New fire-testing lab in Dubai aims to end the facade of safety

Construction companies, consultants and insurers are booking appointments at a new fire-testing centre to check materials used in facades of new buildings.

Manoj Kumar, manager of Al-Futtaim Exova, inspects a fire test on cladding surfaces.
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DUBAI // Construction companies, consultants and insurers are booking appointments at a new fire-testing centre to check materials used in the facades of new buildings.

Billed as the region’s first dedicated facade fire-testing unit, the laboratory is preparing for a flood of enquiries after plans to introduce stringent standards to test cladding in the federal Fire and Life Safety code.

“Tests from here on will be more aggressive and the laboratory simulates such tests,” said Andy Dean, general manager of Exova Certification and Inspection Middle East.

At the two-storey centre in Dubai Investment Park, workers erect glass and concrete facades for testing. In one corner, an aircraft engine is used to simulate air turbulence.

While other facilities can test the fire-resistant capabilities of doors, partitions and windows, the outdoor centre is the only one that can measure how large panels will react in a blaze.

“Many of the small-scale tests ... are simply not capable of testing certain wall systems properly,” Mr Dean said. “This is because the flame used isn’t aggressive enough to burn through the outer layers of the system.

“The new testing facility solves that problem because it simulates a fully developed fire.

“It specifically evaluates if and how the facade system contributes to the flame’s spread. This knowledge is essential if we are to stop fires spreading from floor to floor in the buildings we live in.”

Police reports indicated that the fire in Tamweel Tower last month and fires in buildings in Dubai’s Tecom area in October and in Sharjah in April spread because of highly flammable cladding. It is believed 70 per cent of buildings in the UAE have facade cladding with a thermoplastic core between aluminium sheets.

Last month, Civil Defence and municipality officers from emirates including Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah were shown how fire-rated and non-fire-rated aluminium panels react to blazes. Two walls were clad in aluminium-composite panelling. While one had fire-rated or fire-resistant panels with a mainly mineral core, the adjoining wall used standard panels with a plastic core of low-density polyethylene.

Videos showed the outer skin of the standard panel rupturing and throwing out molten particles within nine minutes.

The report concluded that while the aluminium melted on both panels, the standard panels ignited nearby surfaces and burnt even after the source of the fire had been extinguished. Fire-rated panels with a mineral core were damaged but did not fuel the blaze.

“Fire has three stages – ignition, propagation, then it develops into a full fire where it moves like a rocket, but still the fire-rated panels didn’t contribute to the fire,” said Manoj Kumar, manager of the Fire Testing and Advisory Services division at Al Futtaim Exova.

“Most buildings here use non-fire rated panels because it is cheaper,” he said. “We have started to get calls from insurance companies and building owners because they want to know how their building will perform in a fire.”

Industry insiders say the need for the testing centre is great.

“Insurance companies are asking what materials are used in construction, so we will have to demonstrate what we use,” said Pino Thomas, an engineer with Associated Construction.  “Clients will insist we test for fire with a third party and not rely on what the manufacturer promises. It could become the requirement.”