Hotel Fire and Asbestos Abatement Case Study:  Containing the Damage.

A 20-storey hotel in Quebec was for sale when it went up in flames.  The cause of the fire remains a mystery, as the business was not operational at the time. One theory is that squatters, occupying the building without the owner’s knowledge, could have started the fire.  Whatever the case, the damage was done. Although portions of the structure were still standing, the majority of the hotel was burned to the ground.

The loss rendered the entire site structurally unstable, but there was also a hidden danger: asbestos. Given the age of the hotel, asbestos had been used in the original construction and was noted in the assessment done prior to putting the building on the market. The convection of heat from the fire would have thrown asbestos into the air and the nearby lake, threatening the local environment.

While the hotel was still ablaze, the insurer contacted a SPECS building consultant with whom they had a longstanding relationship. As soon as asbestos was mentioned, the building consultant recommended that an environmental specialist be engaged immediately and that another assessment be completed to establish scope. This was critical as there is strict provincial health and safety legislation governing the notification of any asbestos materials that may be disturbed during demolition or construction work, including after a fire or other disaster. Regulations are in place to ensure that sites are secure and that project work is safe for people and the surrounding areas.  Following the rule of law correspondingly serves to protect owners and contractors from liability.  As such, the project plan needed approval before work could begin.

The SPECS consultant achieved time savings where he could—just two weeks from bringing in the environmental specialist, a project plan was submitted and approved. However, as the claim progressed, any reduction in timelines had to be weighed against cost and overall safety.

The building consultant started by making sure the right vendor was chosen: one who could perform quality work at a reasonable price. The owner already had retained a contracting company to undertake the project, so SPECS got in touch with them to review their rates. Following a quick scan of the quote, the building consultant was experienced enough to know that the projections were way out of line with fair market value. He rejected the vendor outright, and tendered the bid to three other qualified contractors. Once their quotes were submitted, he made a formal recommendation based on cost. As a non-vested company with no affiliation to adjustment, construction, or engineering services, SPECS was able to do this without creating any conflict of interest. The whole tender process delayed the start of the job by a few weeks—but, it was time well spent, saving the insurer more than 30% over the original contractor’s quote.

With the stringent fire control measures currently in place for large buildings, such as hotels, a loss is typically limited to a certain area of the structure.  Any asbestos involved is similarly contained. In this case, the damage was more widespread. In fact, neither the contractor nor the environmental specialist had ever worked on an asbestos abatement job of this size. Even for the SPECS building consultant experienced with large-scale asbestos claims, it was the biggest he had seen to date. Any proposed response to such a substantial asbestos disturbance begged the question: how safe is safe?

After taking into account the particulars of the claim, it was determined the SPECS team had the most related experience and took lead on answering safety concerns. Moreover, the SPECS building consultant consulted on the demolition project from A to Z, including advising the contractors and environmental specialists. For example, when they suggested erecting 50-foot containment barriers, SPECS felt this would not be sufficient, given the scale of asbestos disruption and the site itself, which was close to the lake.  Instead, SPECS designed and created plans for a 60-foot barrier. Without proper containment and demolition processes, asbestos could affect the local neighbourhood and environment. This would include people in the vicinity of the former hotel and, to an even greater extent, the demolition workers themselves.  Therefore, SPECS ensured all onsite workers were certified as asbestos remediation professionals, so that they would follow appropriate precautions.

The project took about a year to complete. While the process was slower than a typical demolition, SPECS did not want to take any shortcuts that could compromise the safety of the workers or the area’s environment. Through knowledge of, and extensive experience with, both asbestos abatement practices and legislation, the hotel demolition was undertaken with appropriate safeguards in place. In addition, thanks to the building consultant’s familiarity with to what constituted reasonable rates for the services required, he was able to reduce the indemnity spend from the original quote. The hotel owner was very concerned that the claim would overshoot the policy limit. Fortunately, he was pleased with the outcome as costs were kept within limit. In satisfying the concerns of all parties involved, SPECS further solidified an already excellent reputation and relationship with the insurer.

Every claim can present unique challenges. However, sometimes the sheer magnitude of a disaster forces those involved to enter unknown territory. That was the situation with the hotel fire as the scope of the damage, coupled with asbestos containment issues, rendered the demolition complicated.  In cases like this, when an innovative solution is needed—experience, subject matter expertise, and knowledge must all come together. SPECS was able to recommend a response that addressed safety concerns, while successfully containing both asbestos abatement and project costs.

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