UAE: Hot Issue

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UAE'S BURNING TOWERS: The Address Hotel in Downtown Dubai caught internrational attention on New Year’s Eve for all the wrong reasons. Firefi ghters managed to put out the fl ames by the wee hours of January 1.

It is important to develop world class fire-safety building standards in the UAE

By Barry Lynham

Many of the innovative materials and systems such as ventilated facades and metal-faced sandwich panels often have combustible thermal insulation built in.

As a country with a history of record-breaking skyscrapers, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a global showcase for innovation in the construction sector. After all, it hosts the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, and the world’s tallest high rise building with a twist of 90 degrees, the Cayan Towers.
But with innovation comes challenges. We have all witnessed recent major incidents of fire breakouts in the region, including in the UAE.

I was in the country last month to speak at the UAE Fire Safety Technology Forum in Dubai. This year’s forum focused on “Innovation for High Rise Resilience,” following the recent fire incidents which involved super high rise buildings in Dubai gaining global public attention.

One particular incident was the fire that quickly engulfed the 63-floor, 302-meter Address Hotel in Downtown Dubai on New Year’s Eve. Dubai Police said in January that the cause of the fire was an electrical short.

But Dubai’s 18th tallest skyscraper, which is among the world’s tallest 100 towers, is not the only high-rise to suffer the burn.

Two months ago, around the end of March, a residential tower complex, in another emirate this time, Ajman, caught on fire from a cigarette thrown by one of the residents and the fire quickly spread throughout the building. The facade of the buildings that caught fire were covered with aluminium composite panels.

Another fire broke out in the same month in Abu Dhabi. A blaze took over a residential building in Khalidiya area, with 15 people reportedly injured.

Last year, Dubai Marina’s 74-story Torch tower caught fire and incident made the global headlines for its name and misfortune. In 2008, one of the high rises in Dubai, along Sheikh Zayed Road also caught on fire.

The list goes on and it is not a secret that such fires cost the developers, and the country, hundreds of millions of dollars in terms of reconstruction, restoration and missed opportunities.

Though in recent incidents no deaths were reported, thanks to the quick response by UAE firefighters, and the cooperation of the public, the threat of more fires breaking out in the future remains as long as human error meets combustible construction material.

Many of the innovative materials and systems such as ventilated facades and metal-faced sandwich panels often have combustible thermal insulation built in.

Several of these innovations were introduced to meet increasing demands for more energy-efficient and sustainable buildings, but the problem is that building fire safety regulations are often unable to keep pace.

It is admirable how the UAE authorities quickly adapted to the situation and taken the decision to transform the country’s building codes, pledging to update further regulations to ensure safety for all.
Dubai’s Civil Defense department said that the updated UAE fire code release date would be delayed by a month. The reason given was to allow revisions and the amendment of additional chapters amongst others.

The UAE Fire and Life Safety Code was last updated in 2013 and contains regulations which bans the use of such materials on new buildings in compliance with international fire safety standards. In addition to external water sprinklers, the 2013 amendment required high rises with flammable cladding to add fireproof panels on every third floor, in an attempt to prevent possible fires from spreading.

But the UAE is not alone when it comes to facing challenges in building fire safety. Unfortunately, there are many countries facing the same issue. In most cases, the building facade has significantly contributed to the spread of the fire because of the use of combustible insulation in exterior walls.
In this sense, an international cooperation is needed for research and to set regulatory framework that ensure the design and construction of fire resistant facades.

Fire resistance has to be factored into regulation and standards for new building products and materials at every stage—from their creation to their installation. Every building must be designed and constructed in such a way that in the event of an outbreak of fire within the building, the unseen spread of fire and smoke within concealed cavities in its structure and fabric is inhibited.

Working together as a team with construction experts, safety professionals, fire-fighters and policy-makers is vital to revise building fire regulations that have failed to keep up with the reality of modern construction.

Perhaps developing more robust fire safety codes for buildings and calling for more vigorous performance-based testing of construction materials, with the latter being very crucial, is important, as it has become useless to carry out small-scale laboratory tests on a panel when that panel will form just a small section of a super-high-rise facade. We need to test products to reflect how they will perform in real life situations.

Meanwhile, all facades in the UAE should be exclusive of combustible materials.

Combustible materials have no place in the façade of a super high-rise building, as now there are many other better alternatives with high performance, thermal conductivity, acoustical and fire performance.
A comprehensive understanding of innovative solutions and safety needs is also required to tackle today’s fire safety issues.

Barry Lynham is the president of Fire Safe Europe and the Group Director of Strategy and Communication at Knauf Insulation.

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