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Asbestos was once hailed as a miracle material for construction, but it has left a challenging legacy for the UK commercial real estate sector.

The properties of asbestos, like resistance to fire and heat, made it a popular building material until its eventual UK ban in November 1999. The discovery of its hazardous health effects led to a huge change in how asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are handled in buildings. Today, the presence of asbestos in commercial properties is not just a health hazard but a significant legal, financial, and operational issue for property owners and managers.

Therefore managing a building contaminated by asbestos is done under strict regulations that aim to protect building occupants from exposure, so for commercial real estate in the UK, this means navigating all the complexities that come with compliance, risk management, and due diligence.

In this article, we’ll explore some of the issues caused by asbestos in the UK commercial real estate sector, providing some background information on the prevalence and risks of asbestos, while also looking at the current regulatory framework.

The asbestos legacy

Asbestos has been extensively used in the construction industry across the United Kingdom for more than a century. At the time, its properties, such as durability, fire resistance, and thermal insulation, made it an ideal material for a wide range of applications in commercial buildings. Asbestos was widely used in roofing, insulation, floors, and walls, among other uses.

Because asbestos was used extensively in construction, it’s still prevalent today, found in many commercial buildings constructed or renovated before the year 2000. Estimates from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) claim that between 210,000 and 400,000 buildings in the UK contain asbestos.

Other sources claim there are about 6 million tonnes of asbestos in use today, across 1.5 million buildings. This shocking statistic gives the UK a reputation for having the most asbestos per capita in Europe, though it is present in over 50 countries.

Asbestos health risks

The severe health risks associated with asbestos exposure became increasingly apparent towards the end of the 20th century. Inhaling asbestos fibres can lead to pretty serious diseases, but what’s startling is that the period between exposure and identifying the disease can be many decades.

Anyone involved in the construction, renovation, or demolition of buildings is particularly susceptible, although worryingly anyone simply occupying a building contaminated by asbestos can potentially be exposed to it, especially if the asbestos is disturbed.

Understandably, this led to a wide-reaching public health concern, and asbestos use was subsequently reevaluated.

The regulatory response

The UK government’s response to the asbestos crisis evolved over time, eventually amounting to a complete ban on its import and use in November 1999. Legislation and regulations had initially focused on controlling exposure and managing existing asbestos safely.

Asbestos in commercial real estate is complex, whether it’s the legal or health and safety-related challenges that continue to plague the sector. As such, building owners, investors and managers have to successfully pilot all the rigours associated with such a deadly material, not least to ensure the safety of people who live, work and visit buildings with asbestos-contaminated materials.

The identification, control and ongoing management of asbestos in commercial real estate typically involves regular asbestos surveys and risk assessments, among other things. Diligent management and compliance efforts are vital to mitigate the risks associated with asbestos.

Regulations and compliance

The management of asbestos within UK commercial real estate is done so in line with a regulatory framework that primarily aims to protect people from the risks associated with exposure to asbestos.

Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012)

The key piece of legislation underpinning asbestos management in the UK is the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012). These regulations consolidate a handful of prior asbestos laws into one single regulation. It sets out clear duties for managing asbestos.

The regulations impose a ‘duty to manage’ on those who own, occupy, or have responsibilities for the premises. This includes assessing the presence and condition of any asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). If ACMs are present, the duty holder must conduct an asbestos risk assessment then develop an asbestos management plan to show how the risks will be managed, and then action that plan.

Duty Holders must also pass on information about ACMs to anyone who needs it within the property or the team managing the premises and always ensure they monitor and review their duties periodically. To comply with CAR 2012, commercial property owners should undertake the following steps:

  • Commission an asbestos survey conducted by a qualified professional to identify the presence and condition of any ACMs within the property.
  • Create and maintain an up-to-date asbestos register, recording the location, type, and condition of any ACMs found.
  • Perform an asbestos risk assessment to determine the danger posed by the ACMs and whether remediation, encapsulation, or management is required.
  • Develop and implement an asbestos management plan that outlines how the risks from asbestos will be managed and communicated to anyone likely to come into contact with it.
  • Review and Monitoring: Regularly review and monitor the condition of ACMs and update the management plan and asbestos register as necessary.

Asbestos fines and enforcement

Understandably, compliance with CAR 2012 is mandatory. Failure to comply can result in an unlimited fine and/or up to two years in prison. Of course, beyond the legal consequences, non-compliance can also lead to serious short and long-term health implications, or indeed fatalities, for people who have been exposed to asbestos.

Current challenges and market impact

As we have seen, the presence of asbestos in UK commercial real estate presents several ongoing challenges, aside from health risks, for property owners, and managers. These challenges not only affect compliance and safety but also have significant financial and operational implications.

Identifying asbestos

One of the primary challenges is accurately identifying and managing asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). Older buildings, in particular, may have partial records or limited information about the construction materials, making it difficult to determine whether asbestos is present without an asbestos survey. As we often see, the hidden nature of asbestos can lead to unexpected discoveries during routine building work, renovations, remedial work or demolitions. This can cause significant delays and impact project costs.

Compliance issues

Staying compliant with regulations can be an issue for property owners and managers. The legal requirement to manage asbestos risk, keep accurate records, and ensure the safety of occupants and workers requires a lot of time and resources, something not everyone has at their disposal.

Health and safety concerns

Beyond the regulatory and financial implications, the health risks associated with asbestos exposure continue to be a significant concern. Ensuring the safety of building occupants, workers, and the general public requires stringent risk management practices. However, accidental disturbances of ACMs can occur, leading to potential exposure and serious health implications, which in turn can result in public relations issues and legal challenges.

Uninvestable properties

The asbestos issue certainly influences broader commercial property market dynamics. For example, properties with known (or potentially unknown) asbestos issues can be seen as less attractive investments due to the costs associated with management and remediation. This can understandably influence decisions on investment and redevelopment.

Innovations in asbestos management

Fortunately, the way we manage asbestos-contaminated properties in the UK is a far-cry away from the days of the early 2000s, thanks in large part to tech innovations. These new approaches are making it easier to detect, manage, and mitigate the risks associated with asbestos, improving safety, compliance, and efficiency as a result.

Asbestos detection

Detecting asbestos in buildings is now much easier with infrared and thermal imaging technologies, which allow for the non-invasive scanning of buildings to identify potential ACMs, and this is the important part, without disturbing the structure.

Asbestos remediation

New remediation techniques are also transforming how asbestos is managed and handled. Asbestos encapsulation methods have advanced, too, which gives a much more secure option for dealing with ACMs that don’t need to be removed straight away. In addition to this, innovative materials and techniques are improving the safety of asbestos removal.

Asbestos inspection software

One of the more recent innovations in asbestos management is the use of digital inspection software, like the Property Inspect app, which enables qualified surveyors to conduct asbestos surveys using pre-built asbestos survey templates.

Property Inspect simplifies the process of conducting asbestos surveys, allowing for systematic data collection and documentation directly from mobile devices. With standardised asbestos survey templates and reporting formats, Property Inspect gives surveyors the ability to meet regulatory requirements. The app can generate compliant reports that can be shared with other stakeholders in the property and/or business and regulatory bodies if the need arises.

Take control of asbestos management with Property Inspect

Managing asbestos in commercial real estate can be complex, that much is true. It’s also time-consuming and fraught with safety risks as we’ve explored. But staying compliant and ensuring the safety of your premises and people doesn’t have to be a monumental task.

As a RICS Tech Partner, we work with surveyors throughout the UK, revolutionising the way they conduct all kinds of surveys, maintain records, and ensure compliance for the long term. Our intuitive, pre-built asbestos survey templates and comprehensive reporting capabilities make the process easier, safer, and more efficient.

Don’t wait for compliance issues or safety concerns to arise. Book a demo with Property Inspect and start your journey to clearer, safer asbestos management now.

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