The crisis with RAAC in schools may have erupted just as pupils were returning for the start of the new academic year, but it was a long time in the making.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, RAAC was a popular material in roofing, walls and panelling. It was lightweight, a good insulator and fire-resistant, the last of these being an invaluable attribute at a time when the health dangers of asbestos were becoming apparent.
Sadly, the downsides of the material were realised all too late; it is porous and weakens when water gets in, while its natural lifespan of around 30 years means there was a ticking time bomb in thousands upon thousands of buildings.
The issue has been known for many years and did not suddenly come to light when school building surveys started being published at the start of September. For instance, in 2019 the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors issued guidance to its members on how to spot signs of crumbling RAAC, with the issue coming to light after a school roof collapse in 2018.
However, there is no doubt that scrutiny is more widespread and intense now, with other buildings such as hospitals affected. This also means the question of how to provide alternative space for those who would use these buildings is not confined to a few locations, especially as in some cases more needs to be done than a few ‘mitigations’.
This is where prefabricated steel buildings could come into their own. It is one thing to try to carry out running repairs and ‘mitigations’ to schools and other buildings, but clearly, some buildings need much more than that and some should be knocked down and fully replaced.
A steel prefab offers a great option, not just because it is designed to be erected swiftly, but precisely because it will stand the test of time. It won’t be starting to crumble in 30 years.
Indeed, the use of such buildings may prove extremely popular in the long run due to elements like good energy performance and fewer maintenance challenges (not just thanks to the absence of RAAC).
There are some who may sneer at such things, especially after comments such as that by education secretary Gillian Keegan that many children “prefer being taught in temporary buildings rather than classrooms”, words she spoke in Parliament as she hailed the “high quality” of portable buildings available.
Whether the children “petitioning” the minister during visits to such schools will get their way remains to be seen, but in many cases, temporary facilities will not be fully equipped in a way to meet all teaching needs, especially if they require sophisticated equipment, such as science labs.
However, if steel frame buildings are built and equipped as permanent new structures, be they at schools or anywhere else, they could yet provide the ideal environment.
Whether they are so popular with children once the novelty wears off is another matter, but they could certainly ensure schools and many more organisations never need to worry about the materials their buildings are made of.