asbestos tiles on a brick house
September 21, 2017 8:37 AM   Subscribe

My husband and I bought a house. It is a row house made out of brick. The back wall has asbestos tiling on it that looks a lot like this. We have hired a general contractor to remove the tiles. Should we put some new tiles or siding on that wall once the old tiles are removed?

Behind the house, there is a tree-covered hill that goes up rather sharply. We asked the general contractor why there might be asbestos tiles on that back wall and he said he had no idea. We live in a very rainy place and he said sometimes you see asbestos tiles that were put on exposed walls as protection against bad weather, but in his opinion our particular wall is pretty sheltered. We asked the previous owners and they also had no idea why the tiles were there. They said the tiles were already there when they bought the house in the 70’s.

In our initial discussions with the contractor, we were talking about replacing the tiles with new, non-asbestos tiles or some other kind of siding. And then it occurred to me to ask: "Is there a reason we have to replace those tiles with something?" And the contractor thought for a minute and said, “No, not really. Maybe a bit more insulation?” The contract we ended up signing basically says that they’ll take down the tiles and then based on what they find, we’ll decide what to do next.

My husband is in favor of replacing the asbestos tiles with new tiles or new siding, I think because he’s afraid if we don’t, then our new house is going to get ruined somehow. And I understand that fear, because I’ve got a bit of it too. But I also can't get over the feeling that putting vinyl siding on top of brick is just sort of silly as well as being a waste of money.

So I have a few questions. First: how much would it help with insulation to add siding to the outside of a brick house? Second: does brick really need to be protected from the weather? The house was built in 1930 if it matters and is generally in very good condition. Third: if we remove the tiles, and it turns out the brickwork needs repair, could we just have them repair that and then leave it like that? Finally: what things am I missing, forgetting, or misunderstanding here?
posted by colfax to Home & Garden (18 answers total)
Best answer: First question, don't know.

Second question, no? Unless the brick/mortar are in terrible condition, there's no reason it needs extra protections. It's why brick is considered fairly low-maintenance. You couldn't pay me to add anything that required regular maintenance/replacement over my in-excellent-condition brick walls.

Third question, you'll have to get quotes to see how much it would cost to do that vs. putting something back on. If the damage is extensive, it's probably going to be cheaper to install something over it.

Lastly: I don't think you're missing, forgetting, or misunderstanding. Mostly, you'll just have to wait and see what the wall looks like when the tiles are removed.
posted by cooker girl at 9:02 AM on September 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Older bricks can tend to be a bit porous and if you live in an area that can get to freezing temps it can cause damage to the bricks through freezing/unfreezing cycles.
posted by Ferreous at 9:03 AM on September 21, 2017

Best answer: The most insulation you're going to get out of siding is R-2, which you could get if you used a foam-backed vinyl siding with non-perforated foam. (All other common residential siding types give zero R points.) That's pretty negligible. Also, non-perforated foam-backed vinyl siding is known to have problems with moisture since it doesn't breathe like normal siding does. Not really recommended; the industry has been moving away from that stuff because it tends to cause more problems than the measly two R points are worth. You'd get much better bang-to-buck (and avoid possible moisture problems) by doing something like replacing old windows and exterior doors, or having an insulation contractor beef up your attic insulation.

There's no reason to cover up the brick unless there's something wrong with it. I mean, the other three sides of your house don't have any cladding, right? Granted, there's also no reason to remove the asbestos tiles unless there's something wrong with them; they're not hurting anybody just sitting there. It's only a problem if they're friable, i.e. cracked and frayed.

Yes, if the brickwork needs repair a mason could repair it for you. Depending on the extent of any damage it might be more cost-effective to just side over it, but brick is as repairable as anything else. Brick can last for hundreds of years if it's taken care of. The only thing that would be a real problem is if the house shifted and the brickwork started to crack apart. That kind of thing can be a real bugaboo for brick houses.

My guess is that the tiles are there because there's something wrong with the underlying brick and it was cheaper to tile over it than to repair it. That may still be the case; you won't know until it's off. It's also possible that previous owners tiled over something really egregious (e.g. structural cracks) that should have been dealt with rather than covered up, but if it's been like that since the 1970s without any problems then that seems unlikely. More likely there will be an ugly repair or something like that; an aesthetic issue. Or maybe there is something that compromises the weatherproofness of the brick, which it should be possible to fix. You can't really know until the old tile is off.

But yes, you can have exposed brick on a house. Most of the rest of your house already has it. It's perfectly fine as long as it's in good condition, just like anything else. And it's a hell of a lot nicer-looking than vinyl.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:03 AM on September 21, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The tiles can be there for decorative reasons. How do the other houses look?
Another possibility is that the back wall is half timber and covered with tiles to save money from the outset. If so, you'll need to do something. What that something is depends a lot on where you live. Insulating existing houses should always only be done with expert advice; again, it depends on where you are, but the basic challenge is to keep all structural elements well ventilated (and your entire facade may very well be a structural element). IMO vinyl siding is a pest on civilisation because it can ruin houses and homes if applied without diligence.
posted by mumimor at 9:20 AM on September 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Are you sure there's brick under the tiles? It's pretty common to see a cheaper cladding on the back/sides of the house than the front.

If there's brick there, I'd leave it exposed. If there's not, I'd cover with cementitious siding like hardipanel.
posted by adamrice at 9:37 AM on September 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

If it is the west wall, sometimes they collect too much heat in the summer, or the weather comes from that direction in your area, and the wall was clad to protect from that.
posted by Oyéah at 10:26 AM on September 21, 2017

Oh wow, well get it down, and see what is under it. There might have been a large window, that was covered by that decor. On the inside of the house, it is easy to cover what was there, but outside not so easy if that wall is brick. This might be an opportunity to get light in to that room up there.
posted by Oyéah at 10:28 AM on September 21, 2017

Even though asbestos is scary stuff, if it's intact it's not going to cause problems. Any merit in leaving it there/putting something else on top instead of opening up a big ol' cano'worms?
posted by kate4914 at 10:54 AM on September 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

Do you really hate the aestetic of the tiles? If not, I'd just leave them. It's way more dangerous to remove than to just leave them. That's going to be an expensive removal.
posted by hydra77 at 11:18 AM on September 21, 2017

Best answer: Another point: does your contractor know how the tiles are set? There were asbestos-containing mortars/tile mastics/etc. As others have pointed out, the asbestos in the in-tact tiles is contained and can likely be removed without a huge ordeal (depending on local permitting, etc.), but if there is old asbestos-containing mortar under there that needs to be cleaned up, you could be facing a more complicated and costly process. It may be that your GC knows what was used in the area and has already looked at this, but I would be a little concerned if he hasn't discussed with you all the possibilities.
posted by LadyInWaiting at 12:03 PM on September 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the advice so far.

I just wanted to add: unlike the picture I linked, the tile on our new house is getting a little crumbly. And I've got a new baby and a husband who has asthma and generally sort of delicate lungs, so the tiling has got to go. We'd rather have it done it now, before we move in, and when the general contractor is already fixing up a couple of other things for us than leave it for later.

Also, asbestos is a really common building material in old houses here, and our general contractor specializes in working on old houses. He sounds very knowledgeable about dealing with asbestos.
posted by colfax at 12:05 PM on September 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I understand that you have agreed with the GC to remove the siding and to evaluate what to do after that is accomplished. Don't know where you are, but you should be aware that there are some jurisdictions that require a certified asbestos abatement contractor to do this, and others that demand special handling of the removed material with disposal only at designated sites. If your GC isn't in a position to conform to these requirements, then his work could result in negative health consequences for neighbors and others. Performing the work in a reasonably safe manner will mean that it will be considerably more costly than sending a couple of workers out with ladders and wrecking bars.

Another thing to keep in mind about removal is that it will almost certainly result in higher levels of free asbestos around your home unless, again, it is done with great care. Painting in place would represent the most benign way of dealing with this, for you and others.

The strongest reason for removing the siding is the possibility that it was installed to cover a significant problem with an existing masonry wall, but the fact that you've got a photo of another house with this treatment, presumably in same area, could very well mean that this was just a fad that came and went. You'd be able to see other signs of trouble on interior plaster walls and in the attic if there was something going on structurally.

Finally, I'd say that I'm not a hand-waver when it comes to personally perilous situations. I always vote to eat the egg salad left in the car over the weekend, but this is a case where what might seem like the safe way is likely the opposite of that.
posted by bullatony at 2:47 PM on September 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm with Bullatony.
There are two kinds of asbestos products, friable and non-friable. Friable - things like pipe insulation where you can bump it and dust goes everywhere. Non-friable - like cement-asbestos tiles, which is what you have. They are a mix of cement and asbestos fibers, the fibers are to reinforce the cement. Non-friable asbestos is treated differently in the asbestos regs for a reason. Non-friable doesn't release asbestos fibers unless you break or otherwise disturb it. Which is exactly what you intend to do.

One accepted treatment for asbestos is encapsulation - coat it with something so the asbestos can't get in the air. What we now cal vinyl floor tiles used to be called ACT - Asbestos Composition Tile - one perfectly acceptable treatment is to put another floor covering over it.
You could coat the tiles with a good elastomeric coating and accomplish encapsulation.

If you are in the US, I can just about tell you the diamond shaped tiles were made by a company called Supradur out of Rye N.Y. I took care of historic properties in S. Florida, one building was a 1910 boathouse right on Biscayne Bay. Hurricane Andrew came through, the storm surge shoved the seaward endwall of the building through the building like a giant plunger. We found the 75 pound iron anvil a couple hundred feet away. The roof lost one tile, this because a roof ventilator broke partially loose and beat the tile during the storm.
posted by rudd135 at 6:22 PM on September 21, 2017

Response by poster: Not to thread sit, but: the general contractor will be following these laws for safe asbestos removal and will not just be sending a couple of guys over with crowbars.
posted by colfax at 10:08 PM on September 21, 2017

Best answer: You might need to thread-sit a bit to help me remember that the US is not the only country on earth. It's odd how knowing that a Dutch-speaking worker will be performing the removal eases my concern; I don't know whether it's correct, but I have a sense that a contractor from the Netherlands might spend his energy doing the work properly, rather than ignoring the rules.

Of course,if you are in Paducah, Kentucky and your guy said "sure, sure, no problem" when you showed him the rules, that might not be so good.
posted by bullatony at 5:20 AM on September 22, 2017

A possibility that has not been raised: They are there for fire protection.

I didn't see any location info, but I know that every year taxpayers spend millions and firefighters risk their lives in some areas (CA, WA, TX) protecting houses from being burnt down in forest fires.

Now, being at the bottom of a wooded hill means the house is more protected than if it were at the top, but maybe the original builder just wanted a little extra fire safety, and at the time of course asbestos was generally thought to be simply a useful product at a good price.

Finally you may be asking "but isn't a brick wall fire proof?!" and the answer is "sort of, but less so". Extreme head can rapidly deteriorate the mortar, cause spalling, etc. Brick is a very good conductor of heat, asbestos is insulating (not a ton, but you'd notice the difference inside the house if the woods were ablaze. ) You'd also rather replace an asbestos cladding than a brick wall, and both is more protecting than either alone.

*I know a decent amount about brick and wildfire, and just read a bit more on asbestos, but I have no idea if this exterior-asbestos-as-fire-protection was actually a real thing people did, it's just something that I thought of that seemed plausible.
posted by SaltySalticid at 1:58 PM on September 22, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks for the help, everyone!
posted by colfax at 7:05 AM on September 24, 2017

Response by poster: Here is a belated update, in case it makes this question more useful for future readers.

The good: when they took down the asbestos tiles, they didn't discover any structural damages. We don't know why, but there was cement smeared all over the original brick wall, and it was done really sloppily. So that's why (we think) they covered it with the tiles.

The bad: I was so sure that they were going to remove the tiles according to the rules, because I trusted our general contractor. But I've got egg on my face here, because despite my assertions in this thread, the sub-contractors who did the work were basically two guys with crowbars. They were sub-contracted to do the roofing repairs (which they did very well and very professionally) and then I guess the asbestos-tile-removal contract just got tossed in there too.

The okay: We were nervous about how the tiles were removed, so after it was done, we hired a guy to come and check the air quality and check the dust on our porch, and it all came back clear.

The lesson I'm taking away from this is: always listen to MeFi! Thanks for all your answers.
posted by colfax at 6:29 AM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

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