt expose other areas across the construction sector where costs have been cut at the expense of a building’s shelf life.
“A sensible reform would be to focus on build quality and longevity, striving to deliver both environmental and economic benefits by constructing buildings which last.
“And whether it’s rebuilding schools or remediating public buildings, what will be key in the wake of the impending crisis will be to build strong foundations through construction and with communities. We must re-engender trust with the communities that will eventually use these new buildings for generations to come, not just for a few decades before they crumble.”
Meeting Place recently engaged with the communities of Bury St Edmunds to understand how a brand-new hospital could be brought forward to replace the 1970s West Suffolk Hospital, which faced RAAC issues of its own.
Click here to read more about how we engendered trust with communities, received 1,700 feedback forms and how the application was approved by West Suffolk Planning Committee.