On the 31st December 2015, the Address Down town Hotel, Dubai was set ablaze by an electrical fault. The fire spread unprecedentedly quickly up the building’s exterior. There was a single fatality; however this is Dubai’s third major skyscraper fire since 2012.
Worryingly up to 70% of skyscrapers built before 2012 contain these panels responsible for 3 fires since 2013.
Considering past events, is modification of compromised structures a necessary investment in the interest of public safety?
For renovation of other compromised buildings
Fire damage is expensive, ugly and damaging to surrounding businesses. Preventative renovation would be a long term investment, ensuring public safety and upholding Dubai’s image. Since 2013 there has been 1 major fire each year accredited to the flammability of exterior cladding confirmed Jun Xu’s study . It is only a matter of time until this cost surpasses the cost of correcting this dangerous design error. Then we have to consider both past and potential loss of life due to fires. In the hotel fire on New Year’s Eve there was 1 death and 14 injuries , as the fire was almost entirely external. Imagine if the fire started internally, engulfing 2 lower floors, and then spreading up the external walls in a similar fashion, how would this impact the death toll? Ethically, the loss of even a single life should justify rectification.
We must also consider potential the loss of business as public awareness of the danger increases. It is predicted that 70% of skyscrapers in Dubai built before the Aluminium-polyurethane composite panels (ACP) in 2012 are at risk. Would you take your children to Dubai knowing that unattended barbecue on the balcony could set the entire building ablaze in 30 minutes?
Before any changes are made, the party at fault must found. As it is today, no involved group will institute change until they are sure it is there mistake to rectify. The use ACP was standard practise until 2012; hence initially the building engineers are look unlikely to be at fault.
Alumco the company that won the bid to supply 35,000m2 of panelling for the Address Down town Hotel in a $20,000,000+ deal. Chief executive of Alumco Samer Barakat stated during an interview with ‘The National’ ; “two-thirds of Dubai buildings use non-fire rated ACP panels”, confirming the company’s knowledge of the issue. However he then states “We complied. We gave all submissions; there was approval on every submission according to specification”. This points the blame back towards the buildings architects and engineers, for approving the use of non-fire rated materials. However this could be due to financial pressure or bribery to keep within budget, I am interested to see what the official investigation suggests, and who it implicates with later this year.
Renovation itself is a major aesthetic issue when considering Dubai’s natural beauty, irrespectively the short term effects of extensive scaffolding seem insignificant if you think about the potential 10 buildings damaged by major fires we could see in 10 years’ time if currents trends continue.
A final point to consider is regarding informed decisions: Should the government/building owners be required to forewarn the general public of other buildings made using un-rated ACP’s, so they can make an educated decision before putting themselves at risk?
Against renovation of other compromised buildings
The number of casualties from this incident and even the previous two building fires in Dubai cannot justify the millions that would be spent on renovating all exterior claddings on every skyscraper in the city.
In the latest fire incident there was only 1 fatality, and 14 injuries, this outcome cannot justify spending millions on renovations. It would be best to spend that money on the firefighting services; i.e. obtaining more advanced and efficient ways in combating these potential fires, or the installation of a water sprinkling system on the exterior of the building that would help combat any potential fire. These two solutions would significantly more cost effective than renovation of exterior claddings throughout Dubai’s high rise buildings. Moreover, loss of revenue due to business closure from renovation would greatly exceed the expense due to a potential fire.
All skyscrapers in the city were allowed  to have exterior cladding made from ACP before 2013 when it was banned. Most high-rise buildings in Dubai use ACP exterior panelling as it is durable, rigid, and easy to bend, fold, cut, punch, drill, route, glue and screw. It is a perfect choice of construction material considering the aesthetic appeal, and convenience of construct; can this outweigh the potential fire risk? It is hard to say that the engineers should take responsibility and blame for this incident or any potential fires that can arise due to this. Before the ban to use ACP for exterior claddings on skyscrapers in city buildings these issues were no-existent. Most of the skyscrapers are in excess of 5 to 10 years old, yet only recently have building fires started due to minor accidents such as cigarettes buds or electrical faults. It is a reasonable assumption that improper maintenance by buildings staff/management significant factor here.
The decision of using ACP is closely associated with exterior design and aesthetic outlook. It is hard to find replacement material which can fit the buildings in both aspects of aesthetics and quality. Dubai is well-known for its attractive and well-designed buildings as well as hotels and resorts, so if we start re-constructing and renovating all high buildings this could affect the beauty of the city that draws in many visitors. Taking into account that changing the claddings on every high rise building would take a considerable amount of time making the city look less attractive as well as potential loss of the business and revenue that tourism brings to the city.
Finally, should the government invest significant funds into changing all exterior claddings on skyscrapers to reduce potential fire risk, but at the cost of admitting their mistakes; which could result in loss of tourism business, or should they find cheaper more effective ways to combat potential fires?
Until the official investigation report has been released, it is difficult to place the ‘blame’ on a single party. Who do you think is at fault? Should any precautions be taken?
10: Oscar Swindley, Jun Liu, Michael Osoba, Yu Lei