Handling Asbestos Abatement in Historic Homes

Asbestos // May 3, 2017

Historic homes can showcase a small piece of history, whether in its architecture and design or its role in a historic event or historical figure’s life. These buildings can help tell a story and provide a look into the past.

As such, home improvement isn’t necessarily the first thought when living in a historic home. Rather than major upgrades and renovations to these homes, preservation organizations hope to see improvements in terms of rehabilitation or restoration. Maintenance, instead of major changes, is truly key.

These older homes have to be considered in terms of health and safety, as well. A wide variety of toxins were likely used in some aspect when building the home, like asbestos and lead. Asbestos was long used in construction, especially for roofing shingles, insulation, flooring and tiles, and more. It was used heavily through the 1970s until it became more regulated, so old and historic homes most certainly contain the mineral somewhere.

Over time, it’s not uncommon for these older homes to showcase signs of aging, like cracks in the foundation or crumbling, flaking walls. In these instances especially, owners should beware of their health risks. Damaged materials containing asbestos can result in exposure to the toxin, which can lead to mesothelioma decades later.

In observance of National Home Improvement Month this May, we dug into some of the rules and regulations around historic homes and how they might impact precautions taken around asbestos and its removal.

Historic Home Regulations

The National Register of Historic Places Program, which falls under the National Park Service, looks over the preservation of historic buildings and landscapes. A historic home is generally 50 years or older and has been preserved to look like it did in the past – though certain interior upgrades are acceptable. The National Register also considers the home’s history itself, like any events that took place, important people who may have lived there, and if it has any historical elements in landscape, architecture or engineering achievements.

On a federal level, as long as a property doesn’t have any federal investments attached to it, the property owner can essentially do what they like with the home in terms of renovations. If a property has a federal grant for rehabilitation or any other federal monies involved, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation will have to approve any potential modifications to the property.

Additionally, each state has its own state historic preservation office that overlooks preservation efforts, and might have its own rules in place for how these historic properties can be handled. This will likely vary based on how “important” the house is in terms of its history.

Regardless, the National Register recommends historical houses be handled with extra care and precaution. It’s important to try to preserve the natural elements, structures, and materials of the home as much as possible.

Asbestos Removal in Historic Homes

Though of course these preservation organizations want to keep the house as historical as possible, the health and safety of its occupants are always a priority. Historic homes still have to be brought up to safety standards and code, including checks on fire safety, electrical work, and structural safety. Homeowners also have to consider the state of any materials containing toxins like asbestos.

Asbestos is innocuous unless it is damaged in some way, so it’s important for homeowners to be aware of its presence and its extent in the home. Being aware of the materials that contain asbestos can allow occupants to monitor any damage in the future from old age and avoid possibly disturbing the materials during any construction.

A qualified asbestos inspector can examine the home to determine where asbestos is present and if it poses any immediate dangers. The National Register further recommends that a plan be established for routine maintenance and preventive measures to ensure the occupants aren’t unknowingly exposed later on.

In general, since historic homes typically rely more on preservation efforts and maintenance, most asbestos containing materials will likely be left untouched and intact, so removal would likely not be necessary. If abatement is required, in some cases it doesn’t always mean entirely removed. Sometimes the material can be encapsulated instead, which would help preserve the original design.

Based on these rather loose regulations, asbestos removal in historic homes doesn’t necessarily have to be more complex than that of any other home. Depending on where the asbestos is located and the extent, professionals just need to be extra cautious to not adversely affect any important historic finishes. For any original work that needs to be completely removed, the National Register suggests replacing the structure with a new feature and finish that matches in design, color, texture and material if possible.

Asbestos always needs to be approached with caution to prevent the serious diseases it can cause. When it comes to historic homes, a little extra precaution can help preserve the house as well as protect its occupants.