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The Panic of a Government on the Wrack (or is it RAAC?)

Today we see great consternation as schools are having to close buildings off because of safety concerns in their construction. The problem highlights two issues – the mismanagement of maintenance of buildings and infrastructure and the sensationalist panic created by media imagery and language. All this is not helped by a government and civil service structures that the public have absolutely no confidence or trust in. We see hospitals like Kings Lynn collapsing; Grenfell tower burning and killing many; and crumbling schools – all things that should not happen in our relatively rich society. In every case a failure of one or more of maintenance, regulation and enforcement to the point of negligence. The reader will not have to think too hard to think of other areas where this is so, such as border controls; management of crime and justice; management of utilities; road infrastructure; the health service.

Running a country, a local authority or a town is very much like running a household. If you own a home you have to upkeep and maintain it over time. If you do maintenance a little bit at a time, but frequently, it is easily affordable with less disruption. At the same time you have to make financial provision for potentially bigger jobs or emergencies through a combination of savings and insurance. Thus large emergency maintenance can be greatly reduced or eradicated.

With the current situation we see social media and some of the less thoughtful journalists jumping onto a bandwagon of condemning a key building material without any study or critical thinking and adding a drama of crisis and doom. This is seen in the comparison of the RAAC building material to chocolate Crunchie or Aero bars and the dramatic phrases such as “Killer concrete just waiting to collapse”, “Is any school safe?”. Need we go on!

As a property ages, the materials deteriorate depending upon their exposure to the elements, pests and external stresses such an earth tremors, heat and cold. We all have different expectations of different materials. For example I failed to make a person understand that a wooden fire escape correctly manufactured and maintained was actually safer than a metal because it did not conduct heat and maintained its integrity for the same period as a steel one. The fire officer that advised on its installation explained this to me many years ago as our immediate thought is metal does not burn like wood. Wood is largely the most understood material to us as we are all familiar with it rotting, getting eaten by pests and warping. As a result it is often replaced with steel or aluminum, especially in windows because we perceive these require less maintenance and will last longer. This is only a partial truth, they may require less maintenance, but in reality good quality wooden windows and doors and windows can outlive modern aluminum ones many generations over. But popular belief is the opposite is true.

It is often the case that changing materials to reduce cost, maintenance or improve insulation can cause problems. Many Insulate Britain campaigners do not understand this. Wood can breathe and the drafts can be essential for the health and welfare of a building. Modern materials and energy saving measures can stop this and cause structural problems of sweating, mould and decay in a fairly short period of time. I have seen several incidents of people receiving grant aided loft insulation only to have ceilings decay or roof timbers warp.

My point is that all materials have their strengths and weaknesses. The art is to use and maintain them appropriately. Even stone can be eaten by pollution or broken by the freeze and thaw of water.

So we come across the material RAAC in the news – reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. This material was developed in Scandinavia nearly eighty years ago and has been used successfully in all sorts of public, commercial and private buildings in the UK since the 1950’s. So we see RAAC being wholeheartedly condemned by many in social media and press when it has actually been used effectively and wholeheartedly praised in the past. The production of RAAC was largely dominated by two brands of manufacturer in the UK:

Thermalite – the Company being Thermalite Y Tong Ltd successfully manufactured RAAC at Coleshill in Birmingham and as the use of the material grew plants were opened elsewhere including Bedlington, just north of Newcastle. The material is made by adding air to the water and concrete mixture and cooking it in giant ovens, each one weighing 32 tons. It is manufactured into building blocks, or where beams are required steel reinforcement is added in the process.

Siporex brand by the Costain Concrete Co from Motherwell, Lanarkshire. In March 1961 they made the news building the first church in Britain out of the material. The church is the Burdiehouse Gracemont Church in Edinburgh and is deemed of such architectural importance as to have a Class C preservation order. The building is still standing and used and I am informed it is in good order.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century you see the use of RAAC celebrated in many buildings: a Fine Fare supermarket in Aberdeen; Prestwick airport; numerous schools, offices, hospitals, public and private buildings.

As we entered the housing boom in 1980 wooden framed housing became a popular quick method of construction, usually clad in brick. In 1981 the Aggregate Concrete Block Association formed by autoclaved aerated concrete products and brick manufacturers created a hostile publicity campaign denouncing wooden frame buildings and warning of future problems with this method of construction. At the same time known problems were identified with precast reinforced steel council properties with similar, but different problems to those seen today. In post war Britain a lot of housing was built using prefabricated methods with expected lifespans of 30 years or so. The concrete construction, many by McAlpine had steel inside that rusted and as it rusted it expanded causing cracks and holes to appear in walls. Much of this housing was not intended to be permanent when built however, local authorities found themselves with the stark choice of upgrading and fixing this problem to a more permanent structure or demolishing and rebuilding. In a few cases there was no choice as the damage was too serious to retro fix the issue. In my old home town of Spalding this involved at least two houses being rebuilt as I am aware of and the slightly different style can be seen as you drive around that estate.

What we appear to be looking at today is a different problem with a similar cause. Where RAAC has been used and especially beams with steel reinforcement, and either poor construction or poor maintenance has allowed water to enter the steel has corroded, expanded and failed. Similarly where poor maintenance has enabled water to enter RAAC blocks damage has ensued, as it would with any other material to a greater or lessor extent. You can see references to this issue in 2019, so it is not new and there has been time to investigate and remedy this issue before now.

All this is the symptom of a larger malady. The simple fact is that we need to maintain our buildings and infrastructure all the time and to do so costs money. We cannot continue to run this country negligently and on the cheap and the stark reality is that to do this will require both increase in taxes and appropriately structured borrowing. I do not trust any politician that tells me otherwise.


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