Dubai fire highlights the problems of inadequate codes and standards

Jan 6, 2016 | News

(Published by Birgitte Messerschmidt, Chair of Fire Safe Europe’s Technical Task Force)

As we said goodbye to 2015 the fire at the 63 story Address hotel in Dubai on new years eve reminded us that fire safety of facades is still an issue that needs to be tackled world wide. This video taken at the beginning of the fire shows how fast the fire spread up the exterior of the building.

According to the news site The National the exterior cladding on the hotel was Aluminium composite panels, which consists of combustible foam insulation sandwiched between Aluminium covering. This type of cladding is used on many high rise buildings in Dubai and have been implicated in previous fires such as the one in the Torch last year. Dubai changed their fire and life safety code in 2013 due to previous fires in high rise buildings; setting stricter requirements to the fire performance of external cladding material. But as described by The National most of the high rise buildings built in Dubai before that have non fire rated exterior panels. So Dubai is facing a severe fire safety challenge, which they now have to address.

What I find interesting about the fires in Dubai the last years is that they show the problems we face when building codes cannot keep up with a fast moving construction industry. Once it is realized that existing requirements or test methods do not sufficiently address the challenges faced in todays buildings many buildings are already built that have exactly the same issue. It will then be very expensive to refurbish existing buildings to fulfill the new codes or standards. Considering this it is very surprising to me that there are presently a push in both US and Europe to reduce the fire safety requirements to construction products to allow more combustibles on the facades of buildings.

The US story

An article in Fire Engineering describes very well how facade fire safety has been dealt with in the US in last several decades and how it has lead to a solid test method for fire spread up the building. I was therefore shocked to learn in the same article that there are now severe pressure on the codes to allow the use of non-compliant external claddings if the interior of the building is sprinklered. The Address fire in Dubai shows clearly how a fire that starts on the outside will continue to spread up the building no matter if the interior of the building is sprinklered or not. It can be argued that interior sprinklers will prevent the fire from spreading into the interior of the building but with a fire spread as fast as what was seen in Dubai that would mean that the sprinkler system shall be designed to work on all floors at the same time. I have no detailed knowledge of sprinklers but I figure that designing a sprinkler system that can be activated on all floors will be a challenge and at the least very expensive.

The European story

In my last blog posting I explained how Europe is now considering using an outdated German test method for facades even though this test method never made it as a full DIN standard and it has been shown in Germany that it does not provide the safety level needed. The desire to allow more combustibles in building facades have many fighting hard to introduce this inadequate test at the European level. Additionally several EU member states are under pressure to loosen the fire safety requirements to construction products in their codes.

So where Dubai has strengthened its building codes to try to prevent facade fires Europe and the US are loosening their codes to allow more combustibles! The quest for more energy efficient and so called sustainable buildings have blinded their eyes to the fire safety challenge imposed by combustible products. Lets not make the mistake they did in Dubai and allow un safe products to be used due to inadequate codes and standards. If we want buildings that are sustainable, energy efficient and fire safe we need codes and standards that are based on the actual fire performance of construction products.

The fire in Dubai should serve as a wake up call for all of us; if we want buildings to be sustainable they cannot be built to burn.

See Birgitte’s post on Leading thoughts on safe, sustainable and energy efficient buildings!