Fire safety experts have urged developers to check the cladding on both old and new buildings in the UAE to avoid a tragedy like the fire that engulfed a London residential tower on Wednesday morning.
At least 17 people were said to have died in the fire at the Grenfell Tower in West London at the time of writing, and the death toll is rising.
It is not yet known what caused the fire, but reports have emerged that the cladding fitted on the external walls of the 24-storey block of apartments in 2015 was of a flammable nature and contributed to the rapid spread of the flames.
The same issue has arisen in the UAE, which has suffered a spate of high-profile building fires in recent years – thankfully with no reported deaths. For example, flammable cladding was blamed for spreading the flames that partially destroyed The Address, Downtown hotel on December 31 2015, prompting the government to revise the UAE fire safety code this year.
UAE fire safety experts interviewed by Arabian Business – many of whom preferred to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the Grenfell Tower tragedy and because an investigation has yet to be undertaken – said the incident is a stark reminder of the importance of due diligence when selecting building materials.
Outdated types of aluminium cladding contain a high proportion of flammable plastic at their core and should be avoided at all costs.
Sharjah-based Alubond USA manufactured the panels on The Address fire and stopped those operations in 2016. Later in the year, chairman Shaji Ul Mulk announced that the company had started manufacturing a fire-resistant form of panel that was safer.
Ul Mulk said: “The Grenfell Tower fire is a horrific incident which unfortunately could have been avoided. We are not aware of the details of the cladding system used on the tower but it seems obvious that either a low-quality panel was used or a proper engineered system may not have been used.
“Low quality combustible cladding with low density polyethylene core continues to remain on thousands of buildings around the world. Buildings clad in such panels will continue to be a risk and it is time global authorities passed regulations to address these issues.”
Another UAE-based fire safety consultant said: “The London fire is horrific. It’s very unfortunate that the building was upgraded in 2015 yet it seems they have used the same kind of cladding used in the flammable buildings in Dubai recently, so it’s no wonder it burnt the way it did and so fast.”
Phil Barry, a UK-based fire safety consultant who has worked in the UAE, noted that sprinklers are installed in high-rise buildings in the UAE, helping to prevent loss of life.
“We need to wait for the outcome of the [Grenfell Tower] enquiry before we can make assumptions, but having viewed the videos of the fire and considering the rapid fire spread and molten droplets it does appear that the external cladding contributed to the speed of fire development,” said Barry.
“There have been many similar incidents around the world, including in Dubai. In my opinion the reason there have been no fatalities in Dubai is that thankfully most of the buildings are sprinklered. In the London fire there were no sprinklers.
“Dubai has been fortunate. However, sprinkler systems are only designed to control fire in the room of origin, not to control a large fire breaking in from another area. So even in sprinklered buildings there will be problems if the external cladding does not restrict fire spread.”
The new UAE Fire Safety Code includes tougher requirements for developers and property owners to replace cladding on buildings with non-flammable varieties and carry out more more regular tests on fire safety equipment.
Ul Mulk said: “It is becoming more and more obvious that it’s not just the new buildings which need stringent fire codes. The existing buildings clad over the last four decades in low-quality core will also need to be addressed.”
He said that if for financial or practical reasons an entire building cannot be re-clad, an alternative option is to create ‘fire barriers’ by recalling sections of the building so fire spreads less quickly.
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