Home » Could life cycle cost planning have prevented the RAAC crisis in schools?

Could life cycle cost planning have prevented the RAAC crisis in schools?

Published: 20/09/2023

As millions of parents across the country posted the obligatory back to school shot of their child embarking on the first day of term, there are thousands of children who won’t even be stepping into their school uniform this autumn.    

In June this year, in its ‘Condition of school buildings’ report the National Audit Office (NAO) disclosed there are 500 buildings in urgent need of repair, and 38% of school buildings believed to be past estimated initial design life. It’s this, in part, that instigated the Department for Education (DfE) to advise the closure of 147 schools across the UK earlier this month. It appears that other public buildings could be affected as theatres, hospitals and universities containing RAAC have closed as an extra precaution, to establish the scale of the problem.     

But, not surprisingly, the roots of this crisis go back much further. As the estimated costs to fix the problem are predicted by some experts to run into the billions, we explore: could the crisis have been avoided with Life Cycle Cost Planning?    

Years of concrete evidence 

There were concerns as far back as 1961, regarding RAAC’s performance, with early studies citing that moisture reduced the strength of the material by about 13% and that exposure to polluted air for 9 months could reduce the strength by about 40%.   

Indeed, at the time, the Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE) highlighted how unlike concrete the material was: ‘so marked is the dissimilarity it is perhaps unfortunate that the term concrete has been retained for these aerated products.’    

Nonetheless, the material was also very light, had good insulation properties and was cost effective. These properties helped it become a popular post-war choice from the 1950s to the 1990s – specifically for flat roofs in schools and other public buildings that included court houses, prisons and hospitals.    

More recently, in 1994, concerns were raised over the condition of some structures, when cracks began to appear in the ceilings of some of the schools. In 2002 a structural report raised concerns over the coating protecting the panels, for the first time, stating: ‘Coating providing corrosion protection to the reinforcement is likely to have broken down in many panels over 20 years old.’   

A life cycle cost plan (LCCP) takes into account the cost of an asset, or its parts throughout its life cycle, while fulfilling the performance requirements. It’s a methodology for systematic economic evaluation of life cycle costs over a period of analysis in the agreed scope.  If done correctly, it will normally answer these questions:   

  • What do I need to do now, and how much will it cost me?   
  • What will I need to do in the future because I have done it, and how much will that cost me?   
  • How long is the ‘future’?   

Data on the life cycle for each asset or component, including any problematic issues that could arise from these materials is normally readily available. Indeed, this information would have existed, even back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  However, it’s likely it would have been boxed up and delivered to the client never to be seen again.    

For an LCCP to be done correctly, the information must be shared with the building’s facilities management team to ensure they oversee, manage and schedule out all the maintenance and replacement tasks implied by the design, as well as the costs associated with them.   

As the President of IStructE, Matthew Byatt, said in a recent interview: ‘If the material’s been installed and manufactured correctly, with adequate bearings and has been maintained, it should still be safe.’    

Whoever cuts more, pays more    

When the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme was scrapped in 2010, by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove, the Department for Education (DfE) expressed concerns that funding for subsequent replacement schemes were too small.  

Sam Freedman, former senior policy adviser at DfE repeatedly raised concerns that the department wasn’t receiving enough money to stem the ever-growing maintenance backlog. It wasn’t until 2018, when the collapse of a roof at a primary school in Kent – thought to have been caused by a lack of reinforcement around the bearing – led to the government monitoring public buildings containing the material.

It’s taken until the tail end of the summer holidays for the government to release its new guidelines to minimise the impact of RAAC in education settings. This has prompted 19 schools across the UK to delay the start of term for safety reasons with a further 4 schools moving to remote learning, while 20 schools have a mix of online and in-school learning.

As it stands, 174 schools could be at risk of crumbling concrete, although this number could increase.  Schools that have notified the DfE of suspected RAAC will be surveyed within the coming weeks and the department has allocated £1.8 billion in emergency funding for repair work. However,the NAO report said the government needs to commit £7 billion each year to maintain, repair and rebuild the school estate.

As the department faces an ever-growing repair and maintenance bill, Freedman described (in an interview with Newsnight) the decision to ignore the maintenance backlog as one that’s ‘ultimately cost more’. He said: ‘If you want to save money you must do it in a way that’s not building up problems for the future.’

If enough funding had been allocated to LCCP, it could have been spent on regular structural inspections. As far back as 1994, reports recommended annual inspections if the building structure was in poor condition, and five-yearly intervals if the structure was in good condition.  Although a costly investment, it could have saved on the maintenance bill, which is steadily growing, as more schools potentially seek temporary accommodation.

In its latest report, NAO also stated: ‘DfE must ensure that its approach delivers the best value from the resources it currently has available.’ It added: ‘Avoiding an outlay today may save money but there’s a danger the bill gets deferred to tomorrow in areas where it really needs to be spent, not least on assuring safety of school buildings.’

Not to labour the point, but who will do the work?

If done effectively, a life cycle cost plan can help with forecasting and budgeting for replacements, periodic maintenance and future expenditure on replacements. It can also help with planning for the amount of labour required and factoring in the associated costs.

If money is allocated and invested on an annual basis for repair and maintenance, it will help to prevent larger costs in the future when there may not be enough labour to cope with an emergency situation.

Aside from the cost implications for individual schools, there are potentially many other public buildings that would have used RAAC. As our chief economist Dr David Crosthwaite has highlighted: ‘This will mean a lot of work for surveyors and engineers, maintenance contractors, Acrow prop manufacturers and possibly Portacabin manufacturers at a time when according to the Office for National Statistics, more than one in five construction businesses are experiencing a shortage of workers.’

Rather than wait for a disaster, such as the collapse of a ceiling, LCCP can mitigate the risk of a disaster and potentially save on astronomical labour costs.

A design for life

There are many factors to be considered when assessing the life expectancy of reinforced concrete. For example, on a flat roof structure, you would typically assess:

  • quality of concrete   
  • permeability of concrete   
  • quality of steel   
  • fire protection of steel    
  • design    
  • workmanship   
  • loading    
  • detailing

There are several factors that could contribute to early deterioration – these include: overloading, joint failure, corrosion and lack of fire protection.    

But, according to NAO’s report, ‘24,000 school buildings (38% of the total) are beyond their estimated initial design. This includes 10,000 buildings constructed before 1940, with an estimated initial design life of 60 to 80 years; and an estimated 13,800 ‘system-built’ blocks constructed between 1940 and 1980, with an estimated initial design life of 30 to 40 years.’

As has been widely reported, some of these schools (at least 13) were marked for demolition and rebuilding in Labour’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) scheme, which also aimed to refurbish or renew every secondary school in England.

But, as aforementioned, this scheme was scrapped, due to its estimated cost of at least £55 billion.  As NAO’s figures show, it’s not unusual for a school building to be beyond its initial design life and as they also report, these ‘can normally be used beyond their initial design life with adequate maintenance.’

However, an LCCP can help surveyors and facilities managers make better-informed decisions around whether a building can be used beyond its initial design life with adequate maintenance, or whether it needs to be demolished or rebuilt.  As the NAO reports, the former decision can be more expensive to maintain and, on average, these buildings will ‘have poorer energy efficiency leading to higher running costs’. There’s substantial evidence that if money had been invested into the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) scheme, this current crisis could have been avoided.


At the moment, it’s still difficult to ascertain the full extent of the problem that RAAC poses in public buildings and the potential impact this could have on children’s learning and wider society. While the Regulator of Social Housing insists it’s not prevalent in any of its housing stock, public buildings across the country continue to close.

Experts, such as Byatt, are advising building owners with RAAC to seek assistance from a ‘qualified structural engineer to understand its condition and determine the risk’. Meanwhile, researchers at Loughborough University – who have studied the material since the ‘90s – have evidence to suggest ‘RAAC in good condition with adequate bearing points performs better than originally intended’ and that there are ‘quicker, cheaper and less disruptive’ alternatives to demolition. It may also only require regular inspections.

If the latter is the case, some of the higher cost predictions reported in the media could be tempered – BCIS has estimated in the region of £850,000-£1,150,000 for the removal and replacement of a school building roof containing RAAC, while a completely new building could cost up to £5,000,000.

This aside, there is strong evidence mounting – from experts within the construction industry and education sector – that this crisis could have been avoided if money had been invested in the repair and maintenance of buildings containing RAAC. It would be remiss of the government not to take heed and learn from this lesson, not least to avoid something similar – in 2020, NAO identified Mechanical and Electrical services as ‘elements with the highest condition need’.

A life cycle cost plan that takes the lifecycle of materials and components into consideration is one of the most effective methods for mitigating the risk of buildings falling into a state of disrepair, to the point where they may need to be closed. Not only could this save valuable resources but it’s a significant contributor to the health, wellbeing and educational prospects of our children and the wider society.

It could also be worth considering – is this crisis indicative of failings within the British construction industry to manufacture, install or maintain the material properly? While RAAC was used widely in Europe it has not, as yet, been identified as causing any problems in public buildings on the continent.

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