ABU DHABI // High-rise building owners fear massive bills for making their properties fireproof after the New Year’s Eve blaze at The Address Downtown Dubai.
Engineering consultants are taking streams of calls from landlords worried about the cost of retrofitting their buildings to meet new safety rules coming in March.
“We have been contacted by clients asking us to look again at their plans and do a physical inspection of their buildings following the Address fire,” Christopher Seymour, regional director of the Arcadis consultancy, said on Wednesday.
A new federal fire-safety code will be introduced in March. In addition, after the Address Downtown fire, Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, Minister of Interior and Deputy Prime Minister, ordered civil defence teams to inspect every building in the country for fire risk.
Like the 302-metre, 63-storey Address Downtown building, most of Dubai’s 900 or so towers were built before the emirate’s building codes were updated in 2012.
Composite panel cladding, which consists of a core of plastic or polyurethane filling sandwiched between aluminium panels, has been blamed for the spread of fires at a number of high-rise buildings.
After fires in 2012 at Al Baker Tower 4 and Al Tayer Tower in Sharjah, the Ministry of Interior introduced an extension to the emirate’s fire and life safety code that required cladding on new buildings to adhere to tough fire-safety regulations and outlawed the use of foamed plastic insulation.
In 2013, civil defence chiefs announced an extension to fire-safety codes that required owners of high-rise buildings with flammable cladding to install a ring of fire retardant panels on every third floor to stop fires spreading, and external sprinklers.
It is not yet known what caused the fire at The Address, and the investigation continues, but experts say the speed and violence with which the flames spread are consistent with the use of highly flammable polyethylene in the core of the aluminium cladding.
Parallels are also being drawn with the fire in 2012 at the 34-storey Tamweel Tower in Jumeirah Lakes Towers, which was started by a discarded a cigarette butt and in which the aluminium cladding panels burnt downwards.
The National revealed this week that tests on the exterior wall panels used on The Address, conducted at a research institute in Texas in 2007, were meaningless because they tested fire containment and not flammability.
Experts expect that the new fire regulations to be introduced in March will set more stringent tests for composite aluminium panels, such as requiring entire wall assemblies to be tested rather than individual panels.
“At the moment, very little is known about the new rules,” said Mr Seymour, a cost consultant to some of Dubai’s biggest landlords.
“It’s very hard to generalise about how much of a retrofit is necessary or how much such a job would cost because each case varies so much.
“In each case we would recommend carrying out a risk-management survey, looking at the original plans of the building and a physical inspection. Then we would make recommendations on a case-by-case basis.”
For buildings’ insurers, who have to bear the cost of expensive claims in the event of a fire, the use of aluminium composite panels in towers is of growing concern.
“What we look at in a building is whether these panels are extensively used or if they are used up to a reasonable amount,” said A K Ravindran, the technical director at RSA Insurance.
“So if a building has less than 50 per cent of its cladding made up of these panels we don’t consider it a great risk to underwrite.”