Ex­perts say alu­minum com­pos­ite panel cladding isn’t safe enough

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Adam Schreck and Jon Gam­brell

dubai, united arab emi­rates » Within min­utes, the rev­elry of New Year’s Eve in Dubai turned to hor­ror as those gath­ered for fire­works down­town watched flames race up the side of one of the glis­ten­ing city’smost prom­i­nent lux­ury ho­tels.

The fire at the 63-story The Ad­dress Down­town Dubai wasn’t the first, se­cond or even third blaze to spread swiftly along the ex­te­rior of sky­scrapers that have risen from the desert at a tor­rid pace in and around Dubai in the past two decades.

It was at least the eighth such fire in the Emi­rates alone, and sim­i­lar blazes have struck ma­jor cities across theworld, killing dozens of peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to an As­so­ci­ated Press sur­vey.

The rea­son, build­ing and safety ex­perts say, is the ma­te­rial used for the build­ings’ sid­ings, called alu­minum com­pos­ite panel cladding.

While types of cladding can be made with fire-re­sis­tant ma­te­rial, ex­perts say those that have caught fire in Dubai and else­where weren’t de­signed to meet stricter safety stan­dards and of­ten were put onto build­ings with­out any breaks to slowor halt a pos- sible blaze.

While new reg­u­la­tions are now in place for con­struc­tion in Dubai and other cities, ex­perts ac­knowl­edge they have no idea how many sky­scrapers have the po­ten­tially com­bustible pan­el­ing and are at risk of sim­i­lar fast-mov­ing fires.

“It’s like a wild­fire go­ing up the sides of the build­ing,” said Thom Bohlen, chief tech­ni­cal of­fi­cer at the Middle EastCen­ter for Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment in Dubai. “It’s very dif­fi­cult to con­trol, and it’s very fast. It hap­pens ex­tremely fast.”

Cladding came into vogue over a decade ago, as Dubai’s build­ing boom was well un­der­way. De­vel­op­ers use it be­cause it of­fers a mod­ern fin­ish to build­ings, al­lows dust towash off dur­ing rains, and is rel­a­tively sim­ple and cheap to in­stall.

Dubai has since bur­geoned into a cos­mopoli­tan busi­ness hub of more than 2 mil­lion peo­ple. As in other Emi­rati cities, for­eign res­i­dents far out­num­ber the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion. Ex­pa­tri­ate pro­fes­sion­als in par­tic­u­lar are drawn to the ear-pop­ping apart­ments the city’s hun­dreds of high-rises of­fer, and sky­scraper ho­tels ac­com­mo­date mil­lions of guests each year.

The city-state aims to at­tract 20 mil­lion vis­i­tors an- nu­ally by the time it hosts theWorld Expo in 2020.

That means the risk of high-rise fires touches peo­ple from all over the world.

Typ­i­cally, the cladding is a half-mil­lime­ter-thick piece of alu­minum at­tached to a foam core that is sand­wiched to an­other sim­i­lar skin. The pan­els are then af­fixed to the side of a build­ing, one piece af­ter an­other.

The big­gest prob­lem lies with panel cores that are all or mostly poly­eth­yl­ene, a com­mon type of plas­tic, said Andy Dean, the Mideast head of fa­cades at the en­gi­neer­ing con­sul­tancy WSP Global.

“The ones with 100 per­cent poly­eth­yl­ene core can burn quite read­ily,” Dean said. “Some of the older, even fire-rated ma­te­ri­als, still have quite a lot of poly­mer in them.”

The pan­els don’t spark the fires, and the risks can be less­ened if they are in­stalled with breaks be­tween them to curb a fire’s spread. The pan­els’ flamma­bil­ity can be sig­nif­i­cantly re- duced by re­plac­ing some of the plas­tic in­side the pan­els with ma­te­rial that doesn’t burn so eas­ily.

How­ever, when in­stalled un­in­ter­rupted row af­ter row, more-flammable types of cladding pro­vide a straight line of kin­dling up the side of a tower.

Emaar Prop­er­ties, which de­vel­oped The Ad­dress Down­townDubai and nearby prop­er­ties in­clud­ing the Bur­jKhal­ifa, theworld’s tallest build­ing, said au­thor­i­ties are still in­ves­ti­gat­ing the New Year’s Eve fire. It has hired an out­side con­trac­tor to as­sess and re­store the dam­aged tower, and it plans to re­open the ho­tel, based on or­ders fromDubai’s ruler him­self. It has not re­leased spe­cific de­tails about the type of cladding used.

How­ever, TheN­ational, a state-owned news­pa­per in Abu Dhabi, has re­ported that the cladding used on The Ad­dress Down­town was the fire-prone type seen in other blazes.

Smoke cas­cades from The Ad­dress Down­town Dubai ho­tel on New Year’s Day in the United Arab Emi­rates. At least 16 peo­ple were in­jured. Fran­cois Nel, Getty Im­ages

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