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Mon 29 Oct 2007 05:21 PM

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Structural integrity

Safety needs to lead the building industry in the Middle East.

With the frantic pace of development in the UAE, safety regulations that are so commonplace in other countries, are being pushed aside or relegated to secondary issues. In response to this, the Dubai Municipality has implemented a materials/product analysis for each project to determine the suitability of materials and to try to raise safety standards.

Competition is necessary in a market economy and, among other things, it curtails complacency amongst recognised international façade element suppliers. The worldwide façade market is huge, each product has its own merits, and frankly, having several suppliers striving to be the ‘market leader' will ultimately lead to better, safer façades.

Although the cost of façade systems is frequently decried, consideration must be given to the effectiveness of the system; its ability to keep occupants safe and whether it can provide a satisfactory micro climate which will lead to greater efficiency and less maintenance. Innovations in the area of sustainable energy are, at last, advancing despite the best technologies being rejected sometimes, because of initial costs. Issues like a building's impact on the environment and the futures of our children are frequently ignored when deciding between façade technologies and a project's profitability.

While intelligent façades-which have the ability to regulate solar gain, light level and CO2-are getting their due consideration we must now turn our attention to issues of safety and security. Means of escaping an enclosure in an emergency; internal and external areas that are unprotected; and the proximity of surrounding buildings are the biggest concerns we are facing in the industry.

While there are other safety requirements that need to be addressed in the industry, these three issues should be at the forefront of building projects in this region and authorities need to take greater strides in ensuring compliance.

Means of escape

In particular, widths of egress-especially staircases-and tower exits need careful consideration to ensure safety. Furthermore, the close proximity of adjacent buildings facilitates the spread of fire, especially in a hot, dry climate, and consideration must be given to that potential risk. With little effort, it's possible to prevent these risks, but developers need to realise that there will be costs attached to these forms of prevention, which must be considered at the planning stage. Of course, there is a ‘duty of care' required for occupants who utilise the facilities, but safety prevention is the responsibility of not only the occupants, architects and designers, but also those with the authority to recognise fundamental design flaws and impose safety standards.

With the multitude of developments and the increasing workload in this region, architects, developers and planning authorities need to consider more carefully emergency escape routes and safety passages. This is a fundamental issue, which, in many cases, is being ignored.
Proximity of other buildings

At the design stage, additional consideration should include the position and distance of adjacent structures. This applies particularly when a development is under single ownership and will incorporate multiple structures, as the temptation to maximise returns can lead to buildings that are perilously close. For example, European standards-based on an established and accepted relationship between property boundaries and building position-limit the area in which flammable or unprotected façade materials are adjacent.

Another vital point of safety that needs mentioning involves radiant heat. The fact is, if a fire occurs in an adjacent structure, extremely high temperatures radiate heat to surrounding buildings and can cause combustion, despite the use of façade materials that seem safe. As was seen recently in both the UAE and Qatar, consideration of such a simple element in planning, and the use of safety-conscious materials, will assist in preventing the spread of flames from one structure to the other.

Unprotected areas

An escape route within the areas where combustible materials are to be stored is crucial. While escape routes are a planning issue that is usually resolved during the design phase, the final approval is the responsibility of the controlling authority and under the recommendation of a fire prevention officer. Obviously, escape routes are a design element that must be planned at an early stage to avoid complications, cut-corners or ambivalence later.

Many buildings in the UAE appear to treat ‘means of escape' as a secondary design element. Because occupants of both commercial and residential buildings are often unaware of the function of these spaces, they often come to be used as additional storage areas.

While building inspectors may address the issue of escape routes during early planning stages, there appears to be an indifference to what happens after structures become occupied. There is apparent lack of awareness on the part of end-users and a lack of initiative on the part of building inspectors who should be ensuring safety.

Where to from here?

It has become the responsibility of those who specialise in safe materials and safety issues, to introduce workshops, write publications and sponsor other forms of communication to continue educating both safety professionals and the general public. Undoubtedly, this will not be an easy task, but it's one that is vital to ensure the well-being of future occupants.

Structural Integrity was provided by Nael Afieh, Director, Schüco International KG.

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