Opinion | Columnists

Fire-rated cladding key to safe buildings

A unified code should establish a clear distinction between combustible LDPE core materials and non-combustible mineral core materials used for panels

  • By Shaji Ul Mulk, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 00:00 May 14, 2012
  • Gulf News

Sharjah's Al Tayer Tower on fire
  • Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News
  • A combination photo shows the Al Tayer Tower in flames (left), as captured by Gulf News reader Afzal Ahmed, and after firemen have controlled the blaze on Saturday morning (right).
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The recent fires incidents in two towers in Sharjah have brought the fire safety issue and the deployment of fire-rated cladding materials in modern buildings to the fore.

On April 28, a fire broke out at the residential Al Tayer Tower near Al Nahda Park in Sharjah, while most of its tenants were asleep. Hundreds of families have been displaced. The event took place a few months after another tower caught fire.

The UAE is home to one of the highest number of high-rise buildings in the world where hundreds of thousands of people work and live. There are enough reasons for all of them to panic and seek answers to certain questions.

The incidents have also raised a number of issues, such as the awareness about building safety — or lack of it; regulations on building materials — or the lack of it and the absence of a unified building code, not to mention the frequent use of substandard materials.

The two incidents in which two high-rise towers caught fire that forced their occupants out in the woods — in this case public parks — also draw attention to the civic sense of some of the occupants and their sense of responsibility to the environment.
If the reports are to be believed that one of the building’s fire started from a cigarette, then we have a lot to worry about. No building code and safety feature could prevent these incidents from occurring in the future.

However, the incidents have also shifted focus to aluminium cladding that covers most high-rise towers’ walls.

Cladding is a protective or insulating layer fixed to the outside of a building. It serves a dual purpose of improving the appearance of the building and helping guard against the elements. One would assume that all these colour-coated cladding materials are fire resistant.

However, the use of fire-rated materials, or lack of it, is the key issue that came out as a result of the two recent fire incidents. Unfortunately, most of these are not fire-rated materials.

What is alarming is that the use of fire-rated cladding has not yet being made mandatory by law.

Certified fire-rated metal composites are safe if used as a proper system and are in use all over the world. The problem here lies in awareness and legislations to enforce the use of the right materials.

One of the major issues is the lack of clear understanding of the correct material technologies and risks involved in the use of low-density polythene (LPDE) core aluminium composite panels as opposed to fire-rated mineral core. In addition to this, it is important to understand the significance of the use of a fully certified fire-rated system as opposed to just fire-rated panels.

The industry needs to embark on a focused awareness programme at the highest level by conducting conferences with architects, developers, fire-testing laboratories, contractors and facade installation companies. Architects and consultants should specify the full wall system and involve manufacturers to provide guarantees of performance.

The perception of high-cost implications is perhaps the biggest factor in deterring architects and developers from choosing certified fire-rated facades. An awareness campaign is needed to educate the stakeholders that the cost implication is not as perceived and in effect is just around 10 per cent and worth it, considering the high risks involved.

Full fire-rated system specifications including Rockwool insulation will contribute towards energy savings. This will have a direct cost savings impact reducing air conditioning tonnages and utility bills and perhaps will pay for itself.

Availability

Availability of the high quality fire-rated facade panels and full systems with accessories matching stringent fire safety requirements is a concern. Local manufacturers and agents need to increase the production capacities and also make available the full fire- rated system. Civil defence and architects can play an important role in this and provide a list of certified fire-rated panels.

Lack of clear policy and regulation is another important factor impacting the fire safety of buildings. Most municipalities and civil defence departments in the UAE have established fire safety standards for exterior wall systems. However the current standards of BS 476 Part 6 and 7 approvals are not fully effective to combat spread of fires. These tests only test the surface of panels and do not actually test the burning characteristics of the core of the panel, which is LDPE and primarily responsible for the spread of fire.

The UAE needs to have a unified building code for all the seven emirates. Building codes of Sharjah differ from that of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Municipalities of all the emirates should work together to develop a unified building code — combining the best from all the codes — to ensure best practice. This should become a priority to prevent future incidents.

They do not establish a clear distinction between combustible LDPE core materials and non-combustible mineral core materials. There are other international standards like ASTM, EN and ISO standards, which are better suitable to stimulate a real-life fire and realistically demonstrate the performance of materials and wall systems. The industry stakeholders should work extensively to bring this to the attention of relevant authorities as there is a definitive need for a re-look into these standards and testing procedures.
There needs to be a legislation to make insurance mandatory against fire losses.
However, all said and done, nothing would work if building occupants show lack of responsible behaviour and lack civic sense. No code would help if residents do not care to stub out cigarette butts and hold barbecue parties in the balconies.

Shaji Ul Mulk is the chairman of Mulk Holdings, manufacturers of aluminium composite panels


 

Comments (2)

  1. Added 12:23 May 14, 2012

    In my view, every country has got a responsibility towards the safety of their people. A very important aspect in this context is a clear regulation towards building & construction materials. Why not apply the highest standards like the ones in Singapore? With their regulations along with a strict application of the same, people living in highrise buildings, being in airports, etc.... will be "on the safe side". It is somewhat surprising that in particular this gentleman who has distributed his inferior product in the UAE (and outside) in such reckless speed and in such inconsiderate manner in terms of quality, fire and safety - is now leading the discussion about safety. Once fire and safety regulations are being in place, I would highly suggest to the authorities to take ramdom samples from the installed facade and to make a fire test. What you see is not always what you get.

    Mohammad, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  2. Added 10:14 May 14, 2012

    There is still one question to be asked apart from all these 'standalone' concerns expressed in the article, Fire Safety Engineering is by definition a holistic engineering approach and there haven't been any mentions as to whether the buildings were sprinkler protected and really needed certified fire rated systems in external facades? If the buildings are provided with a fully certified sprinkler system to a recognised international standard to prevent internal fires outbreaking or projecting through windows there is no need to fire rate facades or provide aprons or parapets elements. Also, people need to understand the difference between 'fire resistance rating' and control of fire spread due to flame propagation in combustible materials, the first one is not related to the external cladding problem but the second is the leading phenomena to be resolved in terms of fire safety due to external vertical fire spread in the same building or other adjacent buildings. As usual vendors and manufacturers of specific products tend to jump online and offer all sorts of different 'solutions' based on recent fire events. This is definitely not the engineer way to resolve fire problems and the Authorities should warn stakeholders about spending money and implementing solutions that may not be required. Instead, the fire engineering community should be consulted on the best ways to analyse the problems such as performing proper Forensic Fire Investigation Assessment in the two latest fires to determine origin, cause, effects and draw conclusions and recommendations from them; and secondly recommending Fire Risk Assessments to be performed in other buildings in question, again always approaching them in a holistic fashion when assessing Fire Safety. I tend to agree with the authors point of view with regards to the National Building Code, the UAE throughout should adopt/develop a unique Fire Code and Building Regulations on fire safety and implement retrospective revisions of all existing buildings to upgrade their current situation, this again should be based on a thorough Fire Engineering and Legislation exercise to develop a Fire Safety Code suitable for the country's needs... and not based on a mix and match approach from all the existing codes or others around the world as that's not the definition and fundamentals of Fire Safety Engineering at all!

    Pedro Armijo, Fire Engineer, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

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