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 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