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Asbestos scare hits Portland Place

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The riba has discovered asbestos in its council chamber and is to close the room so specialists can safely remove it. But although it has already put a block on the room being hired out for any more public events until work has been completed, a council meeting will go ahead there as planned next month.

The institute's house architect Allies and Morrison (a&m) was alerted to the discovery of the dangerous substance - which kills upwards of 3000, every year - last week by premises manager Jim Jordan, who immediately called a meeting on the site between the two parties and specialist consultant arg. The consultants took samples and on Tuesday this week carried out tests on the atmospheric conditions in the chamber. These revealed no contamination but Jordan has told arg to remove the asbestos rather than treat it, since it is wrapped around piping which needs to be replaced and therefore has to be 'disturbed'. Only last week environment minister Michael Meacher banned the use of white asbestos in order to end the 'human misery' caused by asbestos-related ill health. It joins the outlawed blue and brown forms of the fibrous mineral.

Jordan told the aj that the discovery was made because the institute had been looking to update failed air-conditioning units in the Aston Webb room below the council chamber. But on starting work, asbestos was discovered in the pipework leading between the two. 'We identified where it was, and it wasn't dangerous as such, but we felt we needed to probe further,' he said. Extra traces were found behind the hessian in the council chamber. riba council is next scheduled to meet in the council chamber on 19 January. The chamber is also used for meetings for fee-paying private firms - although 'seldomly' and 'only when people are desperate' according to Jordan, because of the adversarial nature of its layout.

The Health and Safety Executive will now be notified and the riba is keen to stress it is handing the situation responsibly. 'Asbestos is a very emotive issue,' said Jordan, 'especially blue asbestos. But if all of us felt is was a lethal area we would have held our meeting elsewhere ... we're doing everything by the book. We can't afford not to.'

riba director of communications Roula Konzotis said it was 'normal' for a building of 66 Portland Place's generation to feature asbestos and that the riba is dealing with it according to regulations.

And a&m's Bob Maxwell echoed that the material was commonly used in construction in 1934 when the Grey Wornum scheme was built. He added that the practice had also discovered asbestos when it was building the new-look bookshop at Portland Place. In that instance, however, it was 'encapsulated' rather than removed.

Conran & Partners is in a strong position to land the job to reorganise the Florence Hall at the institute's headquarters. Final discussions have not yet been held but the practice should win the job if funding is secured via riba's council. The firm was brought on board rather than a&m because it was seen as 'minor refurbishment' rather than architecture, said Konzotis.

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