The (hidden) costs of asbestos

Paul Phillips of Global Environmental argues that the costs of remediating unexpected asbestos are likely to be dwarfed by the expenditure associated with the inevitable delay to programme.

asbestos and money

As many as one in ten building projects discover unanticipated asbestos in buildings constructed before 2000

We have found that significant quantities of unanticipated asbestos containing materials (ACMs) are discovered in as many as one in ten building projects involving properties constructed before the year 2000.

There are several reasons why asbestos removal work can be challenging. Sometimes, the initial survey may be inadequate, failing to identify all asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) or underestimating their quantity. Asbestos can often be concealed behind other ACMs or embedded deep within a building’s structure, beyond the scope of even an intrusive survey. For example, removing asbestos insulating board (AIB) can uncover another layer of AIB, or contaminated debris in hidden spaces, including obsolete pipes insulated with asbestos. It’s important to note that survey teams cannot remove asbestos panels to inspect what lies behind them. A recent case in point is the refurbishment of a 1930s art deco office building in Covent Garden. Here, asbestos was discovered on pipework which was only revealed during the demolition phase, because it was hidden not just under screed but also behind blockwork from a late 1970s renovation.

Whatever the reasons, finding unexpected asbestos material is a nightmare scenario for the quantity surveyor, cost consultant and project manager. Initially there are the additional costs of remediating it to contend with. A typical scenario, removal of lets say 50 square metres of asbestos-containing ceiling panels found above a solid plaster ceiling removed during strip-out will probably set you back £10k. The safe decontamination of 100 sq metres of asbestos-lagged pipework located behind panelling could cost in the region of £25k.

A Typical Scenario

However, these fees are likely to be dwarfed by the costs incurred by the delay caused to the project’s programme. The disruption caused by even a modest amount of additional removal can have an inordinate impact on the project as a whole. Let me take you through a typical scenario:

Day 1 – Strip-out operatives discover debris behind panelling which they suspect may contain asbestos. The PM is notified and a consultant is booked to visit site the next day to conduct an asbestos survey.

Day 2 – asbestos consultant visits site and conducts the survey. Samples of the material are sent to a laboratory for analysis.

Day 4 – report received confirms that the material contains asbestos and the recommendation is to remove under fully controlled conditions. PM contacts his licensed removal contractor and invites them to site to assess and quote for the work

Day 6 – Asbestos Contracts Manager visits site, assesses the work and produces a quote.

Day 7 – Contract Administrator seeks authority for the overspend.

Day 8 – Authority given PM places order for the works.

Day 9 – Asbestos Contractor prepares and submits Plan of Works and ASB5 to notify HSE and schedule the removal works for 14 days time.

Day 23 – Contractors sets-up site (i.e. locates decon unit, enclosure etc).

Day 24-26 – Removal works is carried out.

Day 27 – Analyst is booked to carry out 4-stage clearance and issue Certificate of Reoccupation.

You can see that the delay to programme caused by finding unexpected asbestos can easily stretch to 4 weeks  – and this is the best case scenario assuming consultants and contractors are already procured and available at short notice.

The monetary costs of finding asbestos

The monetary costs of the delay will depend on the structure of the programme, the degree of flexibility built into the various processes and the experience / capability of the Project Manager. However, even if your PM is able to re-organise and reschedule works during the delay it is likely to involve costs of relocating plant, and may well have to account for subcontractors incurring costs because their operatives are standing idle through no fault of their own. If the asbestos is found at a relatively advanced stage in the project the PM may have several contractors teams onsite expecting some recompense for the downtime.

Then there are the dreaded Liquidated and Ascertained Damages (LADs) which may well be written in to the contract. A reasonably sized building project may well have penalty clauses for late delivery of £10k per week. You can therefore see that the overspend of the additional removal is now overshadowed by the costs of the delays involved. A relatively minor discovery of unforeseen ACMs can lead to £70k or more of additional costs as well as a loss of reputation for the QS/Cost Consultancy involved.

Mitigating the effects of discovering asbestos

So how can you mitigate this eventuality?

Appointing a competent organisation to carry out the asbestos survey

Firstly, make sure you appoint a reliable, competent organisation to carry out the R&D asbestos survey. Although it is not mandatory, UKAS accreditation against International Standard ISO 17020 is a good benchmark to sort out the wheat from the chaff in the asbestos consultancy market. Make evidence of UKAS accreditation a pass/fail item at the pre-qualification stage and obtain evidence that they have the requisite experience of working on the type of buildings involved.

Also give them as much background information as you can about the building and the project to enable them to plan the survey accordingly and match their methodology to the works involved.

If you have a scope or specification for the building works pass this to the consultancy so they can accurately target the intrusive areas to survey.  Whenever possible you should be passing them accurate buildings plans so they can locate service ducts, voids and risers where where ACM is often found.

Commissioning an asbestos specification

You may also consider commissioning an asbestos specification to be prepared before you procure any removal works. The specification, prepared by an independent consultant (possibly your survey company) will provide a forensic interpretation of the inventory of ACMs in the surveyor’s report which records the findings but doesn’t necessarily assess the implications. The specification should be prepared in consultation with other stakeholders i.e. FM team, building contractor or the wider design team, so that it can take account the locations, methodology and extent of any activity which has been planned.

For example the survey identifies asbestos containing material in the basement riser and 3rd floor riser but not on the floors in between. The consultant preparing the specification will evaluate this information for the spec and should speculate that the debris results from lagging of pipework running the length of the riser and suspect that while no asbestos was found during the survey on the first and second floors it is likely there will be some and will visit site and double-check this, or ask the surveyors to confirm whether this risk has been properly evaluated. This can prevent either the discovery of further contamination after the removal is let, or the contractors allowing for risk that doesn’t need to be taken into consideration, artificially inflating the costs of the removal.

The specification can then be used to create a level playing field during the procurement of a licensed contractor and remove the uncertainty which can lead to unforeseen or un-quoted work arising later in the project. It will require some investment, perhaps cost a few days work to compile and complete, but this forensic approach to the asbestos management could reduce the removal costs by as much as 30% a nice added bonus for the QS. Finally, for a belt-and-braces approach, think about factoring-in a 5-10% overspend on asbestos management as well to cover other eventualities.

Asbestos management is not an exact science but effort put in during planning the project will help mitigate the potential disaster of unforeseen asbestos containing material being discovered later in the project.