Safety concerns resurface after high-rise building fires in UAE

RUTH GREEN

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A recent spate of high-rise fires in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has prompted serious concerns over construction materials and safety regulations for the tall buildings which increasingly dominate Dubai and other major cities.

On 28 March, a fire spread rapidly through two residential tower blocks in Ajman emirate. The towers were quickly evacuated and only five people suffered minor injuries. But, as the third serious high-rise fire in the UAE in just over a year, the blaze acted as a sobering reminder of the potential risks in these buildings.

The incident follows a fire on New Year’s Eve 2015 at Address Downtown, a popular high-rise hotel in Dubai situated near the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. In February 2015, a fire also ravaged the 79-floor Torch Tower, one of the city’s highest residential skyscrapers. The UAE has seen a number of other high-rise fires in recent years.

Dubai

Although the cause of the most recent blaze is still under investigation, much scrutiny has been focused on materials used for external cladding in many of the UAE’s tall buildings and their potential role in contributing to fire spread between floors.

Dubai is home to more than 900 completed high-rises, 88 of which exceed 180m. The city experienced a property boom in the first half of the 2000s, with Dubai’s real estate laws amended in 2002 to enable non-UAE nationals to buy properties there for the first time. This fed the proliferation of high-rise buildings in the city, with many properties being sold off-plan amid decreasing efforts to comply with building standards and regulations.

As construction flourished, developers increasingly relied on covering the exteriors of their buildings with non-fire retardant aluminium composite cladding panels.

The relative ease and low-cost of installing this type of cladding made it a popular choice, but it has since proven to be highly flammable and may have contributed to external fire spread in many incidents, where flames moved rapidly from the floor of fire origin to consume multiple other floors.

Similar cladding systems have contributed to comparable incidents in other countries such as Australia, France, Turkey and China.

‘‘With the New Year’s Eve fire being particularly prominent and a
re-emphasis by the authorities, we expect more careful and informed consideration going forward

Aarta Alkarimi, independent practice professional;
Vice-Chair, Project Establishment Subcommittee of the IBA International Construction Projects Committee

‘It is a problem elsewhere, but I think it’s been more prominent in Dubai, perhaps because there has been more high-profile construction there in the latter half of the last decade,’ says Barry Greenberg, a senior associate at BSA Ahmad Bin Hezeem & Associates. ‘I read that the rate of construction in Dubai was so much at one point that 10-25 per cent of the world’s construction cranes were in the city.’

In response to such incidents, new UAE fire safety regulations introduced in 2013 stipulated that fire-retardant cladding must be fitted to all new buildings over 15m. However, there is no requirement to retrofit older buildings in this way.

Buildings already under construction were also not affected by the changes, notes Aarta Alkarimi, an independent practice professional based in Dubai and Vice-Chair of the Project Establishment Subcommittee of the IBA International Construction Projects Committee.

‘Despite earlier fires in 2012 and 2013, we continue to see products of questionable specification being installed in Dubai because their construction began before the changes in regulations,’ she says.

‘It is unclear how the authorities will handle issuance of building completion certificates for such buildings that were already under construction before the new regulations. Some contractors have been more proactive, but this requires the cooperation of consultants and owners recognising that this issue is one where all parties need to understand their respective obligations. So, we have seen inconsistent responses over the last few years.’

However, Alkarimi is hopeful the situation is improving: ‘With the New Year’s Eve fire being particularly prominent and a re-emphasis by the authorities, we expect more careful and informed consideration going forward. We know of a major UAE developer who asked for all its buildings currently under construction to be audited to ensure compliance with the latest regulations.’

Aarta Alkarimi

Dubai, which has been updating its own local regulations since before 2012, is expected to announce further improvements to building fire and safety regulations in the coming months, according to Greenberg.

‘Dubai is in the process of updating its regulations; they were expected to be issued in March 2016 but this has been delayed now until sometime in April, I believe, to amend technical provisions,’ he says.

‘Although I haven’t seen the final draft, I understand it may include [requirements for] an annual inspection of buildings by Dubai Civil Defence and also some references to retrofitting to buildings constructed pre-2012 – before the dangerous aluminium cladding was outlawed – to stop fires spreading in these high-rises.’

However, Syed Alkarimi, project director at Turner Construction International in Dubai, warns that regulations alone are not enough.

‘It is important to note that building codes and regulations stipulate minimum acceptable requirements,’ he says.  ‘These minimums may satisfy the regulatory requirements but alone may not be sufficient in many circumstances. Codes and regulations cannot be read in isolation, nor should they be interpreted by those not specifically qualified. Specialist fire and life safety consultants should be employed to design to “best practices” that often exceed regulatory minimums.’

Indeed, in many cases, fire safety engineering strategies are employed in high-rises as part of a package of protective systems and measures.

Insurance issues

The distinct lack of insurance cover in Dubai and other parts of the UAE is another issue that has resurfaced in the wake of the fires, given how many people live in high-rise occupancies. Insurance penetration is extremely low in the UAE compared with other developed economies, ranging from 1-2 per cent, meaning total insurance premiums are low compared to the country’s GDP. This indicates that only a very small proportion of the population take out policies for assets they wish to insure, whether home, life, health or even travel insurance.

Wayne Jones, who leads Clyde & Co’s insurance and re-insurance team in the UAE, says the low penetration reflects the historical lack of development in the region’s insurance market.

‘Some 80 per cent of the population is expatriate rather than UAE nationals,’ he explains. ‘Until a decade ago, there was no expat private ownership, which has meant that home and contents cover has been very underutilised.'

However, Jones believes the fires have had an impact on the local insurance market. ‘The rising instance of fires in high-rise buildings completed before 2012 is definitely causing some consternation in the market in terms of the increased risk and the level of premiums generated,’ he says. ‘The instance of fires in high-rise buildings is increasing and it appears the same issues are leading to the propagation of fires, which will inevitably lead to larger and more frequent claims.’

Growing concerns raised by building fires associated with the aluminium cladding system are already affecting insurance companies’ willingness to insure high-rises worldwide, adds Syed Alkarimi.

‘Insurance underwriters are becoming increasingly wary of inappropriate use of metal composite panels, and are either demanding higher premiums for buildings installed with certain products, precluding certain materials or systems from coverage or altogether refusing to insure buildings,’ he says.

However, Greenberg says the rising incidence of fires hasn’t prompted more UAE residents to reconsider getting home insurance. ‘A lot of tenants don’t have contents or owners insurance and might not have cover,’ he says. ‘Every time there’s a big fire, there are calls for tenants to get homeowner insurance cover, but then people quickly forget about it.’

As Jones notes, the status of UAE’s regulations aren’t making it easier for insurers to provide adequate cover either: ‘The complicating factor is that in many buildings in the UAE, there are multiple different owners, and the legislation currently in place lacks the legal mechanism to allow ownership associations to operate effectively, introducing difficulties for owners and insurers to insure these properties.’ While he says there are some indications this may be changing, he isn’t seeing any ‘active focus’ by the authorities to remedy this issue.

Recent UAE fires

Ajman One, Ajman, 28 March 2016

Fire erupts at the 32-storey tower and spreads to multiple floors and to a neighbouring tower. Incident still under investigation.

Address Downtown, Dubai, 31 December 2015

Fire engulfs the 63-storey hotel located close to Burj Khalifa. Footage shows fire rapidly climbing the building’s exterior. Authorities say an electrical fault was the cause.

Al Nasser Tower, Sharjah, 1 October 2015

The 32-storey building lacked relevant fire safety procedures and fire protection equipment.

Torch Tower, Dubai, 21 February 2015

The fire started in the middle of the building and spread rapidly, fanned by falling flaming debris and high winds.

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