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A is for Alpha, the beginning … and also Asbestos

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

Understand what you are taking on – and be prepared for Surprises!

West upstairs bedroom before asbestos removal. May 2022

We bought the Surprise House knowing it contained asbestos. Effectively the first-floor rooms had been built from it; asbestos sheet lined the ceilings, and the interior walls were constructed from it – a timber frame with an asbestos sheet either side and wallpaper on top!

The estate agent had brought the asbestos to my attention, as they are legally required to do, and they had sourced a quote for its removal and disposal from a local company. It was one of the reason’s the house was relatively affordable; no mortgage company would lend against it – and even developers were put off.

Now asbestos can be scary to deal with. The internet is full of the dangers of asbestos, much of it propagated by companies offering asbestos removal and disposal services. Some of their web sites are emblazoned with red banners saying DANGEROUS but many materials can be dangerous – even water. It’s all about knowing which asbestos you are dealing with (easier said than done as it’s often hidden or difficult to identify) and treating it with care and the correct personal protective equipment (PPE).

After we completed the purchase of the Surprise House, we asked W. the contractor to revisit and confirm the quote. He estimated the work would take a couple of weeks during which time the house would be sealed up and no-one was to go inside apart from the asbestos-removal contractors (in PPE) until the property was certified clean (both air test and visual inspection) by an independent 3rd party asbestos survey company. That sounded good, and removal work began in mid-May. (Our builder was pencilled in for late June.)

A few days before I was due to take my elderly parents on holiday to Wales, I got a call from W asking me to come down to the house, there was a problem! Kitted out in hazmat suit, booties, and mask, we went inside. Carrying out the removed asbestos had torn away some of the multi-layered wallpaper on the wall beside the stairs to reveal a rough, grey surface - more asbestos … my heart sank. How much? Where else? What cost?

The first of the surprises of our Surprise House! The internal walls downstairs were solid, not the hollow construction of the first floor; brick or block construction was assumed by all. Removing more wallpaper from the internal walls in a variety of rooms downstairs revealed asbestos sheet over concrete, and the concrete had stuck to the asbestos sheet. It soon became clear that this was rather a different level of complexity of asbestos removal and disposal. The sheeting couldn’t easily be separated from the concrete, in a way that we could be assured that asbestos fibres weren’t remaining. The internal walls had to come out!! Thank goodness, the central, supporting wall was made of brick and was not covered in asbestos.

What was due to take 2 weeks took more than 3 times as long – plus some slippage for holidays. It was the second half of July before the house was ready for its asbestos test.

What can you learn

East upstairs bedroom after asbestos removal. July 2022.

Most building and renovation magazines and web sites suggest you need a contingency budget of 10% as something will always need more money than expected (and there are many tears shed by those who go into their house building or renovation project with little or no continency). However for a major renovation project, I’d suggest a 20-30% contingency should be considered. In our case, the extra asbestos work cost more than twice a 10% contingency budget. On the upside, it also left us with a blank canvas from which to start and good knowledge of house structure and condition.

So A is for Alpha, the beginning … and also Asbestos, but it could have also been the end! More on the asbestos story to follow


  1. Introduction to Asbestos essentials The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is Britain’s national regulator for workplace health and safety. They provide lots of information in the form of task sheets for tradespeople who need to work with asbestos.

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