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Eye witnesses to fires often report debris falling as the building blazes to a shell of its former self, enveloped in thick smoke. Buildings clad in inflammable materials are particularly vulnerable to small fires turning into huge ones and falling debris is characteristic of flammable aluminium composite materials in common use.
In a fire at the 75-storey Sulafa Tower in Dubai Marina in July, it took more than 50 firefighters and a dozen fire trucks about two hours to put the situation under control.
The job of the Civil Defence members was made more dangerous by cladding and other debris from the tower being carried by strong winds.
While a new fire safety code is being finalised for release later this year by the Civil Defence, Dubai Municipality's Buildings Department has issued a circular last month prohibiting engineering, contracting, manufacturing and real estate development firms from using combustible materials in buildings and façade cladding. The circular prohibits use of ''flammable materials, materials that are manufactured using flammable substances and any system that hinders the ability of materials to resist fire''.
Those that do not follow the regulations risk reputational damage. ''The updated code includes an extensive section referring to façade materials, which is especially important,'' says Muhammed Kazi, Exhibition Director at the Windows, Doors and Façades Event held last week in Dubai. ''Dubai Civil Defence has already banned a number of inflammable materials and the next step is the implementation and enforcement of [the fire code]. We are already witnessing a more proactive approach from architects, interior designers and developers, seeking more information on the available inflammable construction products.''
While the fire at the Address Hotel Downtown on New Year's eve was the most recent high-profile incident, there have been others that have caused the industry to call for more stringent fire safety standards. Last year one of world's tallest residential buildings, The Torch, was hit by a huge fire that destroyed the shell of the 1,105-foot building. In 2012, a cigarette butt discarded on a pile of waste caused a fire at the 34-storey Tamweel Tower in Jumeirah Lakes Towers, destroying three floors and 11 cars in about six hours, and affecting 600 people living in 160 apartments.
Ihab El Khawaja, Deputy CEO of Tanmiyat Properties, says flammable and combustible materials exposed to flame or heat are among the main causes of fires in buildings, along with human error and faulty electrical fittings.
''The composite panels on some buildings are made of rubberised material covered by aluminium foils on both sides,'' says El Khawaja. ''In The Torch fire, the dripping made it dangerous. In windy weather there is high possibility of the fire to spread fast.''
Zohaib Rahman, Division Head at Alucopanel Middle East, says non-combustible aluminium composite panels follow strict European regulations. The UAE government has mandated the use of Euroclass A2 materials in mid- and high-rise buildings. Alcupanel, in partnership with Danube Group, recently opened an ACP factory in Dubai's Technopark to produce material to these specs.
Rahman explains that European Standard EN13501 classifies different construction materials — A1, A2, B, C, D, E and F — depending on how combustibility. Products classified as A1 and A2 are non-combustible. Those classified B to F have minimal to high combustibility. These materials obtain an additional label specific to emission of smoke and production of flammable droplets or particles. ''D0 stands for no-dripping and S1 is for materials which have weak smoke production, since in case of a fire smoke causes invisibility,'' says Rahman. ''In the UAE, with the new code, the material should be A2S1D0. If it is [only] A2 or S2, it is not in compliance.''
Andy Dean, Head of Façades for the Middle East at WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, a global engineering and design firm, says the UAE's updated Fire and Life Safety code would include a significantly enhanced section on façade materials. ''Since its original introduction in 2012, an awareness of the need for fire control has become self-evident.''
The real estate industry has widely welcomed the implementation of new standards to suit local requirements. Khawaja says, ''All buildings and towers are required to be built according to the UAE Fire and Life Safety Code of Practice, [which] outlines construction best practices and the responsibilities of the developer, landlord and tenant. It would be much easier for everyone to have specific suppliers registered with the Civil Defence. I would like to see not just one exclusive supplier.''
Experts agree that fire safety is not just about materials; it's only the first step in a process. ''The challenge isn't strictly related to the use of products, but in assessing each building's unique risks and using verified evaluation methods by teams of architects, engineers and contractors working together,'' says Kazi. ''They can model fire and smoke scenarios to predict how a particular building will perform when humans interact with it and define its architectural design, combined with materials used to prevent potential safety threats.''
Get a glimpse of Emaar South which will have an 18-hole golf course in Dubai South
Source: Shalini Seth, Special to Property Weekly