Ask the Architect

What’s the deal with asbestos?

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Q. I’m selling my house, and learned that the detached garage has no permit, even though it was built by the former owner. I thought when we bought the house, as I was told, everything was legal. The garage plans did not get approved because of a rule that siding can’t be burnable. I’m frustrated because the architect says that the garage walls need insulation and finished boards, inside and out, to slow a fire. The siding is asbestos, which I thought is illegal. Will I have to remove the siding? I need to get this taken care of. What can you tell me about this?

A. Unfortunately, properties are sold regularly with the assumption, not fact or reality, that everything is legal. Calls come in from panicked sellers asking how fast a permit can be obtained for this kind of oversight. Then the complications of what people don’t agree on begin, holding up the process.

Garages can be 2 feet from side and rear property lines, zoning-wise, in your community, but safety-code-wise, anything closer than 3 feet must have a material rating to slow a fire from developing for at least one hour. Asbestos is unusual, and as a previously certified asbestos investigator, I took coursework that clarified that it has a bad reputation, based mostly on ignorance of its use, handling and installation. It truly is a “miracle material,” still used, mixed into cementitious products where it can’t be released into the air easily. Your siding is an example of this kind of product.

I’ve researched asbestos many times over the years because officials, not fully aware of its allowable use, questioned or rejected it, and I had to turn over data proving that it’s still safe, still used and, if handled correctly, has a remote chance of causing harm. Every branch of our military utilizes asbestos, and it is recognized by more than 70 public and private agencies and associations as the best method of fireproofing, even though you’ll find it extremely difficult to find data or endorsements because of what happened in the 1970s, when people began suing companies claiming medical damages.

Asbestos fibers, inhaled, cause cancer. So when I went looking, again, for information to answer your question, I started with the most respected agency in the industry for fire-retardant building systems testing, Underwriters Laboratories. They took down any website reporting of asbestos in building systems, having also been unsuccessfully sued by a party claiming that a fire-testing company might have purposefully endorsed a medically unsafe product. It was a costly process that took years. Lead, fiberglass, paint and plastics are still sold, even though they can also become dangerous, even deadly, if used, handled or applied incorrectly. Only one product has ever been recognized, officially, as “fireproof,” not just fire-resistant. Your siding is better than the one hour rating, without further expense, and a professional’s sealed letter should state that it satisfies the code requirement.

© 2018 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.