There’s a funny little subject that old home owners tend to be loathe to talk about, even among themselves. They’ll sit around for hours and laugh and laugh about uninsulated walls and crumbling plaster and that time they found live electrical wire poking out of the laundry room floor, just hanging out, ready to burn the house down. “Oh, look at us!” they say to each other, “just a couple of goofy lunatics, fixing things up again!”
But——save for the darkly humored and truly sick——their voices invariably drop to a near whisper when a particular subject comes up, their eyes shifting around suspiciously, lest someone might overhear. “Poor suckers——didn’t realize before they went to contract that the whole house was covered in it. Can’t replace the siding, can’t rip off the roof, heat pipes in the basement, popcorn ceilings——asbestos, man…that’s not something you want to mess around with.”
Yeah. Asbestos. Or as I like to call ours, the Best Asbestos, because it’s more fun to say. Pretty much all old houses have asbestos somewhere, and there isn’t anything inherently dangerous about it, so long as it’s in stable condition (not flaking and falling apart) and goes undisturbed. The problem is when people start messing with it——unnecessarily ripping it off of heat pipes or crushing it up and throwing it around like confetti. Fact: When disturbed, asbestos-containing materials often release asbestos fibers. Asbestos fibers can be up to 10,000 times thinner than a human hair (so basically they’re invisible, and I think we can all agree that invisible threats are way freaky), and, when inhaled, they like to embed themselves in human lungs and wait around for 30 years or so and then be like—”hey! I’ve been here a while. About time I caused some lung cancer or incurable Mesothelioma and killed you dead!”
Oh, asbestos. Super duper rude, you know?
More facts: Asbestos can be in all sorts of things! That’s what makes it so adorable——it just wants to be at every party, and it doesn’t understand why nobody wants it. There was a time when everyone thought asbestos was super fun and groovy because it helped keep things from catching on fire, but then everyone realized in the 80s that the people who worked with it for years were all dying, and maybe it wasn’t so great after all. Now nobody wants it in their basement or their insulation or their flooring or their popcorn ceilings or their siding or really anywhere at all. It’s like the kid that pooped in the swimming pool, except nobody ever forgave him.
There are a couple of things to be done in an asbestos-related pickle. The best option is usually to do nothing at all. Humans and their asbestos can peacefully coexist for years, as long as everyone just leaves everyone else alone. The second best option is usually encasement, where the asbestos is covered up and ignored forever. Popcorn ceilings might just be covered with a new thin layer of drywall instead of scraped clean, or new flooring might be put right on top of asbestos-containing linoleum tiles. There isn’t anything wrong with this, except for when, many years later, somebody wants to run new electrical wiring or heating ducts or whatever, and they unwittingly disturb hidden asbestos-containing materials. Whoopsie! The Internet tends to agree that a little casual asbestos inhalation from time to time is not so great, but answers vary considerably as to how not-so-great it is. I, myself, prefer to believe that small levels of accidental exposure can’t be all that bad (I feel this way about all sorts of things, for the record: most varieties of drugs, trans fats, sorority girls, Lady Gaga), but who’s to say! Plenty of people think just a little bit basically amounts to a death sentence. Set a timer for 30 years, and try to forget that you’re basically a ticking bomb.
So it’s best to be careful, just in case, when dealing with these things. This is why my ceilings caused me a lot of dread. Have we talked about my ceilings? Well—out of the several rooms in my house, three of the largest ones came with not-so-adorable acoustic-tiled ceilings. There are a lot of different types of these ceilings, but basically they were probably installed to deaden noise, kind of insulate for heat, maybe hide electrical wiring or moderate to severe damage to the original plaster ceilings. It’s all one big exciting mystery, but the fact is that we have them and I would really like to not have them. The rooms all look like maybe they could be really pretty nice with some paint and general fixing, but then it’s like: BLAM—dem ceilings tho. A fresh coat of paint would help a little, but really they just need to take a hike.
The rooms in question include:
The front parlor/future library room:
These pictures are craptacular and from our first viewing of the house, but it could be so cute and so nice, right? I mean, it has that cute little chandelier and a CORNER RADIATOR!
Except for this…Ugh. Ceiling. Why you gotta be all?
Then there’s the dining room.
All those cute doors and nice moldings and that crazy arched bay window area. It’s like charm on charm on charm, 24/7.
Oh right, except that mess of a ceiling. This is the room I’m most worried about, since there’s a pretty significant sag over by the bay area, which I guess was “repaired” with some clear caulk. Fancy!
Then there’s that room I always call the “middle bedroom” upstairs, which might become a master bedroom sitting/TV room kind of place. This room needs a whole mess of work (the bump-out bay window thing is a crazy disaster zone of missing windows and unpainted drywall and weird and mysterious fixes), but the thing I hate most?
You guessed it. More acoustic tiles. The ceilings in the upstairs of our house are lower than downstairs, so this one feels particularly sad and oppressive instead of just all around very…blech.
These ceilings were one of the first things I noticed when we looked at the house for the first time. I remember asking our home inspector about them, and the conversation was basically like this:
Home Inspector: Really, this is a pretty great house. Solid foundation, great features!
Daniel: I know! Do you think those ceiling tiles contain asbestos, though? I’ve read they can contain asbestos.
Home Inspector: No, definitely not. I’m 99% sure they don’t.
Daniel: Oh, that’s great! What makes you so convinced? Ones that look basically exactly like these usually contain asbestos, and it’s not like the house isn’t more than old enough. Sorry to sound like a worry-wart, but am I missing some kind of non-asbestos identifying feature?
Home Inspector: Well, when you put it that way, if you’re really worried about it, I guess it’s best to have them tested because you really can’t tell about these things just by looking.
I didn’t further shame him by pushing the point about why he was so sure, but yeah—home inspector dude didn’t really know what he was saying. Which convinced me that, without question, our ceilings were most definitely chock-full of the stuff, which was a bridge we’d just have to cross some other time. We decided to forego the asbestos test that we could have written into our contingencies: partly because we were already offering a rock-bottom price, and further negotiating for asbestos abatement was not going to be a winning strategy, but mostly because we didn’t really want to add another item to the growing list of super valid and legitimate reasons we should probably definitely not buy this house.
We’ve been waiting the last few weeks to get some electrical work done in the entryway/hallway, so things have kind of reached a stand-still in there, since I don’t want to start repairing plaster until we’re done messing it up and making holes for new wiring. Naturally, my attention quickly shifted to wanting to destroy another area of my home, since that’s what I seem to like doing these days. I seem to have reached a weird breaking point with these three ceilings (particularly the dining room, since that’s the room we’re really using the most and it still looks terrible), and I want them gone yesterday. So instead of doing the truly reckless thing of just tearing them down in the middle of the night, or the slightly more reasonable thing of hermetically sealing the room and myself and going about a little DIY asbestos abatement (which is legal in the state of New York, but may not be in your state…), I decided to go ahead and be a grown-up and have those ceilings tested. I’m really very proud of this display of restraint and consideration for my own health and the health of those around me.
So I went around with a spray bottle in one hand and a chisel in the other and took little samples of each of the ceilings. I immediately put them in baggies, and I immediately labeled the baggies. Then I printed and filled out a form and wrote a check and sent my samples to MACS Lab in California, where a team of scientists/magicians would analyze the samples and tell me if removing my ceilings would or would not cause me to die later in life. I watched a lot of CSI during my teenage-hood, so I have a general sense of how this whole montage looks. A dark, dramatically underlit lab full of beautiful people. Microscopes. Slides. Centrifuges. Computers with fancy graphics that either flash ASBESTOS in red or NOT ASBESTOS in green with the molecular breakdown of my mystery ceilings rotating, semi-translucent in the background. That’s definitely how it works.
Have you ever sent anything through the actual mail before? Let me tell you, the amount of waiting involved is AGONIZING. I waited for, literally—and I kid you not—DAYS to find out. I told a friend and neighbor what I was doing, and he was horrified that I even wanted to know at all. I told him my credibility in the home design/renovation blogosphere would be ruined if I didn’t take asbestos seriously, and then he stopped talking to me altogether.
Then an email showed up in my inbox with the results. My blood pressure went up. I kind of knew what was coming, but I opened it anyway, since I’d payed a whole $35 per sample to get this terrible news, and I figured I should stop delaying coming up with a plan.
NONE. NOT EVEN A LITTLE. I read over the form a few times to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Unfortunately it looks like I am not legally allowed to reproduce the form here (fair), so you’ll just have to believe me. It was amazing, like that time I found Mariah Carey’s instagram account. I sent a series of overly-excited tweets about the matter.
Now I obviously cannot WAIT to rip down these ceilings. I dream about it at night and during the day. It will make everything approximately 400,000 times better to have flat, beautiful ceilings. It fills me with hope and happiness to know this is a possibility that won’t cost me thousands of dollars, thousands of hours, or my life.
Of course, this quickly brought with it a whole set of very serious and important questions and decisions. Namely:
1. What is under the acoustic tiles? These tiles were nailed onto furring strips, which are secured to the original ceilings (not glued!). From what I can tell from when I made holes to take the samples, the original plaster ceilings are still right up there, waiting to be uncovered! All of these ceilings are in the oldest section of the house, so they’re probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 years old. A lot can happen to plaster ceilings over that amount of time, so I’m certainly not expecting them to be perfect—lots of sagging and maybe missing pieces and whatever damage that I assume caused them to be covered up in the first place.
2. How do I make the ceilings beautiful again? I really want to save as much of the original plaster as possible, and fill in where necessary with new drywall. Alex at Old Town Home has a great post about repairing plaster ceilings with a magical-sounding product called plaster buttons (or plaster washers), which help bring sagging plaster back into position. I already bought 200 of them, so I guess I’m basically a plaster ceiling repair professional.
3. Medallions? Crown molding? Old houses usually have super beautiful plaster ceiling medallions in the middle of the ceilings surrounding a light fixture. I think my ceilings would look incomplete without them, and I want to add that extra level of super amazing fabulousness, at least to the downstairs rooms. House of Antique Hardware has some really great options——a bit of an investment, but worth it. Once everything is caulked up and painted, they look just like the real thing. I’ve thought a lot about adding crown molding, too, but I think I’ll pass——it would cost a ton of money to do it right (small crown molding with the huge moldings around the doors and baseboards is going to look extra-crappy), and I don’t think it’s necessary. If I feel like we need to add it later on, we can always do that!
Whenever I think about amazing ceilings, I think about 47 Park Avenue. Aside from the very extreme British fabulousness of everything Michael does to his amazing house, I am obsessed with having ceilings like his. Also, vintage Venini chandeliers, but that’s besides the point.
I thought that we needed to choose simpler ceiling medallions because our moldings don’t have all the ornate flair of Victorian finishes, but after gathering some inspiration (this picture, namely), I feel like maybe that isn’t the case? Maybe I need to track down really elaborate ceiling medallions to go with the really elaborate chandeliers that I will someday own? I’m not sure. I guess it’s a while off.
1. Things that look like asbestos might not be asbestos. Get them tested! It’s cheap and easy.
2. My ceilings are going to be amazing! I trust we can all sleep better tonight knowing this.
3. I would sell my soul for that chandelier.