What is RAAC concrete?
Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) is a reinforced form of lightweight concrete used to form panels or planks. It has been used in the UK in the construction of flat roofs, floors and walls, but is far less robust than traditional concrete, which increases the risk of structural failure.
The lifespan of RAAC is typically 30 years and, although some private sector buildings have been constructed using RAAC, it has mostly been used in public sector buildings. Its use in the UK began in the 1950s but ceased in the mid-1990s. Only now are we seeing significant structural and safety issues arising in buildings across the country as a result.
The extent of RAAC concrete use in schools and the impact
Whilst the problems with RAAC were discovered as early as the 1980s, the issues in the public sector only came to light when the roof of a school in Kent collapsed suddenly in 2018. What followed led to the closure of over 100 schools in August this year, just as they prepared to welcome pupils back from the summer holidays.
We know that the presence of RAAC does not necessarily mean a school has to be closed. Much depends upon the extent of the presence of RAAC. However, because public sector buildings are usually less well maintained than buildings in the private sector, the presence of the material used particularly at schools for example, poses a greater threat than when used in the private sector buildings such as airports. Indeed as of the time of writing, the Department for Education has confirmed 214 cases of RAAC in schools, but this is on the rise.
What happens if RAAC is present and what is the impact on construction professionals?
If a building is identified as potentially contaminated a building surveyor or structural engineer with RAAC experience should be appointed to carry out an inspection and assess the position. Most important is the assessment of the risk of collapse, and its prevention. In the case of schools, the Department for Education (“DoE”) edict obliges them to put mitigation steps in place to make buildings safe. This might include for example implementing a form of structural support or removal and replacement of individual panels. Work must be carried out by approved contractors following the Department for Education’s guidance.
It is possible that because the RAAC crisis is widespread across the country there may well be a shortage of approved building professionals to carry out remedial work. The issue is exacerbated in areas where large numbers of schools are affected. This of itself could impact on the speed at which children are able to return to the classroom whilst repairs are carried out.
What are the insurance implications?
When the RAAC crisis in schools came to light in August this year, the DoE confirmed that it would fund all capital funded mitigation works required as a result of the presence of RAAC. This included providing temporary units for use on school grounds.
That said, it has also been recommended that if additional financial support is required, schools should contact their insurers to see what may already be covered under their policies. Specifically schools have been advised that if they are utilising alternative accommodation, they should inform their brokers and provide relevant details as soon as possible. The cost of remediation works need to be covered, and there should be a contract works insurance policy in place. Checks will need to be made of all policies to ensure that they are sufficient for potentially large scale repairs.
Currently however, the Government are mainly footing the bill for the remediation work, and not insurers. This is largely because use of RAAC in the UK stopped in the mid-1990s and claims against those involved in the original installation of the product may well be time barred. That said, there is scope for potential recovery claims so the implications for construction professionals and their professional indemnity insurers involved at the time of construction are not instantly limited. In any event liability for construction professionals may arise where a building surveyor or chartered engineer now fails to properly identify RAAC or assess the risks at the relevant time.
From an insurance coverage perspective, questions can most certainly be raised in the event that RAAC fails. Many building insurance policies, for example, do not cover gradual deterioration or inherent defects. So, if RAAC failure leads to damage to other parts of a building, the policy may not cover the primary damage, even if it covers resultant damage.
Written by Alex Ranaghan and Neera Malde
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