Dubai fire: a question of cladding

Dubai greeted the New Year with cheers and fireworks last night as smoke and flames billowed from a burning skyscraper.

By daybreak, the fire at The Address, a 63-storey hotel and residential complex, had still not been completely extinguished. Fortunately, however, reports so far indicate that the building was successfully evacuated without any deaths or serious injuries.

Videos posted on social media initially showed a smallish fire above the podium section of the building which then spread rapidly up the tower in a narrow vertical column. It doesn't appear to have spread very far sideways into the building and Dubai's Civil Defence chief, quoted in Gulf News this morning, says the blaze damaged "only the external interface".

This points to the use of combustible materials in the building's exterior cladding.

Screen grab of the hotel fire and fireworks display 
in Dubai last night

Last night's fire followed a very similar pattern to one last February at the unfortunately-named Torch Tower in Dubai (see photographs). In that fire too, damage was said to have been confined mainly to the exterior cladding.

Another similar fire, which is thought to have started when a stray cigarette butt set fire to cladding panels, occurred at the Tamweel Tower in 2012.

Last March, an article in The National said combustible cladding had been implicated in two other skyscraper fires elsewhere in the UAE:

"Flammable cladding materials, comprising plastic or polyurethane fillings – called a thermo-plastic core – sandwiched between aluminium panels, have been blamed for spreading fires at both the Al Baker Tower 4 and the Al Tayer Tower in Sharjah in 2012."

It continued alarmingly:

"Experts believe the majority of Dubai’s approximately 250 high-rise buildings use cladding panels with a thermo-plastic core, which have been generally used for insulation, to improve rigidity and for cosmetic purposes."

According to Phil Barry, a fire safety consultant with experience in the Gulf, about 70% of existing high-rise buildings in Dubai "use cladding with a highly flammable thermo-plastic core". In an interview last March, he said:

"There are also potentially many thousands of existing buildings around the world that will have been built incorrectly, either because the regulatory building control process has not been correctly followed or because the building was constructed prior to the existing controls and recommendations being introduced."

As a result of the safety concerns Dubai's regulations were tightened in 2012 and again in 2013. According to Barry, these "will adequately cover new building work provided they are robustly enforced".

But that still leaves an awful lot of high-rise towers which don't comply, simply because they were built before the new rules were introduced.

This couple posed for a New Year photo as the hotel burned in the background.     

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Friday, 1 January 2016