Column: How asbestos was once used in Utica buildings

On October 8, 1871, two significant fires began on the same night, and nearly at the same time: the Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin and the famous Great Fire of Chicago. The loss of life and property from these events caused significant changes in the country’s construction systems.

Today when the word “asbestos” is mentioned, we tend to immediately link it to adverse health effects.

But there was a time its usage was widespread, not just as a fire resistant material but valued for its strength and durability when added to other materials used for construction.

While research on the mineral, which is extracted from mining, dates back to the 1500s, common usage came during a time of rapid expansion in the last quarter of the 19th century. As urban centers began to grow, shaping cities across America including Utica, speculative building practices without adequate regulations also took hold.

To help quell their growing liabilities, fire insurance companies began searching and pressing for official recommendations for safe buildings that would help save lives, property and businesses. The varied use of asbestos as a fire preventative began during this time.

WOODEN STRUCTURES

American architecture, by tradition, has some English influences that have been based on wood since colonial times. The richness of our forests and the implementation of innovative machinery and techniques gave rise to lumber as an active and influential industry. Feeding that industry were post-Civil War pressures that created demands to build new settlements quickly and affordably.

Wood was the natural answer for that push and it became the primary material for construction.

From the mid-1800s, buildings from massive structures to everyday homes changed to a new system called Balloon Framing, which joined pieces as support and form for the structure. It was a common construction method into the 20th century. Aside from framing support, wood mainly was the element for walls, and solid roof decking or sheathing was covered with a variety of wood shingles or shakes.

Fire was a fairly common hazard in those times. In the Balloon Framing design, long, unobstructed timbers between walls became the impetus for fires to spread quickly. The use of asbestos in construction materials was thought to be one answer to that problem.

Utica, like all cities, had official regulations that recommended the use of asbestos. For safety reasons, asbestos often was mandatory for particular types of construction and was used as thermal insulation, insulating roofing, ducting, asphalt shingles, tiles, flooring, ceilings and coatings. Asbestos even was used to create bathroom furniture, mirrors and accessories.

Its use was ubiquitous.

At the beginning of the 1900s, Portland cement was added to the list. Asbestos fibers have utility for their strength, insulation, resistance to heat and chemicals as well as non-conductive properties.

Roofing also changed. By 1903, asphalt singles had been in use but it was not until the 1920s that a proliferation began, in part because of the National Board of Fire Underwriters campaign to eliminate the wood-shingled roofs.

The catalogs of 1908-09 presented the use of asbestos roofing flat sheets, promoting advantages such as its low cost, unique permanent fire protection, weatherproofing and durability.

Although the manufacture of asbestos-cement sheets began in that first decade, it was not until the 1920s that the acceptance of roofing sheets increased. Much like asphalt shingles, there were a variety of forms and methods of installation.

For siding on walls, flat sheets were made of asbestos felts completely saturated with natural asphalt and cemented together. Siding made of asbestos-cement was popularized in square, rectangular and hexagonal forms. In the 1930s, small plates were produced to replace and or to cover clapboard. These were smooth until 1937 when texturized varieties were introduced, mainly wood-grain with wavy edges, but also the common complementation of white, gray-pink and gray-green.

In the 1940s, patterns mottled with granulated pigments appeared on the surface. In the 1950s, deeper colors appeared as brown, green and reddish.

USE IS HALTED

The health effects of asbestos eventually were discovered. In the second half of the 20th century, measures were taken to reduce exposure, establishing standards against, as well as laws that prohibit, the use of asbestos for building materials which took hold in the mid 1970s.

But it still is possible to be exposed in some old buildings, if materials that contain asbestos begin to decompose. There are stringent regulations from the New York State Department of Health that require proper handling in case of removal, encapsulation, closure, repair or disturbance or any material processing that may result in release of the fiber.

The material once hailed as a fire preventative and miracle construction element during a time of expansion in our nation, no doubt served its purpose. But the hidden hazards of asbestos still linger today, laying claim to some who may never know when or how they were exposed.

Cesar Al Martinez is an architect who was raised and educated in the Dominican Republic. His series “Utica’s Building Blocks” examines the diverse architecture of the city with a historical perspective.


Source: https://www.uticaod.com/news/20190326/column-how-asbestos-was-once-used-in-utica-buildings

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