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Retrofitting with asbestos.

A movement is slowly spreading from coast to coast. It began in Los Angeles, moved through Chicago and Boston, and now has reached Philadelphia. All of these cities recently amended their municipal building codes to require that older office buildings be retrofitted with fire/life-safety systems.

The heart of a fire/life-safety system is an automatic sprinkler, but a full system also includes alarms, smoke detectors, and a direct signal to the closest fire station.

Most cities already require that newly constructed commercial buildings be outfitted with fire-safety systems. But these four cities broadened the requirement after tragic fires gutted older buildings not covered by existing ordinances. Surely, many other cities will be joining this movement in the future--hopefully before they have learned the lesson the hard way.

Unfortunately, compliance with the new ordinances has been slower than the fire-safety advocates imagined. The economic recession certainly played a role, as vacancy rates soared and retrofitting increasingly became viewed as a financial hardship for already burdened building owners.

But the single most important reason delaying implementation has been the presence of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) in most of the affected buildings. Believing that they will have to bear the high cost of removing all asbestos, building owners and managers have successfully won postponement of the requirement to retrofit.

That has been the fate of the ordinance passed in Los Angeles in 1988 after fire destroyed the First Interstate Bank building. Los Angeles's new law called for retrofitting fire/life-safety systems within three years in all commercial office towers more than 75 feet high. The city eventually cited 350 buildings as falling under the new regulation.

Yet almost five years later, at the beginning of 1993, only about 20 of those buildings had completed the process. While many more are in various stages of compliance, the vast majority have not even begun work. In fact, municipal authorities have approved many of these delays, and the most frequent justification has been the presence of ACMs that could not safely or cost effectively be removed as long as tenants occupied the premises.

That justification, however, is based on a false assumption: that retrofitting a building containing asbestos will require that the asbestos be removed. On the contrary, in most cases, retrofitting can be completed without full abatement. Instead, an office building, even while fully occupied, can be retrofitted through a process of asbestos management called spot abatement.

Spot abatement

The cost of spot abatement generally is a fraction of full asbestos removal. Consider these figures: In Los Angeles, retrofitting a complete fire/life-safety system in a building containing no asbestos currently costs about $2 per square foot.

The cost of asbestos removal has decreased substantially in the Los Angeles area in recent years, yet it still runs about $15 to $20 per square foot in an occupied building--in other words, as much as ten times the cost of installing the system! (The cost of removing the asbestos in an unoccupied building is about $5 to $7 less.)

Spot abatement, on the other hand, increases the cost of retrofitting by only about $1 per square foot, for a total of about $3. In a building with several hundred thousand square feet, the savings resulting from spot abatement can easily run into the millions of dollars.

Spot abatement fully complies both with the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants and with the Environmental Protection Agency's "Green Book," Managing Asbestos in Place.

As most building managers already know, the EPA has concluded that the removal of asbestos is often not a building owner's best course of action to reduce the risk of asbestos exposure. In fact, improper removal can create a dangerous situation when none existed previously. During the removal process, the extremely light asbestos fibers are released into the air where they can remain for a long period of time and possibly be inhaled by tenants.

In the Green Book, the EPA recommends an in-place management program wherever asbestos containing material is discovered. This position has spared many managers of older buildings the expensive task of removing asbestos.


When cities then ordered that many of these same buildings be retrofitted with a sprinkler system, the reprieve seemed to be over. Retrofitting almost invariably requires that ACMs be disturbed at some point in the process. That is where spot abatement comes in.

The principle behind spot abatement is to contain all work that involves disturbing ACMs in an air-tight environment separated from the building's general air circulation. The air flow in this contained space is renewed in 15-minute cycles, and the "used" air is carefully cleaned and filtered before it is released into general circulation.

Each building has its own unique characteristics, not the least of which is the nature and distribution of ACMs throughout the building. Thus, the retrofitting program for each building must be custom designed and employ a variety of spot-abatement tactics.

Case in point

Consider the example of a 10-story, 300,000-square-foot office building in West Hollywood, California. The building was built in 1963 and is occupied largely by medical professionals. Several suites are used for surgical procedures such as plastic and orthodontic surgery.

Buildings with this tenant profile pose the greatest difficulties in spot abatement. Because of the number of tenants on each floor, each of whom occupies a relatively small amount of space, the installation process must be undertaken on a "retail," office-by-office basis. And, of course, the tenants want their routines to be disrupted as little as possible.

Retrofitters therefore must schedule much of their work on evenings and weekends and must leave the space suitable for normal business the next working day. That can be a formidable challenge when dangerous ACMs are involved.

The managers of the medical center made their critical decision by bringing asbestos consultants into the process in its earliest stages. They joined a planning team that also included an architect, the general contractor, and fire/life-safety retrofit engineers.

In the first phase, the asbestos experts conducted a full audit of ACMs in the building. Thanks to this audit, it was possible to design the system to avoid the ACMs as much as possible. That, of course, is the single most effective and cost-efficient tactic in the spot-abatement arsenal. In fact, the main lines and core area pipes were installed with virtually no disturbance of ACMs.

The first major confrontation with asbestos arose in the public corridors and restrooms on each floor. The corridors had hard ceilings that contained no asbestos. However, asbestos was found in the plenum above the ceiling. The building's I-beams had all been sprayed with an asbestos fire retardant and over time fibers from the retardant had fallen onto the ceiling.

Because the plenum in this building was already crowded with existing duct work and conduits, it was decided to drop the sprinkler system below the existing ceiling. But the new sprinkler pipes would have to be seismically supported by hangers attached to the top of the deck, a plan that required drilling through the existing ceiling and disturbing the ACMs.

The spot abatement tactic that addressed this problem was a "quick-cube." This device consists of a frame of adjustable height that is surrounded by plastic polyethylene. The quick-cube provides only a relatively small work space, but has the advantage of being easily moved from location to location. It was perfect for the work along the corridor.

An air-tight environment was created by securing the quick-cube with duct tape: at the top, to the ceiling and at the bottom, to a scaffolding. The workmen, outfitted with special protective clothing, used a six-foot bit to drill a hole through the ceiling and then used a six-foot hammer with a Red Devil insert to secure a hanger. After the hanger, which dropped below the existing ceiling, was in place, the hole was sealed.

During the work, the quick-cube's outgoing air was filtered through a high-efficiency particulate air vacuum (HEPA-VAC). The HEPA-VAC removes 99.97 percent of all particulates, leaving the air virtually asbestos-free. After the work was completed and the hole sealed, specially trained experts tested the air inside the cube before breaking the air-tight containment.

Because the quick-cube is easily assembled and disassembled, it could be "walked" down the corridor and holes drilled as needed, until all hangers were installed. The pipe fitters could come later. All their work would take place below ceiling level, so there was no danger of disturbing ACMs. Once the pipe was in place, a new drop-ceiling with modern light fixtures was installed, hiding all of the sprinkler system except for the heads.

The same principle was employed, but with a different technique, to extend the sprinkler system from the corridors into the individual offices. The office ceilings consisted of asbestos-free tiles, so the pipes could be installed simply by removing the tiles. However, as in the corridors, asbestos fibers from the I-beam had delaminated and, over time, contaminated the tiles.

To overcome this problem, an air-tight envelope was created to seal off each office as it was retrofitted. This envelope was constructed of one-layer polyethylene strips that connected firmly to the ceiling-tile grid with a specially designed clamp. The strips were custom cut to meet the dimensions of a particular office and then secured to the floor with duct tape.

Because the space inside the envelope was much larger than the quick-cube, air was circulated through a negative-air machine, outfitted with HEPA filters to clean the air as it was exhausted. Within this environment workmen removed each tile and decontaminated it of asbestos fibers with a HEPA-VAC. Pipe hangers were then attached to the deck and the cleaned ceiling tiles put back into place. Finally, the air inside the envelope was tested before the seal was broken.

Later, the pipe fitters were able to install the sprinklers by removing the cleaned tiles without fear of disturbing any asbestos. (Had the tiles themselves contained asbestos, it would have been necessary to install the pipe while the envelope was still in place.) The entire process of retrofitting an individual office was completed in a single weekend.


The tactics used in this medical office building would, of course, not be appropriate for every building. They do, however, illustrate how spot abatement can be applied creatively. It is important to remember that this project was so successfully executed only because asbestos experts were included in the earliest stages of the planning process.

The cost of retrofitting the West Hollywood medical office building was $3.23 per square foot. Costs vary considerably depending upon the characteristics of the building, including how open the building is, how much of the office space is occupied, and the importance of aesthetic considerations in designing the system.

Fire-safety systems, whether mandated by law or voluntarily installed, are a serious concern and an important consideration in the minds of prospective tenants. Many owners and managers unfortunately shrink from retrofitting their buildings because of the presence of asbestos. For them, spot abatement may be the perfect answer to meet the needs of their tenants while effectively managing costs.

Paul A. Cronin is western regional manager and Lance Jensen is senior project manager of the Asbestos and Air Quality Division of the Earth Technology Corporation, headquartered in Long Beach, California.
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Title Annotation:Operating Techniques & Production: Bulletin 420
Author:Cronin, Paul; Jensen, Lance
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:May 1, 1993
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