By Sarah Townsend
The recent spate of building fires in the UAE, including New Year's The Address Downtown blaze, has exposed significant concerns that could cost developers, owners and contractors millions of dollars. Authorities have moved to enforce potentially life-saving new regulations, but who will pay?
On December 31, 2015, millions around the world watched in horror as flames engulfed The Address Hotel in Downtown Dubai — a prominent high-rise in one of the emirate’s busiest tourist spots, opposite the Burj Khalifa and The Dubai Mall.
Two hours before a midnight fireworks extravaganza was scheduled only metres away, hundreds of residents and guests were being evacuated. Only minor injuries were reported and while firefighters continued to extinguish the flames, the huge New Year’s Eve celebrations went ahead as planned. Colourful sparks from the Burj Khalifa mingled with embers bouncing off the charred walls of the hotel, and the crowd welcomed in 2016 with mixed emotions.
The authorities took immediate action; Dubai Civil Defence (DCD) launched an investigation into the cause of the fire the following day and is expected to file a report by the end of this month.
Dubai Police said on January 20 that an electrical short was to blame. Earlier, Emaar Properties, the Dubai developer that built and owns The Address, had sought to dispel rumours that flammable material had been used in the hotel’s construction, as well as claims from guests that the fire alarms had not sounded and water sprinklers had not activated. There has been no suggestion of negligence and the developer has insisted it adhered to all standards and regulations regarding fire safety systems.
The company said in a statement earlier this month: “Our systems, across all properties, are regularly tested by third party entities and cleared. We would like to reiterate that the fire alarms did go off and any information to the contrary is false.
“We are awaiting the findings and the assessment report. We will take appropriate steps, as needed, after we receive the report.”
The Address was the latest in a spate of building fires in the UAE over the past year, and the incident has sparked public debate as to the safety of other high-rise towers in the country.
Last March, a fire at the 74-floor Torch Tower in Dubai Marina made global headlines, in part because of the large number of foreign expats who lived in the building, while 250 families were evacuated from a residential high-rise in Sharjah in October.
In November, a fire partially destroyed a cluster of buildings near the Abu Baker Al Siddique metro station in Deira and in the same month a fire caused substantial damage to the façade of the Regal Tower office building in Business Bay. There have been other reported fires at various factory buildings in the Al Quoz area of Dubai, while work finally started last year to repair the Tamweel Tower in Jumeirah Lakes Towers, which went up in flames in November 2012.
Thankfully, there were no reported deaths from any of these incidents but the image of The Address Hotel’s blackened façade remains imprinted in many people’s minds.
In a bid to quell public anxiety and avoid damage to the country’s reputation, the UAE government has announced a major review of all buildings in the country to ascertain their fire safety risk.
The survey is to be conducted by DCD, with a database of buildings to be created by April, listing at-risk structures. DCD said it had already informed the emirate’s biggest developers and met with several government departments responsible for storing the information needed to survey properties and evaluate their construction.
A key area of concern is that many high-rise towers were erected before the country’s building codes were updated in 2012. Prior to this, it was commonplace to use aluminium composite panels to clad towers, which have since been blamed for a number of fast-spreading fires because they contain a flammable filling made of plastic or polyethylene.
Experts have said that the speed at which the fire at The Address spread suggested the exterior wall panels contained flammable material.
DCD director of preventive safety Jamal Ahmed Ibrahim told reporters last week that manufacturers who sold building materials not approved by civil defence and municipalities would face prosecution under a new fire safety code.
The UAE Fire and Life Safety Code that was updated in 2012 contains regulations banning the use of such materials on new buildings in compliance with international fire safety standards.
In 2013, authorities made further amendments to the code requiring owners of high-rise buildings with flammable cladding to add fireproof panels on every third floor to stop blazes from spreading. External fire sprinklers were also to be installed.
Consequently, new buildings in the UAE should pose little risk in terms of fire safety. However, experts warn that as many as three quarters of high-rise towers in Dubai alone were built before the new regulations and may require urgent upgrades.
Mohamad Al Dah, Dubai-based chairman of the UAE branch of the Institute of Structural Engineers, explains: “I am yet to see a major fire for a building constructed using the newer code, so it seems the current regulations are effective.
“However, since most of Dubai’s towers were built between 2002 and 2009, I would say that up to 70 percent of today’s high rises were built to the older fire codes.
“Hence why we urgently need to list these at-risk buildings and come up with pre-emptive remedial issues to prevent further loss.”
However, the review will highlight substantive risks and property owners could find themselves forced to shell out millions of dirhams to fireproof their buildings. One landlord, Alan Godfrey, who owns an apartment in the fire-ravaged Torch Tower, states: “In my view, more like 90 percent of the buildings in [new areas such as] Dubai Marina are at risk.
“We need help to finance this work, as it will cost many millions of dirhams. It must be seen as a priority, so perhaps all or part of the cost could be borne by the government.”
The DCD's Ibrahim insisted that only up to 20 percent of buildings in the UAE were at risk. However, he admitted some owners would be compelled to invest heavily in fireproofing tactics.
“The law is very clear,” he said. “The owner has responsibility for his building. This means that if after the survey any building is found to have some issues, the owner will have to replace [parts] and work with other companies to deliver the necessary work.
“In some cases, the whole façade will need to be changed and that will be a high cost for the owner. We need to study a lot of solutions, the market also, to make the best suggestion.”
A fire safety consultant who works with the Dubai government and asked not to be named says not all possible solutions are “doom and gloom” — that is, involving major reconstruction or other expensive retrofitting. But the costs may still be significant.
Landlords and developers must also take heed of new rules to be included in an updated version of the fire safety code to be published in March. Ibrahim said the revised code would contain new requirements for developers to appoint a dedicated fire safety consultant to oversee all stages of design and construction. The consultant would be retained for a minimum of one year after the building has been completed.
The code will also place additional liabilities on third party management firms. “If the real estate agency is running the building’s operations, then liability is transferred from the owner to the [agent],” Ibrahim told reporters.
“The company will be responsible to civil defence in matters pertaining to the building’s maintenance and systems. Even the tenant may be liable in some cases, for example, if they hear the fire alarm and ignore it or allow children on the balcony without supervision.”
The code is also expected to set more stringent tests for aluminium composite panels and other materials. It was revealed this month that tests on the exterior wall panels used for The Address, conducted at a research institute in Texas in 2007, were worthless because they tested fire “containment” not “flammability”.
Ibrahim said: “The UAE is a young country but its [updated] fire safety code is one of the most advanced as it incorporates best practices and rules from across the world. The revised code will incorporate the latest developments in standards and technology following consultation with industry experts.”
Up-to-date statistics on fire incidents in the UAE are hard to come by, but figures from the Forensics and Mechanical Engineering Department at the General Department of Forensic Science and Criminology at Dubai Police show there were 5,490 declared fires in Dubai between 2006 and 2013. The most common type of incident was motor vehicle fire (37.7 percent), followed by residential fires (28.2 percent).
Although updates to the code are expected to help close gaps in fire safety provision, experts warn against placing too much importance on regulations. First, they claim, it is difficult to assess the level of compliance with the code, and second, they argue the onus is on the owner to check they have done everything possible to protect the building and its tenants.
The anonymous source says: “Blaming ‘flimsy’ regulations for poorly managed building fires is like someone putting cheap tyres on a car, not maintaining them and then blaming the authorities when they blow up on the highway.
“Ultimately, the government is there to guide and owners have the final say on how they manage their properties.”
Business head of fire resistant glass at Vetrotech Saint-Gobain Middle East, Gopikrishnan TM, adds: “Many property owners consider fire safety systems and regular inspections as expenditure rather than an investment.
“It is crucial that landlords adhere to Civil Defence recommendations as it has put in a lot of effort to address the majority of the issues. However, even with these strict regulations, mishaps happen, particularly in this part of the world with hot, dry conditions.
“Sufficient importance must be given to implementing fire safety measures, not just meeting minimum requirements.”
He recommends landlords and developers draw up their own internal fire safety codes, stipulating proper integration of preventative and emergency fire protection, regular fire risk assessments and penalties if requirements are not met.
Al Dah urges building owners to take out adequate insurance and calls for premiums to be linked more directly to safety assessments. “There is a culture here of not insuring buildings against things like floods and fires. Large hotels and developers such as Emaar comply with best practices, but there are other companies that simply don’t bother.
“I hope the recent fire at The Address will prompt them and even occupiers to take out adequate insurance. Though I suspect any decent insurance company will want to charge more for a fire survey of the building before renewals are approved.”
Another issue when it comes to preventing and tackling fires in the Middle East is risk-laden supply chains. Relatively few developers know for certain where their construction materials have come from, according to Garald Todd, Dubai-based head of fire and life safety and specialist services at WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff.
“The issue we are facing in the industry today is not a standards and codes issue. It’s more of an engineering and materials issue. Just because your supplier is reputable does not mean their suppliers are reputable.”
In one instance, says Todd, his firm had a client who appeared to have purchased the correct, industry-approved construction material from a supplier.
“That supplier had ordered the right material but when we tried to follow the supply chain back to the factory, things got fuzzy.
"Nobody knew where the stuff had come from. We’re saying to our clients now, get out there and audit and verify your supply chain. Make sure the products you are buying are what they purport to be: focus on the sanctity of your procurement chain.”
Todd concedes it is highly likely that the buildings that caught fire recently contained non-fireproof material, but he insists this would not have been deliberate. “I don’t think there are people sitting around going, ‘Hey, we could save millions by putting all the wrong materials on this building’. I don’t think any owner is willfully going to buy something that could cause catastrophic harm to a building or its occupants.
“We have to assume that somewhere along the supply chain something went wrong, or that somebody, somewhere, did not know the fire safety codes well enough.”
The latter is another challenge, admits Todd. “Here in the Middle East we have contractors, designers and suppliers from all across in the world, and they are all used to slightly different regulations and standards. [The UAE code] contains a lot of referencing and it’s fair to say that unless you were very knowledgeable in understanding how to apply it, it could be quite confusing.”
He says the updated code to be published in March is expected to streamline and simplify the regulations to make them easier to understand.
In the meantime, DCD continues with its investigation into The Address and speculation goes on. Frost & Sullivan forecasts the Gulf’s fire safety market will grow by 15 percent per annum, hitting $3.1bn by 2020 — present discussions will only serve to fuel this growth.