Most Dubai towers built before 2012 ‘have non fire-rated exterior panels’

An investigation by The National into the orgins and specification of the exterior panels used on the building raises serious questions over the fire safety of hundreds of buildings after the blaze at The Address Downtown.

The aftermath of the Address Downtown Hotel in which half of the edifice was gutted by a fire on New Year's Eve. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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The companies that made and installed the exterior panels on The Address Downtown Dubai hotel say that most of the towers built in the city prior to 2012 used non-fire-rated exterior cladding.

The disclosure comes as investigators probe the causes of the spectacular blaze which was beamed across millions of TV screens worldwide on New Year’s Eve.

An investigation by The National into the origins and specification of the exterior panels used on the building raises serious questions over the fire safety of hundreds of buildings.

The fire has again shone the spotlight on aluminium composite panels which have been used to cover high rise buildings countrywide and have been linked to several high-rise fires in the UAE and overseas.

Fire consultants interviewed by The National this week have also raised questions over the quality of some fire testing undertaken on buildings in the emirate prior to the introduction of new building codes in 2012.

Officials at the company that made the composite panels used on the tower as well as the company that installed them say that most of the buildings constructed during the city’s property boom years did not use fire-rated panels.

It has huge implications for insurers underwriting such buildings as well as owners associations, property developers and the people living in them.

It also poses a challenge for building owners seeking to mitigate fire risk while avoiding the massive costs associated with replacing often highly flammable exterior cladding.

The National has learned that the composite sheets which formed the core of the panels that covered The Address building were made by Sharjah-based Eurocon Building Industries, a unit of Mulk Holdings International and supplied to Dubai-based Alumco.

A Eurocon executive confirmed that a panel system of the same specification as the one used on the tower underwent a fire test known as ASTME 119 - a test method set by the American Society for Testing and Materials. He said the test was conducted on January 10, 2007.

The test exposes a sample “to a standard fire controlled to achieve specified temperatures throughout a specified time period”.

Neither Eurocon or Alumco were immediately able to provide the results of the test.

Alumco won the contract to supply 35,000 square metres of composite panels to cover The Address Downtown Dubai Hotel building in 2006 in a deal worth more than $20 million. At the time, the building was known as the Burj Lake Tower. The main contractor was Besix-Arabtec while the designer of the hotel was WS Atkins.

On New Year’s Eve, millions of viewers worldwide watched a massive blaze sweep up the building within minutes.

What sparked the fire which is thought to have started on the 20th floor is not yet known.

“Two thirds of the buildings in Dubai are covered with aluminium composite panels (ACP) that is not fire rated,” said Samer Barakat, the chief executive of Alumco in an interview. “From our side we complied. We gave all our submissions, there was approval on every submission according to specification. We cannot create a code for ourselves. We cannot create a product that is above what is required. According to the regulations of that time, this is the best we had.”

He emphasised that all building materials supplied by the company were fire rated, tested and approved by the consultant.

He also said that while much attention has been paid to the combustibility of ACP panels, there has been little focus on the silicone and rubber gaskets on a building facade that may not be fire rated - but which are also combustible.

“Everybody may blame the ACP but till now there are no codes that tell you ‘silicon to be used as fire rated’ or ‘gaskets as fire rated,’” he said. “This is non-fire rated silicon and this is burnable in any tower that has ACP or not.”

Mr Barakat said that building owners should now consider installing fire fighting systems designed for the exterior of buildings, as well as those designed for their interiors, to deal with facade fires.

Dubai fire fighters were lauded for their rapid response to the blaze and the speed with which it was extinguished.

Alumco has supplied aluminium composite panels of a type similar to those installed in The Address Hotel to several high profile buildings across Dubai. More than 50 major projects are listed on its website, including Sky Gardens in Dubai International Financial Center and the Fortune Tower in Jumeirah Lake Towers - where a fatal fire in 2007 cost the lives of at least two construction workers and injured dozens.

Mr Barakat stressed that the ACP panels were not a factor in the spread of that fire which started internally and is thought to have been sparked by welding work.

Mr AM Rao, the general manager of Eurocon Building Materials said that much of “the new Dubai” constructed in Dubai Marina and Jumeirah Lakes Towers was built with non fire-rated aluminium composite panels.

“The sheets were supplied in the years 2007 and 2008, but at that time of course the fire regulations were not that stringent. There is a huge awareness of fire rated products these days. We are not using those panels anymore in Dubai.”

While the improvement of building codes has reduced the fire risks associated with new construction, risk assessments will now be required for scores of other towers built during the city’s construction boom years.

“There is a good type and a bad type of ACP and not every building has the bad type,” said Thomas Bell-Wright, the chief executive of Thomas Bell-Wright International Consultants. “How to deal with the buildings with the bad type is a difficult situation for the authorities.”

Another fire consultant who did not want to be named because of his ongoing work in the emirate also questioned the efficiency of what he described as “bunsen burner” tests used to measure the fire safety of such panels which he said were not realistic.

This raises questions over whether the fire testing of panels adequately reflects the sometimes strong wind forces at play around tall buildings.

He added that the risk of fire spreading up the facade of a building may be higher in residential buildings with balconies than those without.

“There hasn’t been a major fire like this on a building without a balcony,” he said. “Fires often break out in the vicinity of a balcony - sometimes somebody has a barbecue or drops a cigarette.”

Fire consultants and insurers agree that this latest blaze coming so soon after The Torch tower fire in Dubai Marina in March is likely to trigger new fire risk assessments across the emirate on buildings covered with aluminium composite panels and completed before 2012.

“The local and international fire codes generally require all exterior walls to be of limited combustibility subject to full and small scale fire tests. Dubai Civil Defense drafted specific regulations relating to exterior walls around 2012 and have been applying these requirements which normally involves full scale facade fire testing combined with small scale tests,” said Faimeen Shah, managing director of the Vortex Fire consultancy. “It is recommended that existing buildings with similar exterior walls be evaluated where a fire risk assessment is undertaken by a suitably qualified person to understand the fire risks and appropriate measures incorporated into the building to mitigate these risks.”

While building owners assess the fire risks posed by non-rated aluminium composite panels, the spate of recent facade fires will also be reviewed by the insurance and reinsurance sector underwriting building fire risk.

“Insurers will most probably be more diligent in their understanding of the exact construction of buildings when assessing risks,” said Garry Taylor, the managing director of Bowring Marsh MENA, the specialist insurance placement arm of Marsh, one of the world’s largest insurance broking and risk management groups.

Dubai Civil Defense is conducting an investigation into the cause of the New Year’s Eve blaze.

A spokesman said that further news would likely be released within a few days.

A spokesman for WS Atkins said: “As designer of the hotel we are now providing our full support to our client, and stand ready to assist the authorities with their investigations. While these investigations are ongoing, it isn’t appropriate for us to discuss the project further or to speculate about the incident. All enquiries should be directed to Emaar.”

An Emaar spokesperson said that its buildings are tested on a regular basis.

“All Emaar developments are strictly in compliance with the codes and regulations by the concerned authorities. The buildings are tested on a regular basis and clearances provided.

“We are awaiting the report on the incident and subsequent to a detailed assessment, we will review any action required.”

Arabtec and Besix did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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