How can I safely retrofit an older home containing asbestos?

As a significant proportion of the UK’s housing stock continues to age, there is an associated need for homeowners – and indeed, decision-makers at government level – to consider how these properties can be appropriately retrofitted to ensure their fitness for decades to come.

The term “retrofitting” refers to the practice of carrying out improvement work at an existing property, with a view to boosting its energy efficiency. Common examples of retrofitting projects include the installation of roof, wall, and floor insulation, the improvement of ventilation or draught proofing, and the replacement of windows.

It is believed that some 27 million homes across the UK will need to be retrofitted if the UK Government is to reach its net zero target by 2050. Even simply finding the money to make this possible is one major challenge, given that the “deep” retrofitting of a single property in the UK to make it more energy efficient and cheaper to run, could cost around £75,000.

However, there is another monumental challenge that awaits many of those attempting to retrofit the UK’s older homes: safety, particularly in relation to the potential presence of asbestos. While the use of asbestos in the UK was banned in 1999, the material is still estimated to be present in hundreds of thousands of buildings up and down the country.

So, if you are the owner of a UK residential property constructed prior to the year 2000, and you wish to ensure the safe management of asbestos during your retrofitting project, what do you need to know? Below, we have set out our practical, expert advice.

How can I safely retrofit an older home containing asbestos?

What should I know about asbestos in older homes?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral once extensively used in the construction of UK homes, public, and commercial buildings alike – particularly from around the 1950s until the 1980s. As we have previously written about, legal restrictions began to be imposed on the use of asbestos in the UK after this peak period, as knowledge of the health risks grew.

Such qualities of asbestos as its mechanical strength, fire and chemical resistance, and its effectiveness as an insulator – as well as its relative affordability and availability – led to the material being incorporated into thousands of products. These encompassed the likes of asbestos insulating board (AIB), asbestos cement roof tiles, textured decorative coatings, sprayed asbestos coatings, and loose cavity insulation.

Unfortunately, however, the inhalation or ingestion of loose asbestos fibres – as can easily happen in certain circumstances, such as the aforementioned asbestos products being accidentally disturbed – can bring about serious health consequences.

If someone is exposed to asbestos, they could be susceptible to developing a potentially fatal asbestos-related disease – such as mesothelioma or asbestos-related lung cancer – many years later. Indeed, even to this day, around 5,000 people a year still die from asbestos-related disease in the UK.

How do I identify if a home contains asbestos?

It is important to never depend on visual inspection alone as a means of determining whether a particular product in your home may or may not contain asbestos. This is a mineral, after all, that comes in six types – chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite. While chrysotile fibres, for instance, are soft and curved, other forms of asbestos can have fibres with a more rod- or needle-like appearance.

We have written in the past about the potential visual signifiers of common asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) in a building. However, even if you see a particular material in your home that seems suspicious, we would always urge you to arrange for a professional asbestos survey, to definitively confirm whether it does or does not contain asbestos.

You might also be interested in consulting our guide on how to choose an asbestos surveyor.

What are the types of asbestos surveys, and which one do I need?

There are two broad types of asbestos survey undertaken in UK buildings:

  • A management survey, which is the type of survey intended to help building owners and managers in their efforts to safely manage asbestos during the normal occupation and use of the property
  • A refurbishment or demolition survey, which – as the name implies – is the type of survey typically carried out in a building before major refurbishment, demolition, and/or remedial work is undertaken.

An asbestos management survey typically involves such areas of a property as its rooms, corridors, stairs, basements, underfloor coverings, lofts, roofs, and windows being inspected for signs of ACMs. It often involves samples being taken of materials to check them for asbestos. However, the emphasis of a management survey is predominantly on visual inspection, with only a minimum of intrusive work being carried out.

By contrast, a refurbishment or demolition survey will involve destructive inspection, and a risk of asbestos disturbance (which is why the area will need to be vacated while the survey is being carried out). The aim of this survey is to locate and identify even those ACMs that are hidden within the building fabric.

Given that common retrofitting projects – such as the installation of new windows and heating systems – are typically quite invasive (and therefore present a risk of asbestos disturbance), you are likely to be much more reassured by the results of a refurbishment or demolition survey, than a management survey.

A refurbishment or demolition survey is the more thorough type of survey, so you can expect it to provide a fuller and more accurate account of the asbestos situation in your property.

How do I interpret the results of an asbestos survey?

Once you have arranged for a professional asbestos survey to be carried out, and the surveying is complete, you can expect to be issued with a comprehensive asbestos survey report. This will include extensive information, encompassing a description of the areas included in the survey, the survey method used, and a bulk analysis report/table.

The report will also include photographs that help set out the status of any ACMs in your home. In addition, there will be recommendations on how you can safely manage any such materials that the surveyor discovered to be present in the building.

The results could have significant implications for how you approach your retrofitting project. You may ultimately decide that the risk posed by any given ACMs in your property – including the likelihood of being disturbed – means you have little choice but to remove them. However, there are some circumstances in which encapsulation of the materials (in effect, sealing them off to prevent future disturbance) may be the best choice.

Although your chosen asbestos surveyor can provide recommendations on the basis of your building or situation, you will ultimately need to decide for yourself what steps to take to manage your home’s ACMs safely during retrofitting work.

How do I choose the right professionals for asbestos removal?

If you decide that the best course of action would be to have ACMs removed from your home prior to retrofitting, it is a good idea to consult our advice on how to select the best possible asbestos removal company.

In summary, various factors are likely to influence your choice of asbestos removal professionals, including:

  • The asbestos removal company or contractor’s all-round reputation
  • Whether the contractor holds a licence from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – here at Oracle Solutions, we recommend that you only use a licensed contractor
  • The insurance the company holds – HSE licence holders are required to prove they have sufficient and suitable insurance cover for all asbestos projects they undertake
  • Whether the asbestos removal firm uses up-to-date equipment and procedures
  • Whether the asbestos removal firm uses safe and appropriate waste disposal methods
  • Whether the given contractor has further industry accreditations, such as SafeContractor and/or CHAS (The Contractors Health and Safety Assessment Scheme); these are not, however, strict requirements for an asbestos removal firm to have
  • The costs and value for money of the firm’s asbestos removal service – although you should never be guided purely by the headline price.

What are the regulations and guidelines I need to be aware of?

The UK’s principal, overarching asbestos legislation is the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (also sometimes referred to as CAR 2012). However, some confusion may arise here among homeowners looking to retrofit their own property, given that CAR 2012 is generally understood to be directed at non-domestic properties, rather than domestic ones.

That “understanding”, however, is a slight oversimplification. In truth, CAR 2012 can also apply to some common areas in domestic properties. Examples of such areas include garages or parking spaces that aren’t allocated to any specific individual, as well as the foyer areas, lobbies, lifts, stairs, and boiler rooms in blocks of flats.

Another important aspect to be aware of is that if you are a homeowner living in your own domestic property and you intend to have contractors retrofit it, you won’t be legally responsible for any risks posed to those contractors by ACMs. This is because, as the owner of the building, you will not be engaged in any work activity yourself.

It will therefore be the responsibility of your chosen contractor, when they are retrofitting your UK home, to comply with the asbestos regulations. This will be crucial for protecting their own health, as well as your health as the homeowner.

If, on the other hand, you are the landlord of a residential property at which you are planning to have retrofitting undertaken, you will be the person responsible for maintaining the building’s structure, which will make you a “dutyholder” under CAR 2012.

This means that as the landlord, you will be responsible for managing asbestos in any properties under your ownership, in order to protect the health of tenants, visitors, and any tradespeople/contractors who may undertake maintenance or repair work at the property.

How can I ensure the safety of those in the home during the retrofit?

There are various steps that you can take to help protect people from asbestos exposure in your residential property, if a retrofitting project is to be carried out there.

These include:

  • Considering whether temporary relocation of the building occupants will be necessary for the duration of any asbestos removal work that may be required
  • Arranging for inspection and air testing after the removal of asbestos, to help ensure no trace of asbestos remains that could pose a risk to health
  • Maintaining open communication with any asbestos removal contractors and retrofitting professionals you use, so that you are well-informed about the progress and safety measures
  • Engaging in discussion with your chosen contractor(s) if you have any concerns about asbestos at any stage.

Retrofitting professionals such as electricians or heating engineers may not, of course, be asbestos experts in their own right. However, if they will be undertaking work within or on any building or structure that may contain asbestos, they will need to have at least undergone asbestos awareness training.

Conclusion: follow best practice to ensure the safe retrofitting of your home

Hopefully, this article will have left you in no doubt about the importance of always prioritising safety and compliance with the relevant regulations, if you are to have retrofitting work carried out in your domestic property. We have detailed many of the best practices that you are advised to follow.

As part of this, the crucial role of professional expertise in asbestos management must never be underestimated. So, if you require the benefit of such know-how, why not contact the Oracle Solutions team today?

How can I safely retrofit an older home containing asbestos? 1

Written by Jess Scott

Jess Scott has been an all-round asbestos consultant since 1996. That’s nearly 3 decades of asbestos knowledge. He spends his time sharing that knowledge with the team at Oracle and with their clients. Jess's goal is, and always has been, to use my expertise in helping people to comply with the law. This legal compliance ultimately helps to protect everyone from the harmful effects of asbestos. Jess has acted as an asbestos expert witness in legal cases and is involved in many asbestos educational activities throughout the UK.