The most fire-retardant wall panels are still not being used on buildings across the country, despite a spate of facade blazes.
Three of the world’s top aluminium composite panel makers have confirmed that demand for their highest-rated panels is almost non-existent across the region.
And an updated building code introduced in Dubai in 2012 aimed at halting the use of flammable aluminium composite panels is still not being fully implemented because of the high cost of some system tests.
One major manufacturer said it has supplied just one project with non-combustible panels in five years.
But that could change if the recent New Year’s Eve fire at The Address Downtown Dubai forces a rethink among regulators. A number of high-rise building fires in the UAE and overseas linked to the use of flammable aluminium composite facade panels has drawn renewed attention from regulators. It is understood that Dubai Civil Defence is also developing a series of new measures to boost fire safety.
Mitsubishi Plastics confirmed it had supplied just one project with non-combustible panels in the UAE since 2010.
Such panels are about 30 per cent more expensive than the flammable alternatives that have a high proportion of plastic, say manufacturers.
“Even after the new fire codes, some panels are still not being checked properly,” said Moritaka Sakurai, a marketing manager in the Middle East liaison office of Mitsubishi Plastics. “Contractors prefer cheap materials.”
The company fears that the recent fires could tarnish the industry, or that they might lead to aluminium composite panels being banned.
Mitsubishi supplies a range of panels with high and low plastic content. It will not sell its lowest grade of panels for use on buildings, said Mr Sakurai.
The makers of Alucobond, part of Germany’s 3A Composites, confirmed there was little regional demand for the highest mineral content panels.
“It is highly unusual, I would agree,” said Tarek Haddad, the chief executive of architecture and display in Asia at 3A Composites.
“There hasn’t been strong demand for non-combustible panels. We have maybe one or two projects from the region each year,” he said.
Mr Haddad said that because facades are often sourced in the late stages of a project when time is short and budgets tend to overrun, costs are often cut.
“In many cases initial specifications get reviewed and lesser-quality choices get made,” he said in an interview in Dubai. “Some material suppliers suggest that one can get the same quality cheaper. But for this product, lower costs involve choosing lower-quality components. Same-but-cheaper doesn’t exist.”
The introduction of new building codes in Dubai in 2012 with more stringent fire safety requirements has improved the quality of composite panels used on building facades. However, suppliers say not all the system tests required have been conducted on some projects.
“The new code is great, but I’m not sure the systems tests have been fully implemented yet,” said Mr Haddad.
Alubond, the world’s largest maker of aluminium composite panels and the company that supplied The Address Downtown Dubai, does not make non-combustible panels in the UAE because of a lack of local demand.
It does make them in Turkey, where their use on high-rise towers is mandatory. In anticipation of tougher codes, it is planning to make them at its Ajman factory.
“Turkey is a way ahead on regulation. In Turkey, everything has to be 90 per cent and above mineral content – it’s like stone,” said Shaji Ul Mulk, the chairman of the company that makes Alubond panels.
“We’ve been producing A2 panels [with fire-retardant mineral cores] for the last one-and-a-half years in Turkey and now want to bring that here. We have ordered the same plant here anticipating the new code will be more stringent and demand will go up. From what we understand about what is coming, the implementation will be very strict.”
Mr Mulk explained that the lack of demand for such panels reflects the fact that they have not been specified in the past and so manufacturers have no incentive to make them.
“They are not selling because nobody has asked for it,” he said. “The 2012 Civil Defence Code is very good, but it is not really implemented in full – or there is a problem with understanding the code. There are too many choices. When you have six or seven different standards, people will try to find the least possible standard to get the panel passed. The code referring to ASTM E84 [a US flame-spread test] asks for a core burning test, for example. The moment you have the core burning test applied, most likely LDPE [low-density polythene] core will not pass and only a very high mineral content will pass. We know even after the 2012 code this particular core burning test has not been insisted upon.”
Dubai Civil Defence is considering the installation of fire breaks of up to 10 metres high on buildings considered to be at risk from facade fires. It was not immediately available for comment.
The breaks would be made of non-combustible panels that would at least limit the potential for fires engulfing an entire elevation – acting like huge aluminium band-aids around buildings.
On an average 30-storey tower, manufacturers estimate the cost of removing one third of the old panels and replacing them with better ones could cost between US$100 and $120 per square metre – or about $500,000 per building in basic material costs.
Whether such a remedy would be effective in a real fire has not been demonstrated.
Long before the facade fire problem in the region emerged, many industry experts had warned about the threat posed by combustible cladding.
The archives of construction trade journals contain many examples, such as an article from February 2007 in Construction Week quoting Wulf Binder, a sales manager working for the aluminium group Novelis Deutschland.
“A 5,000 square-metre facade clad with composite panels is equivalent to 19,000 litres of fuel,” he said.
He warned, then, that building codes should be reformed.
Speaking from Germany, he said he was sceptical about the effectiveness of partial facade replacement.
He also warned about the real risk of a “domino fire” – where one building on fire ignites another via falling panels already on fire.
He considers this to be a risk where towers are close together. Such a blaze happened in Doha in May 2006, when the Al Nasr Twin Towers caught fire while under construction.
Whether or not partial facade replacement works, he believes that the high-profile nature of The Address fire would mean that further building safety reforms are more likely now.
“Everyone was looking at the fire and nobody at the fireworks. I don’t think that was the plan,” he said.
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