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What exactly are the concerns for Universities around RAAC?

on Thursday, 21 September 2023.

There has been widespread publicity recently about the risks posed by 'reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete', known as RAAC and a number of UK universities have been affected.

What is RAAC?

RAAC is a cheap, lightweight and strong concrete which is cast in planks and was widely used in the 1960s and 1970s. It was typically used in roof panels (especially in flat-roofed, high-rise buildings) but also on walls and floors.

It is made from cement, lime, water and an aeration agent. It is porous in nature and, unlike traditional concrete, it does not contain any coarse aggregate. It has been reported to have been designed with a recommended lifespan of 30-40 years and is certainly less durable than traditional concrete, but this does not appear to have been widely known until recently.

It has not been commonly used in the UK since the 1990s but is still manufactured and installed world-wide and can be used safely, if properly designed, manufactured, installed and maintained. However, inadequate support or reinforcement of RAAC and/or heat and water ingress over time can degrade the structural integrity of the material, causing it to sag or shear, creating a risk of building collapse.

Tens of thousands of these structural panels still exist in the UK, requiring urgent action.

When was it first identified as a concern?

Concerns were raised more than 20 years ago and have continued since then.

A 2019 report from the Standing Committee on Structural Safety warned of the limited lifespan of RAAC (to a few decades) and identified the high risk of failure of RAAC panels installed in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, especially if it had not been adequately maintained.

Many owners and occupiers of premises will have conducted an audit following this to identify whether or not their buildings contain RAAC and to plan for its management.

Why is it in the news now?

In March 2022 the Department for Education contacted the heads of publicly-funded schools about RAAC. In December, the DfE admitted that the chance of a school building collapsing was 'very likely'. A group was convened to address this.

By this summer, the Times reports that about 600 detailed surveys were underway, with a significant proportion (65 of the 195 completed) identifying RAAC. Planned closures for identified remedial works followed but after two more buildings containing RAAC collapsed last month, the DfE ordered the short-notice closure of some schools and published guidance for responsible bodies with confirmed RAAC in their buildings.

How do you identify whether or not your building contains RAAC?

RAAC was most widely used between 1960 and the mid-1990s and so buildings constructed or extended during this period are at higher risk of containing RAAC. However, not all buildings constructed during this period contain RAAC.

You do not need to be an expert to identify whether or not RAAC is present and an experienced surveyor or estates manager is likely to be able to identify RAAC.

If you are in any doubt, the Institution of Structural Engineers has published a list of its members who have experience of the identification and inspection of RAAC and who may be available to carry out inspections.

What should you do if it does?

Until a properly considered health and safety risk assessment can be undertaken, we would recommend that universities arrange for the building to be vacated and access restricted, ensuring they are out of use.

A risk assessment will be required to assess the risks of the use of all or part of the building and the wider site. Consideration should be given to occupiers, visitors and trespassers and to the owner/occupiers rights to demand an evacuation. It may be necessary to instruct a structural engineer to assess the risk of degradation and the suitability of any ongoing monitoring, remedial works or long-term protective measures which may be taken. For example, it may be possible to take the load off the concrete by other measures to reduce the risk of collapse.

The recent media storm means that it is an issue in the public consciousness. Many organisations are facing enquiries about their site and whether or not it contains any RAAC. We would therefore recommend effective communication with stakeholders, letting them know whether a RAAC assessment has been carried out and what steps have been taken to manage risk.

What are the risks if you do not take action now?

Employers have a duty under health and safety law to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the safety of their workplace and other non-domestic premises and the health and safety of their employees and others (such as visitors and customers).

This duty requires compliance with the Workplace Regulations and the Management Regulations which in turn set out obligations to conduct suitable and sufficient risk assessments to ensure a safe working environment.

Given the known risks posed by RAAC, the HSE expects employers to:

  • identify RAAC in their premises;
  • assess it, including seeking specialist advice where necessary, and develop management plans;
  • act appropriately to ensure that buildings are safe.

Failing to act now runs the risk of a university or its senior managers being found in breach of health and safety law. This can give rise to enforcement action by the HSE (or relevant enforcement agency) which could result in significant fines (which are uninsured), publicity orders and reputational damage. This can be the case even in the absence of a serious incident or accident.

Could you be liable for a claim related to RAAC?

Should a building collapse and cause a person harm, then the owner and/or occupier of the premises could be liable to pay compensation. This applies equally to owner-occupiers, landlords and tenants. Any such claim and the costs of dealing with it may be covered by insurance. We would recommend that insurance policies are checked as to the notification requirements for RAAC and coverage for any claims.

It is also possible that disputes about access and/or liability for inspection and repair may arise.

How can we help?

We can help universities, as owners and occupiers of premises, to consider the impact of these developments and how to manage the risks associated with them. That may involve advice on inspections and repairs, other investigation and appropriate decision-making. It may also involve consideration of communications with stakeholders, regulatory reporting, funding and where a building has failed, liaison with the HSE and liability for claims.

Should you have any queries relating to RAAC, please contact Philip Sheppard in our Property Litigation team on 07384 256178 or complete the form below.

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