Asbestos and commercial property: explaining the dangers

The number one industrial killer

8 May 2015

John Toms explains the dangers of asbestos

Asbestos is an issue that needs to be considered before buying, adapting or demolishing any pre-2000 constructed property. Despite being a banned product, asbestos-related diseases are still the cause of around 5,000 deaths per year, according to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics.

However, asbestos surveys are quite often left until late in the project, as many within the industry will testify. Refurbishment projects discussed between the client, surveyor, architect and successful contractor are then subject to a last-minute asbestos check, which inevitably means acquiring quotations for surveys within a very tight timeframe. This crucial survey needs to be undertaken at the very beginning of the process to avoid a possible knock-on effect to the project dates and/or purchase of a property. Aside from finding notifiable products (that require a 14-day report to the HSE and inevitable delays), there are unforeseen costs associated with their removal. These could add a minimum of 30 days to a project that was due to start after the asbestos survey.

Survey preparations

During the planning stages for works in all properties built pre-2000, a refurbishment and demolition survey is needed before any work can be carried out. This is used to locate and describe, as far as is reasonably practicable, any asbestos-containing materials in the area where refurbishment work will be taking place, or the whole building if demolition is planned. Consequently, such surveys will be extremely intrusive and involve a destructive inspection to gain access to areas where work is planned.

Asbestos is an issue that needs to be considered before buying, adapting or demolishing any pre-2000 constructed property

The survey undertaken by an asbestos team is distinctly different to most other methods. Quite apart from the personal and respiratory protective equipment needed, there is the time taken to create intrusions, check materials, follow drawings to see where, for example, historical pipework might be located and new pipework installed, sampling the material(s), analysing the volume and producing a detailed report that all subsequent parties can follow.

Key to an effective asbestos survey is planning and preparation, the degree of which will depend on the extent and complexity of the building portfolio. Surveys of this type are not just about taking samples; there needs to be sufficient initial exchanges of information and a clear understanding between the duty holder, surveyor/contractor and asbestos consultant. Typically, an asbestos surveying consultancy will require information including:

  • full plans/drawings (marked up where appropriate) of the site(s)
  • in relation to refurbishment surveys, the Scope of Works (normally forwarded to the contractor). This will allow the consultant to ensure that the planned work is preceded by a project-specific intrusive survey
  • access arrangements, safety and security information, fire alarm testing, permits and contacts for operational or health and safety issues
  • full details of the building in terms of its use, processes, hazards and priority areas.

Although the above information is crucial, nothing can match a physical inspection of a building prior to providing a quotation. This will give a much more accurate appreciation of the site and include all the information on which the parties can agree, such as sample volumes and accessible areas.

Listed buildings

Many people think that asbestos was only used from the 1960s onwards. In reality, the material dates back thousands of years to ancient Greece and Egypt. It was commercially mined and exported from around 1870, and used in around 3,000 products; it is not confined to textured coatings, but can be a floor surface, pipe wrapping, riser, skirting board, inside doors, packed into windows, concealed inside walls and in loose insulation materials.

The installation of domestically available oil and gas central heating systems started around the 1920s. At this time, asbestos was very popular and with its strengths including the ability to withstand heat and moisture it was therefore specified within boiler systems, heating cupboards and pipe lagging. It was also used to insulate the attic floors of some properties, quite often placed loosely between timbers.

When looking to purchase a property for domestic or commercial use, a major consideration has to be its value and whether there is a potential for negative equity. Insurance cover, meanwhile, is determined by the current rebuilding cost taken from the information provided.

The risk of not knowing the asbestos content could therefore affect the charges to adapt a property, its eventual sale price, and the rebuilding cost for insurance purposes. When weighed against the value of a property, an asbestos management survey is therefore a considerable potential saving, both financially and in terms of health.

Many people think that asbestos was only used from the 1960s onwards. In reality, the material dates back thousands of years to ancient Greece and Egypt

All too frequently people will not have considered that asbestos might be present in a listed building, which could cause considerable scheduling issues until the appropriate survey is undertaken.

There is also the issue of whether property damaged by storm, flood or fire, could be reinstated within the agreed rebuilding cost (or sum insured), taking into account the considerable charges associated with removing asbestos.

Several high-profile listed properties are known to contain asbestos, including royal palaces and numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street. It was once considered to be a fantastic building product, and widely specified by architects, particularly prior to 1985. It was popular in renovation and modernisation works in older properties and was often used during the 1990s for textured coatings.

It is clear that whether looking to purchase, adapt, modernise or upgrade a listed building, the strong potential for asbestos presence should be considered and appropriate measures taken to prevent disturbance.

Specialist restorers of listed buildings (whether domestic or commercial properties) must obtain a refurbishment survey for asbestos, because there is a great possibility that it will be displaced during this type of work. The death toll caused by asbestos disturbance is high among tradesmen, particularly electricians and plumbers, and, of course, the occupier could also be living at the property while the work is taking place.

It is a legal requirement that any contractor or specialist restorer undertaking such works has received formal asbestos awareness training, or a refresher course, valid within 12 months.


Flooding is a relatively regular occurrence in the UK often causing widespread damage. Asbestos professionals have an important role in advising clients, whether in the case of commercial, domestic or industrial buildings, about the possible impact of fibre release when considering the stripping out and drying of properties. All properties built pre-2000 could conceivably contain asbestos in some form.

Restoration contractors may be appointed by insurance companies to assist with stripping out wet building materials and drying of the structures.

Of primary concern is the manner in which this takes place. Removal of wet contents, stripping the wet building items and installation of drying equipment is a standard method, often not preceded by an asbestos survey and this is possibly problematic.

Aside from the potential for prosecution for not having the requisite refurbishment survey, the HSE will also want to know whether those tradespeople, often including surveyors, architects and engineers, have received formal asbestos awareness training, again, another legal requirement for almost everyone aligned to the construction industry.

So, what should insurers, brokers and loss adjusters be doing?

Checking and verifying that contractors have received asbestos awareness training is crucial. The HSE perspective is simple; the works cannot proceed without a risk assessment in the form of an asbestos refurbishment survey. This creates an environment in which the property is safe to work and install air blowers and moisture extraction equipment. Accordingly, the Construction Design and Management coordinator, surveyor, architect and loss adjuster must ask for a site-specific asbestos refurbishment survey before disturbing the fabric of any building constructed pre-2000.

Although highly intrusive, this type of survey is intended to prevent people working or living at the property being affected by fibres and hopefully ultimately remove asbestos from its unenviable position as the largest industrial killer in the UK.

John Toms is Director, Asbestos Division at IOM Consulting Ltd

Further information

Related competencies include:

This feature is taken from the RICS Property journal (May/June 2015)