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The RAAC crisis is a case study in failure to plan for the long-term implications of project decisions. How can the project management profession help resolve the problem?

“My first reaction to the issue was that it’s sad how easily things get politicised,” says Paul Morrell. He’s a chartered quantity surveyor who was the Government's first Chief Construction Adviser, appointed in November 2009. In April 2021, he was appointed chair of an independent review of current systems for testing construction products. “RAAC wasn’t an issue when I was in Whitehall ten years ago — although at the time there was an expectation of a major renewal programme in schools, and it doesn’t help that that was stopped.”

“People want someone to blame, and they’re pointing the finger at ‘cowboy’ builders and politicians,” he goes on. “But there are serious technical issues here that can actually help us learn from the crisis and improve. We talk excitedly about the madness of designing buildings with the 30-year life. But clearly we’re still using the product; and many of these buildings have been up for more than 30 years and are not at risk. It’s an industry problem that needs an industry solution.”

Defining the problem

Because RAAC is aerated, any water ingress around the structure can seep to the steel core of the beams; rust expansion of the rebar causes internal structural weakness without showing at the surface, allowing the rebar to sag as the concrete around it degrades.

“The way this concrete breaks down makes it harder to identify meaningful structural issues,” says Joe Woods, a Senior Project Manager at Gleeds Management Services, currently operating as a Senior Project Manager leading the London Education team for the Department for Education (DfE). “That’s why we’re taking a blanket approach, erring on the side of caution. In many cases, the first step we take on each project is proactively getting supports in place and moving classes into temporary accommodation.”

Where, what and how?

Morrell lays out the three stages for any project manager involved with RAAC-risk estates. First, do we know where it is? Some estates are maintained with good record of construction approaches; but in others, the locations of RAAC beams will be hit and miss. Second, where it’s in place, is it still safe? If the bearings are good, if there’s no moisture, if there haven’t been alterations — it might be fine.

Then third, where it’s unsafe, what’s the remediation? “We need to project-manage our way through,” says Morrell. “But there will be a constraint on the quality of people available to demonstrate whether there is or isn’t an issue; and then set about the remedial work.”

Creating a strict project flow-chart, then, is the main job of the project management teams right now. And from the moment the crisis emerged, it was clear to Woods that planning the solution as a programme, not just discrete projects, would be the key."

“We can’t be in three or four places at once, but we’ve learned that when we’re building a number of schools in an area we can batch them together for planning purposes,” he explains. “We can tender for one contractor across a number of sites, and optimise all our other resources around their availability. That cuts back hugely on meetings, tenders, planning, and approvals."

“But that does also mean making sure our technology is up to standard,” he adds. “That’s what allows us to co-ordinate more aggressively.”

Lessons learned?

Morrell argues that the focus now should be looking ahead — in the short-term, addressing the issues with RAAC in existing buildings; and for the long-term addressing fundamental weaknesses in our approaches to building maintenance and risk management. In both cases, projects managers have a lot to offer — and a lot to learn.

“We’re often building with a demolition plan in place for 30 or 40 years hence,” says Woods. “But we’re building schools and handing over the estate to people who often have little facilities management experience, and for whom building maintenance is competing in the budget with other essential services — salaries and consumables and all the rest.”

The good news is that — as Morrell’s stints working for government agencies show – there has already been a change in approach. The use of building information modelling (BIM) to support the design, construction and long-term operation and maintenance of built assets is becoming more common. Morrell is a strong advocate, having publicly backed use of BIM in 2010; it was made mandatory for all centrally-procured public sector construction projects from 2016.

He wants government, the building industry and project managers to learn from recent disasters and embed learning processes more deeply into future projects. “We should take a lesson from the cladding crisis and not rush around ‘fixing’ things without really fixing them,” he says. “When you ask about how buildings that were dangerously clad were re-clad, we seem to be short of data as to what’s actually gone back. So let’s learn from that.”

In the short-term, that means ensuring project managers like Woods are supported in diligent planning and remediation works that don’t sacrifice quality for speed. Longer term? “The big lessons are how you prove innovation; and the need build resilience into the design of buildings that will simply not be optimally cared for in the long term,” he says. “You have to make sure different groups of people work together to fulfil that cycle of remediation and lessons learned."

  • APM has a position on the Construction Leadership Council's RAAC panel, which has been set up to offer support to government. CIC includes a mix of professional bodies from across different sectors.

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