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RAAC to Basics: Putting Maintenance at the Heart of Infrastructure

UKCRIC

6 min read Partner content

Concerns about concrete in public buildings hit the headlines ahead of the new school year. PoliticsHome sat down with a panel of academic experts from UKCRIC to explore the challenge of maintaining the nation’s buildings and infrastructure and to find out what lessons we can learn.

The UK faces an ageing challenge. But this particular ageing challenge isn’t about the changing demographics of our nation. It is about the buildings and infrastructure that we all rely on every single day.  

The stark reality is the nation’s infrastructure is getting older. Without proactive, regular, and effective maintenance, it can develop problems that often only become apparent when they reach a point of crisis.

PoliticsHome recently sat down with three leading experts on building materials and asset management who are part of UKCRIC, a collaborative research body focused on infrastructure and cities. On the agenda were the challenges that our ageing infrastructure raises and how these can best be addressed.  

Professor Sergio Cavalaro is Chair of Infrastructure Systems at Loughborough University. He explained to PoliticsHome why effective maintenance is a challenge that the UK urgently needs to tackle.  

“Like people, infrastructure ages,” he tells us. “Like people, in the early years it shows very little sign of problems. However, as it gets older, the signs become more and more evident. At that point, the cost of addressing the consequences becomes more expensive. But there are certain things that we can do right now.”

Cavalaro’s UKCRIC colleague, Professor Leon Black from the University of Leeds, agrees that one of the key challenges with ageing infrastructure is that it often deteriorates in a way that initially presents itself as a catalogue of minor defects.

“Often, an inefficient or slightly defective piece of infrastructure is something you simply put up with,” Black says. “It almost becomes death by 1000 cuts. There's a little bit of inconvenience here and there until ultimately it grows into a problem that is too big to ignore.”

That trajectory - of gradual deterioration culminating in crisis - was evident recently when 214 schools and colleges affected by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) were identified by the Government.

Black stresses that it would be misguided to attribute the issues that have emerged in recent months to a particular flaw within the material itself, pointing out that all materials are designed with a specific lifespan in mind.

“Yes, the material is failing now,” Black tells us, “but for the most part, RAAC did what it was supposed to do. It was designed to last for 30 to 35 years and it started failing after 40 years."

UKCRIC Executive Manager, Joanne Leach of the University of Birmingham, believes that the sudden emergence of RAAC as a policy issue highlights a set of broader lessons about how UK infrastructure and assets should be maintained.  

“If things are working well they are invisible – until they break,” she tells us. “You have to keep at keeping things working. Keeping things high quality. It's a daily job”

However, the UKCRIC panel was clear that some of the most important learning from RAAC should be focused on where things worked well. They cite the proactive stance taken by the NHS which identified RAAC as an issue and commissioned research in 2019.

“There are reports dating back to the 1990s on RAAC,” Cavalaro tells us. “Maybe not fully understanding the issue but raising questions. The research commissioned by the NHS in 2019 meant that the learning happened very quickly. Otherwise, we wouldn't have the guidance and the knowledge that we have today.”

Cavalaro believes that the proactive response that the NHS took to RAAC in 2019 ultimately delivered tangible benefits to the nation at a time when we required healthcare the most during the Covid pandemic.

“Because of the pioneering work the NHS sponsored in this area, we were able to work with engineers and professional bodies,” he says. “This created the knowledge that enabled some of these facilities to remain open in a time of national crisis.”

One of the characteristics of the NHS response that our expert panellists highlight is that it was only possible because there was clarity of ownership. That enabled the NHS to identify the scale of the issue in a way that is much more difficult across buildings with a range of different owners – such as schools or commercial buildings.

“With RAAC in the NHS, they could see it and they took responsibility for it,” Leach tells us. “But that is something that doesn't happen all the time. And that is a real challenge.”

However, regardless of issues relating to ownership, the foundation for any response must be a sound understanding of the problem. Getting ahead of potential future issues depends on commissioning research that can identify the challenges ahead and help shape new solutions. Leach tells us that will require a step change in investment. Of the £600 billion earmarked for investment in infrastructure and urban systems engineering over the next decade, just 0.02% is committed to research.

Professor Black argues that alongside an increase in research funding, there also needs to be a rebalancing of policy to reflect the critical importance of effective asset maintenance.

“We're happy to invest in infrastructure and new structures,” he explains. “But the discussion also needs to be about the need for improved regular preventative maintenance.”

Key to delivering that shift in thinking and practice could be new collaborative relationships between policymakers and researchers that are focused on developing a shared understanding of the size and scale of the nation’s maintenance challenge.

However, the panel agrees that the twin drivers of the nation’s transition to net zero and emerging new technologies could potentially be transformative.

“Real opportunities are emerging. Drones, scanning buildings, sensors, and software that can determine the deterioration of materials are already happening,” Leach tells us. “But we need to start designing for maintenance. That could be self-healing materials that don't need any intervention, different components, or different finishes.”

Whilst stressing the importance of technology, investment, and design, the expert panel believes that the most fundamental change would be a shift in mindset that acknowledges the vital importance of maintaining our built environment. That, Leach explains, is essential if we are to create great places where people want to live.

“We want our cities to be all great, all of the time, and that’s what maintenance can give you,” she says. “Not to be ‘redeveloped’ or ‘reinvigorated’. If you put ‘re-‘in front of it, you’ve probably let quality drop too far. Let’s just have places that are great, full stop.”

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