What should I know before I attack this chimney?
May 18, 2009 5:38 PM   Subscribe

What should I know before I attack this chimney?

For some reason lost to history, my house has a seven-foot section of brick chimney standing in the dead center of the attic. There is no chimney below or above; it does not extend through the roof.

Now, I've got it in my head to finish the attic, and that involves removing this curiosity. But I have two questions that maybe the Hivemind knows the answers to:

1) Could there be asbestos in the mortar? If so, can I safely remove it myself with precautions (mask, plastic-wrapped work area, spray water to keep dust out of the air)? Google has given me conflicting answers, ranging from "asbestos was ubiquitous in mortar" to "I've been a demo man for 30 years and I've never heard of that". The house is 125 years old; the chimney may or may not be that old.

2) Is it possible this is a structural component? It's not load bearing --- there's nothing on top of it --- but it is a 1650-lb weight sitting in the center of the house.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
1)It doesn't cost very much to have a company come in to break off a few pieces for testing at a lab. Then you'll know what you're dealing with. Either it's safe to breath and you can start carefully disassembling it from the top (you don't want it toppling over) or if there's asbestos, just paint it over or box it in.

2)It seems crazy, but our house has a section of chimney that seems to run from the second floor to just below the roofline. Someday I'll have to open up the wall to see what's going on.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:22 PM on May 18, 2009

Best answer: If there's nothing below it, then no, it is not load bearing. To be on the safe side, you could nail up some braces around it, but I doubt that's necessary.

I've never heard of asbestos in mortar, either. But I'm not a mortar expert. I was told by an asbestos abatement guy, though, when I asked about the asbestos wrapping on the ductwork in my basement: Best thing to do—just leave it there. If you want to get rid of it, spray it with soapy water and get rid of it.
posted by bricoleur at 6:27 PM on May 18, 2009

While anything is possible ( it being load bearing) I doubt it is. I'd be interested in knowing whats directly underneath. Thats a lot of weight for an attic. I would think at one time the chimney went from the basement floor up out through the roof. Is it possible that some walls are using it for structure? What about the roof itself, is it relying on the chimney for support? My parents lived in a house ( 3 levels, not including the basement) built in 1916 and it had a chimney going through the center of the house, mind you it was a complete chimney from the basement up. My dad told me his had at one time, a coal furnace in the basement. But this was taken out later on and replaced by a gas heating stove on each floor throughout the house.

Maybe ask a neighbor or two that have been there for a while if they remember any renovations to that house.

The bricks may give you some indication as to how old the chimney is. Is the house made of brick? If so, do they match?

Sounds to me like somebody removed part of that chimney. But I would take every safety precaution ( mask, gloves, goggles, etc.,) if you do decide to remove it, just in case it does contain asbestos. Err on the side of caution if you will.

You could also ask a house inspector about it. They might be able to help you.
posted by Taurid at 6:30 PM on May 18, 2009

Best answer: I can't imagine how it would be load bearing, but there's still a part of me that thinks taking _that_ much weight out of the dead center of lightly supported space could cause issues with the whole house flexing slightly, depending on how big around it is and how the rest of the house is configured around it.

If you're at all in doubt, just call someone who does this stuff for a living. $100 consultation vs. maybe thousands of dollars. I'm sure the sort of person who knows whether it's safe to remove is also the sort of person who can tell you how, exactly, you should remove it to save yourself the most time possible.

DIY is great, but it's even better when you get a pro to sign off on your stupid adventures ahead of time. Being told "yeah, you can do that yourself" makes the whole thing seem so much less daunting. Especially when you're in a pit of despair realizing you need to undo 10 hours of work to correct a dumb mistake & wondering if you've bitten off more than you can chew.
posted by paanta at 6:36 PM on May 18, 2009

Best answer: I was involved in the demo and rehab of some Victorian era military buildings here, including inspections with the NAVOSH guys. So asbestos was a big topic of discussion.

It's very unlikely that there is any asbestos in the mortar and very unlikely that asbestos was used in a home in 1880 or there about.

Since you're not sure when the chimney was constructed, you'll have to pull a few bricks out and see if there is a lining or other insulation inside. If there is, you'll want to hire a professional.

I'm guessing though, that you'll just find a brick construction and that you'll be able to do it yourself.

As far as goggles and respirators, you will want to do that anyway. That's going to be a dusty, dirty job!

Good luck!
posted by snsranch at 7:01 PM on May 18, 2009

Paanta has a point but when you're dealing with old homes that have had many weird renovations, home inspectors and structural engineers can only do so much. They don't have x-ray vision. Our home inspector had a pretty iron clad contract that limited his liability to what was clearly visible. Also, a degree doesn't necessarily make an engineer any more sensible.

My big concern would be that the base of the chimney is no longer supported evenly after years of settling. It may be held upright only by it's connection point to the roof. I'd box it in with 2X4s to support it and the roof until you've disassembled most of it.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:13 PM on May 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Start planing that brick pathway in the garden :) build a plywood chute for the debris.
There may be a attic vent or soffit opening that you could use to get the bricks out of the attic with out having to haul them down through the house. The weight of the chimney section is a small fraction of the total weight of your house, removing this weight should not have a significant effect.
posted by hortense at 7:19 PM on May 18, 2009

Response by poster: Some great answers! Thanks all!

I should clarify, the chimney is not connected to the roof. It's a free-standing obelisk that truncates six inches below the roof. So it is literally not load-bearing... my concern was along the lines of paanta's point --- that removing a big mass from the attic could have structural consequences elsewhere. Disassembling it is actually pretty easy - I took the first few bricks off without much effort, before my brain kicked in and caused me to post this question.

On the two floors below it, there are T-shaped intersections of walls... so there's some structure, but not thick enough to conceal a hidden chimney. The first floor has the useless original fireplace, which is useless but cool because it's made out of rocks that have embedded fossils.

In the basement is a 3" diameter iron pole supporting it all.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 7:45 PM on May 18, 2009

I took a four story brick chimney out of a 1905 house. Impressions:
1) Take your time. I seriously wore out my shoulder hauling bricks down 3 floors.
2) There will be TONS of crumbled mortar and debris. Definitely wear a mask, lots of dust.
3) I don't see how removing the weight could cause a problem. Mine was much heavier and caused no problems. My chimney anway was free standing, not connected to walls.
4) The bricks are quite easy to remove, as you've seen. A little tap with a hammer and it's loose.
5) My ex said "Why don't you just pull out the bricks on the bottom?" In case you're not sure, this is a really bad idea. Like the cliche "A ton of bricks coming down on your head."
6) Bricks are great for lining flower beds, etc. and people will actually buy vintage bricks.
posted by msalt at 9:50 PM on May 18, 2009

Get a hammer drill to break the mortar. Take the job slowly, and spread the task over days or weeks. Minimize the amount of lifting you will do, as it will add up. The notion of a chute to slide the bricks down is a great one, but you should have a soft fall, instead of a plunge, if you want to keep the bricks intact.

The mortar is going to be a different issue. I suggest that you collect a large number of cardboard boxes. Line them with heavy duty plastic. Don't fill them too full. Tape up the boxes, and try to keep them intact as they are taken out of the house.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 6:40 AM on May 19, 2009

This is actually a pretty common renovation for Victorian homes of that era. I've helped out with a few myself. Of the three or four I've seen personally, the third floor sections of these chimneys are not load bearing. Neither are the first and second floor sections, but they are enmeshed in load bearing walls and generally more of a hassle to take out than is worth it. You might be surprised that one isn't tucked into the side of an interior closet or something like that (you'll find out when you remove it). You should have no asbestos concerns, but as others have mentioned, that mortar will crumble into an acrid, foul dust mixed with a century of soot, road dirt, and dust that you definitely want protection from. The only tools you will need are a 4ft step ladder, masonry chisel, small mallet, and a small pry bar like a cat claw. I recommend a 5 gallon plastic bucket for the bricks. It's not really feasible to drop bricks 3 stories, and a chute for that size of job is way more trouble than it's worth. You will also want a shop vacuum to clean up afterward.
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:40 AM on May 19, 2009

I'll throw my note of warning on the pile. My inlaws hired a couple guys to take out the old chimney from their turn of the century house. Their entire house was coated, and I mean coated, with soot. They put up plastic to try an contain the mess but it was horrible. We scrubbed everything down twice and soot was still settling out of the air (and into their lungs) weeks later.

Be careful and think things through before you start.
posted by ChrisHartley at 8:16 AM on May 19, 2009

Response by poster: This is a follow-up.

The chimney is no more. As I type this, random craigslist people are picking over the bricks, which are apparently in vogue for garden pathways.

Points of interest:

* Inside the chimney were tubular cement liners about two feet high and weighing about 50 lbs each. A spray bottle was vigorously applied to the interior of these tubes before moving them, and this was successful at mitigating airborne soot.

* Tools used were a 3-lb brick hammer and crow bar. The mortar was not very strong. A heavier hammer would have been better, but the hardware store didn't have anything between the 3-lb brick hammer and a 25-lb sledge.

* The house is still standing.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 1:08 PM on June 18, 2009

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