Fire that engulfs Dubai skyscraper raises questions about safety of exterior cladding practices

Architecture International Newsletter Skyscrapers
(Christian van Elven/Flickr)

The tower before the fire. (Christian van Elven/Flickr)

A raging fire that consumed a luxury skyscraper in the United Arab Emirates on New Year’s Eve is raising concerns about the safety of a number of ultra-high towers that have come to define contemporary Dubai.

Just a few hours before midnight last Thursday, fire erupted at the Address Downtown Hotel, a 63-story building near the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. The flames spread to cover approximately 40 floors in just minutes.

The New Year’s Eve fire is not the first to break out at one of the city’s super-tall towers. In February of 2015, a fire erupted at an 86-story structure, regrettably named the Torch, which was the tallest residential building in the world when it opened in 2011. In 2012, a large fire gutted the Tarmweel Tower, a 35-story residential building, rendering it uninhabitable.

In all three instances, the buildings’ cladding panels, which, according to the website Gulf Business, can contain a dangerous mix of aluminum and polyurethane, are likely the cause of the rapid rates at which the fires spread. The chemical combination is also highly combustible in dry, desert air.

While such cladding is not necessarily hazardous, it can become extremely flammable under specific conditions, and depending on the building’s design.

In an interview with The National, Samer Barakat, the chief executive of Alumco, which supplied the panels of the Address building, stated that two-thirds of the buildings in Dubai are covered with non-fire rated aluminum composite panels (ACP). “From our side we complied. We gave all our submissions, there was approval on every submission according to specification,” he told the UAE newspaper.

By the time the United Arab Emirates changed its Fire and Life Safety Code to mandate fire-retardant cladding for all buildings taller than 50 feet in 2013, numerous tall buildings erected during Dubai’s construction boom had already used non-fire rated exterior cladding. The Address Hotel was completed in 2008.

The recently enacted regulations do not apply to existing buildings, however. And while the cost of replacing cladding on skyscrapers built before 2013 with safer materials would be an extremely costly undertaking, the cost of not doing anything—which could include possible demolition and replacement due to severe damages—could be far worse.

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