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Asbestos removal

Before the renovation of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen can start in earnest, all the asbestos in the building must be removed. That is quite a complex job. Because the museum building, designed by Van der Steur and built in 1935, is a national monument, there are strict regulations governing the asbestos removal. The work is being carried out in consultation with and under the supervision of both the Cultural Heritage Agency and the Municipality of Rotterdam’s Monuments & Cultural History department.

Large amounts of asbestos were present in both the Van der Steur building and the Bodon building. This is being carefully removed while ensuring the safety of the buildings’ unique architectural elements. The asbestos was located in the air ducts of the ventilation and heating systems in both buildings and behind the wood panelling in the Van der Steur building.

The contractor A. van Liempd Sloopbedrijven BV began preparations for the asbestos removal, including setting up a construction site, at the beginning of January 2021. Once the asbestos removal is completed in the summer of 2022, the renovation of the museum building can begin. What is actually involved in removing asbestos from a national monument? We asked Rudy de Braal, project leader for the Municipality of Rotterdam and Sjors van Gorp, operational director of A. van Liempd.

What is asbestos and why is this large-scale operation necessary?

Rudy: Asbestos is a naturally occurring substance. Because it is fire resistant, it was commonly used in fire partitions in the past. It poses no danger if it is tightly compacted, but if it breaks apart carcinogenic fibres can come loose. At a certain point, a law was introduced to forbid the use of asbestos in buildings. Many buildings constructed before 1994 still contain asbestos, which will eventually have to be removed. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is one such building. 

What is asbestos and why is this large-scale operation necessary?
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen during the asbestos removal. Image: Aad Hoogendoorn

Where is the asbestos in the building?

Rudy: The asbestos was located in the air ducts of the ventilation systems and within the walls. That was the big problem because it meant that the museum was restricted to where it could hang paintings because it couldn’t risk drilling into the asbestos. Ultimately, it was decided to remove all the asbestos. This meant opening up all the walls to get to it. That was a major intervention, which accounts for the museum’s lengthy closure. 

What does such a big job entail?

Rudy: First, the municipality had to appoint a contractor. That is A. van Liempd. We then had to draw up an action plan with a detailed description of how we wanted to carry out the job. That document is around 170 pages long.

Sjors: The plan had to be approved by the licensing authority to ensure that the building’s architectural character is preserved as much as possible. That was our focus. We had to install shields, and the municipality installed a temporary climate-control system. Because the building is no longer in use and we are removing the air treatment systems, the building is a risk of deterioration, hence the installation of a temporary climate system.

How do you preserve the architecture?

Rudy: As many architectural elements as possible were removed prior to the work. Elements such as wood panelling and doors were stored in the old vaults in the basement, where we set up as a climate-controlled environment. There were some areas of panelling that couldn’t be removed, such as those in the arched doorways. Because some of the panelling had to be left in situ throughout the building, we installed a temporary ventilation system. That meant an investment of more than a million euros by the municipality to maintain an optimal environment for these elements.

How do you preserve the architecture?
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen during the asbestos removal. Image: Aad Hoogendoorn

What was the biggest challenge in removing the asbestos?

Sjors: For us, it was the planning, the theory: thinking about how we were going to carry it out. We are a practice-driven company, and we are familiar with architectural monuments, but this required a plan of almost 170 pages. Everything had to be recorded in this document.

Rudy: We underestimated that part. You have all the knowledge in your head, but it’s another matter putting it down on paper for the licensing authority. It took a lot of time and resulted in a delay in the process. The tender was arranged and the contractors were ready, but getting that plan approved was really a hell of a job.

Sjors: We really wanted to get started and, as Rudy said, we knew in our minds how we wanted to go about it. But getting that down on paper was our biggest stumbling block and the biggest frustration.

How many people were involved?

Sjors: We currently have twenty-five to thirty men working here every day. That’s just people removing asbestos. In the set-up phase, we had to do demolition work such as opening up the walls, which was done by a dozen people. Then there’s the management team of seven or eight people, including myself. So, in total, around forty-five people have been working here since January 2021. In addition, during the coronavirus pandemic, we had to rejig the schedule because we had at least five people every week who couldn’t be on site due to the measures in force at the time. Finding a replacement was not always possible. The advantage was, of course, that the lads were wearing protective gear while working so they couldn’t infect each other.

How many people were involved?
Sjors van Gorp and Rudy de Braal. Image: Aad Hoogendoorn

How far have you got with the asbestos removal?

Sjors: The Van der Steur building is 95 per cent ready and the Bodon building is approximately 90 per cent. The basement and ground floor are ready and now we are working on the first floor and the attic. During the removal we encountered about 30 per cent more asbestos than we expected.

When did you start planning the project?

Sjors: We began with trials and test setups in 2020. 

When did you start the actual asbestos removal?

Sjors: We were able to start physically in January 2021. We set up the construction site and shielded the floors and other elements. In May/June 2021, the first employees arrived to start removing the asbestos. Basically, it took us about a year.

What did you find during the process?

Sjors: Here is an article from a 1934 newspaper that was part of the shuttering to cast the concrete. We’ve also found packs of cigarettes and a Heineken can from that time. Of course, the construction workers at the time also had all sorts of things in their pockets, which they sometimes left behind. 

What did you find during the process?
Newspaper from 1934. Image: Aad Hoogendoorn

When will the building be free of asbestos?

Sjors: We aim to finish at the beginning of summer 2022. However, given the challenges we have encountered, such as diagonal channels of asbestos in the walls, we have to bear in mind that such problems can always arise. At such moments, we sit back and think about how we can tackle those challenges.