Dubai blaze highlights cladding risk

Nick Myall
Monday 04 Jan 2016

Safety concerns focus on the use of polyurethane and aluminium composite cladding on buildings throughout Dubai

It has emerged that the huge fire that engulfed a Dubai hotel could have been fuelled by flammable panels which clad the 63-storey skyscraper.

The fire is believed to have started on a covered balcony a third of the way up the Address Downtown Hotel, which was designed by international architecture and engineering firm Atkins. It is thought that the cause of the fire could have been a pair of curtains which caught alight. The speed at which the blaze spread across 40 floors of the outside of the hotel will become a major focus of the forthcoming investigation.

It was the third high-rise fire since 2012 in Dubai and the blaze has raised fears that hundreds of Dubai’s tallest buildings are at risk of similar incident.

At the heart of safety concerns is the use of polyurethane and aluminium composite cladding on buildings throughout the height of the emirate’s building boom. The material was only outlawed in Dubai by new buildings regulations in 2013.

At least 60 people were injured and one person suffered a heart attack as they rushed to escape the tower on New Year's Eve.

The skyscraper was overcome by flames so quickly that some guests said they fled for their lives before any fire alarms sounded.

Experts warned it was only a matter of time before there were major fatalities from a fire linked to the non-fire-resistant aluminium composite panels.

The panels are made from a thermoplastic core – plastic that has been heated to a high temperature and then hardened – held between two sheets of aluminium. They are used for insulation and for cosmetic purposes as they are long-lasting and easy to maintain. But they burn quickly, causing fires to spread rapidly.

The rules banning the composite panels do not apply to buildings constructed before 2013 and it has been claimed that up to 70% of Dubai's high rises may be covered with them. The difficulty for a visitor to Dubai and other UAE destinations is that it is often impossible to tell if your hotel or accommodation block is clad in flammable or non-flammable material.

In February 2015 the 86-storey skyscraper The Torch went up in flames, with the exterior of the building burning rapidly, and the interior being left largely undamaged.

This followed the November 2012 fire in the Tamweel Tower located in the Jumeirah Lakes Towers complex, with flames spreading up the building as the aluminium cladding ignited. Fortunately, in both cases no lives were lost.

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Nick Myall

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